The European Union’s efforts to impose a new round of sanctions against Russia over the war in Ukraine appeared to bog down on Monday, as a small group of countries continued to oppose a ban on Russian oil imports.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, the 27-nation bloc has implemented five rounds of sanctions on Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin, senior Russian officials, more than 350 lawmakers and pro-Kremlin oligarchs have been hit with asset freezes and travel bans. Russian banks, the transport sector and alleged propaganda outlets were targeted.
What could have taken years in the past was achieved in less than three months — relative light speed for the bloc. But limiting Russia’s energy income by weaning the EU’s dependency on Russian oil — not to mention Russian gas supplies — is proving a tougher nut to crack.
The EU’s executive branch, the European Commission, proposed on May 4 a sixth package of war sanctions that included a ban on oil imports from Russia. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen conceded at the time that securing the agreement of all “will not be easy.”
Hungary is one landlocked EU country that is highly dependent on Russian oil, along with the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Bulgaria also has reservations. Hungary gets more than 60% of its oil from Russia and 85% of its natural gas.
“Unhappily, today it has not been possible to reach an agreement” to end the oil stalemate, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said after chairing a meeting of the bloc’s foreign ministers in Brussels.
The problem, Borrell said, “was technically too complicated, and it was not possible to reach a political decision.” He said he could not predict how long it might take to break the deadlock, but said EU ambassadors would continue work on the issue in the coming days.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba was disappointed by the delay.
“We understand why it is not happening,” he told reporters as he left the meeting. “But time is running out, because every day Russia keeps making money” by selling oil to Europe.
Muddying the waters is Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s relationship with Putin. Orban is widely considered to be one of the Russian leader’s closest European allies. Orban has only reluctantly supported previous EU sanctions, including a phased-in embargo on Russian coal.
Since taking office in 2010, Orban has deepened Hungary’s dependency on Russian energy and says his country’s geography and energy infrastructure make a Russian oil shutdown impossible. His EU partners are at odds over what they believe is driving his reluctance to target Russian oil.
“The whole union is being held hostage by one member state,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said. He said the European Commission’s proposal offered members a phaseout of Russian oil until Dec 31, 2024, and that “everybody expected that this would be enough.”
But his Irish counterpart, Simon Coveney, acknowledged that “these are difficult, difficult issues for some countries,” and he added: “Let’s not focus on obstacles and negatives today.”
At the same time, Coveney said, “we need to get on and do this. We need to send a very clear signal to the Kremlin and to Moscow that the cost of their continuing war in Ukraine, which is completely unjustifiable, will continue to increase.”
For now, the ball is in Hungary’s court, as the most vocal member of those opposed.
Officials have said that Orban appears to be seeking EU money for energy infrastructure investment. Any compromise is only likely to be found in his talks with von der Leyen, not between ministers.
The oil standoff raises questions about whether the EU has reached the limits of its unity on sanctions. Targeting Russia’s gas sector, on which many more EU countries are dependent, is likely to prove even tougher.
Despite the new holdup, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock remained optimistic.
“In the coming days we will reach a common result — I am very confident about that,” she said.
Borrell did confirm that a political agreement was reached on a fourth tranche of money to help supply weapons to Ukraine. Once officially enacted, it would bring to 2 billion euros ($2.1 billion) the total sum available to fund the purchase of arms and other nonlethal assistance.