EU's toughest Russia sanctions yet snag on worries over oil ban

·4-min read

By Francesco Guarascio and John Chalmers

STRASBOURG (Reuters) -The European Union's executive on Wednesday proposed the toughest package of sanctions yet against Moscow for its war in Ukraine, but several countries worried about the impact of cutting off Russia oil imports stood in the way of agreement.

The sixth round of measures, announced by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, included sanctions on Russia's top bank and a ban on Russian broadcasters from European airwaves, as well as the embargo on crude oil in six months.

The EU depends on Russian oil and gas, and faces the task of finding alternatives when energy prices have surged.

A handful of Central European countries are concerned that the halt will come too soon for them to adapt, even though diplomats said Hungary and Slovakia would be given until the end of 2023.

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said on Facebook that, even with that extension, Hungary could only agree to the measures if crude oil imports from Russia via pipeline were exempt from the sanctions. Slovakia has publicly asked for a three-year transition period.

Reluctance to deliver measures that damage EU economies as well as Moscow faded in recent weeks as Russia's invasion of Ukraine brought horrific images of slaughter in towns and concern about a renewed offensive in the east of the country.

Reflecting widespread anger in the West at Russian President Vladimir Putin's campaign - which Moscow says is a "special military operation" to defeat dangerous nationalists - the head of the EU executive said Moscow must be punished.

"Putin must pay a price, a high price, for his brutal aggression," von der Leyen told the European Parliament in Strasbourg. "Today, we will propose to ban all Russian oil from Europe," she said to applause in the chamber.

The Commission's measures include phasing out supplies of Russian crude oil in six months and refined products by the end of 2022. It also proposed to ban in a month's time all shipping, brokerage, insurance and financing services offered by EU companies for the transport of Russian oil worldwide.

The price of Brent crude rose around 4% to more than $109 a barrel by 1330 GMT.

If agreed, the embargo would echo the actions of the United States and Britain, which have already imposed bans to cut one of the largest income streams to the Russian economy, as the West buys more than half of its crude and petroleum products from Russia.

Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic raised concerns about the oil embargo at a meeting of envoys from the EU's 27 governments on Wednesday, a source said, noting however that a deal could be achieved at another meeting on Thursday or later this week.

RISKY SANCTIONS

Simone Tagliapietra of the Brussels-based Bruegel think tank said a gradual embargo on Russian oil was risky.

"In the short term it might leave Russian revenues high while implying negative consequences for the EU and the global economy in terms of higher prices - not to mention retaliation risks (by Russia) on natural gas supplies," he said.

Apart from oil, the latest round of sanctions proposes hitting Sberbank, Russia's top lender, adding it to several banks already cut off from the SWIFT messaging system.

The Commission also proposed to sanction Credit Bank of Moscow and the Russian Agricultural Bank, two EU sources told Reuters.

"We hit banks that are systemically critical to the Russian financial system and Putin's ability to wage destruction," von der Leyen said. "This will solidify the complete isolation of the Russian financial sector from the global system."

Sberbank did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The lender, which exited almost all its European markets in March, has previously said other rounds of sanctions would not have a significant impact on its operations.

Von der Leyen said more high-ranking Russian military officials would face EU asset freezes and travel bans, without giving names, and the EU would also ban European accountants, consultants and spin-doctors who work for Russian companies.

State-owned Russian broadcasters RTR-Planeta and R24 would be shut out of European airwaves as part of the latest sanctions, diplomats said.

Von der Leyen also proposed a recovery plan for Ukraine once the conflict ends, saying there was a need for hundreds of billions of euros in funding to rebuild the country.

"Eventually, it will pave the way for Ukraine's future inside the European Union," von der Leyen said.

(Additional reporting by Jan Strupczewski, Kate Abnett, Benoit Van Overstraeten, Sabine Siebold and Gabriela BacyznskaWriting by John Chalmers; editing by Barbara Lewis)

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