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9 March 2022

Why a Russian oil embargo will be ineffective without EU support

The EU is a far bigger purchaser of Russian energy than the US and the UK.

By Ben van der Merwe

As Russian forces continue to bombard the major Ukrainian cities of Kyiv and Kharkiv, Western powers have faced growing pressure to end their imports of Russian energy.

Those pressures came to a head on 8 March, with the US announcing a ban on Russian oil and gas imports and the UK pledging to phase them out by the end of the year. Notably absent was the EU, which until now had announced its sanctions on Russia in concert with the two transatlantic countries.

The EU’s decision not to take part in the energy embargo will be of relief to Russia. The EU is by far Russia’s largest trading partner in the energy sector, purchasing $101bn of Russian oil and gas in 2019 – 51 per cent of the country’s total fossil fuel exports. The UK and US, by contrast, purchased just $10bn, or 5 per cent of the total.

The EU has been hesitant to place sanctions on Russia’s energy sector due to its reliance on gas from the country. The gas is delivered primarily through pipelines, making it difficult to replace with imports from other countries. 

If the EU was to embargo Russian oil, Russia could retaliate by cutting off these gas supplies. According to the Brussels-based think tank Bruegel, this could lead to the bloc running out of gas by next January, at the height of winter.

Increasing imports of liquefied natural gas alone would be insufficient, due to both limited supplies on the global market and a lack of processing capacity in Europe. 

A rapid roll-out of heat pumps and solar farms, along with a halt to the German phase-out of nuclear power, would compensate for around half the remaining deficit. Dealing with the rest would require choosing between two much less attractive options: either a significant reduction in energy use by households and businesses, or a return to coal.

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[See also: “Stop financing the aggressor”: Ukraine’s former finance minister Natalie Jaresko on how to stop Putin]

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