Saturday, April 1, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

EU approves partial embargo on Russian oil, Ukraine loses ground in Donbas

The war is in a critical phase as Russian troops storm Sievierodonetsk, forcing Ukraine to retreat farther in the east. Help from the West came in the form of a partial ban by the European Union on Russian oil imports.

(CN) — With Russian forces close to seizing a new city in eastern Ukraine, the European Union on Tuesday hit Moscow with a partial ban on Russian oil imports and the United States was mulling the delivery of new missile launchers to help Kyiv push the enemy back. 

By Tuesday afternoon, fighting had reached the center of Sievierodonetsk, an industrial city in the eastern region of Luhansk and Russian and pro-Russian Ukrainian forces appeared to be driving Ukraine’s troops out of the city. Late Tuesday, there were reports that a tank containing nitric acid at a chemical plant was struck in the city, releasing toxic fumes and adding more misery and danger. Ukraine blamed a Russian air strike for hitting the tank.  

Intense battles and constant shelling have turned the eastern Donbas region into a nightmarish war zone where the number of civilian and troop deaths keeps mounting. In recent days, Ukraine too has been accused of launching rockets at Ukrainian cities under Russian control and killing civilians.  

The United Nations’ human rights agency says it has recorded the deaths of 4,113 civilians, including 264 children, killed in the war and nearly 5,000 wounded civilians. Millions of Ukrainians have been displaced.  

The Kremlin is focused on seizing eastern and southern parts of Ukraine and annexing them. Eastern Ukraine has historical ties to Russia and it is home to many ethnic Russians. In launching the invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russia needed to “liberate” these areas from an anti-Russian government in Kyiv. A war had been simmering in eastern Ukraine for the past eight years after fighting broke out in 2014 following the overthrow of a pro-Russian Ukrainian president during the so-called “Maidan Revolution.”    

Ukraine’s defenses have cracked in places and there are signs of trouble for Kyiv on the battlefield. Increasingly, journalists at the front lines depict awful conditions for Ukrainian soldiers, who have complained about a lack of weapons, water and reinforcements. A Washington Post article cited Ukrainian soldiers who said they each had one potato a day to eat. 

“Talking with a few exhausted soldiers in Bakhmut, just back from the frontlines,” reported Neil Hauer, a Canadian freelance journalist near the front in eastern Ukraine, on Monday. “‘We don't have any new weapons here, new forces, nothing,’ says one of them. Another, who fought in 2014: ‘I'm expected to fight a tank with my Kalashnikov. We're just cannon fodder. We're fucked.’” 

Still, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is vowing to fight until Russia’s army is defeated and driven out of the country. 

The West’s campaign to help Ukraine win the war and cripple Russia intensified with the EU’s oil embargo and Washington was looking at delivering rocket launcher systems, though U.S. President Joe Biden ruled out sending long-distance rocket launchers for fear that Ukraine would use them to hit Russian territory. 

On Tuesday, EU leaders said they had reached a political compromise to ban seaborne imports of Russian oil, though it allowed oil to continue arriving by pipeline and Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia were given exceptions. These countries rely heavily on Russian oil delivered by the Soviet-era Druzhba pipeline, which crosses Ukraine.  

“This immediately covers more than two-thirds of oil imports from Russia, cutting a huge source of financing for its war machine.  Maximum pressure on Russia to end the war,” said European Council President Charles Michel. 

Since the start of the war, the EU has paid about 56.5 billion euros ($60.5 billion) in fossil fuel supplies with nearly 30 billion euros (about $32 billion) of that spent on Russian oil.  

Simone Tagliapetra, an expert at the Brussels-based economics think tank Bruegel, called the oil embargo “far from ideal, but it does represent an important step in the right direction.”  

“The EU embargo is going to be a major blow to Russia, which will be forced to find new routes for its oil and to sell it at substantial discount,” he said on Twitter.  

Russia is hitting back too by suspending some natural gas exports to European countries that refuse to pay for energy supplies in rubles. On Tuesday, Russia said it was stopping gas flows to the Netherlands.  

While the West is hoping to weaken Russia economically with its blockades on Russian goods and services, the Kremlin is banking on Western unity crumbling as high inflation and economic turmoil caused by higher fuel and commodity prices sows discontent.  

The West’s banishment of Russia is forcing Moscow to shift its focus toward Asia and Africa, where it hopes to develop new markets. Many large countries, including India, China and even NATO member Turkey, have not followed the U.S., the EU and others in the West in imposing sanctions on Russia. On Tuesday, Russian media said Moscow was in discussions about increasing oil sales in China and India.      

This new batch of EU sanctions also cut off Sberbank, Russia’s biggest bank, from the international system for making payments. The bank said its operations were not affected.

Dozens of Russian businessmen and even the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, face sanctions too. Kirill has shown support for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.  

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union. 

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.