(CN) — The European Union on Thursday was in heated discussions over whether to impose an embargo on Russian oil and freeze the assets of Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, for his statements in support of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
On the battlefields of Ukraine, fighting continued to rage on Thursday in eastern and southern parts of the country with Russia’s defense ministry claiming a barrage of artillery strikes overnight killed 600 Ukrainian fighters.
For its part, Ukraine did not respond to the Russian claims but added 200 more dead Russian soldiers to its daily tally of enemy losses. Ukraine claims 24,700 Russian troops have been killed in the war.
The fate of civilians and Ukrainian soldiers inside the Azovstal steelworks plant in Mariupol remained uncertain and a focus of attention.
Russian troops have surrounded the plant and are seeking to oust hundreds of hardcore Ukrainian fighters making a last stand inside a large system of bomb shelter bunkers under the steelworks plant. Some 200 civilians remain trapped inside the bunkers too though.
The fight over the Azovstal plant is charged with symbolic meaning because many of the soldiers inside the plant are attached to the Azov Regiment. Azov fighters are controversial due to their far-right links and Russia charges they are “Nazis” who must be brought to trial for war crimes.
But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his government portray the Azov fighters as patriotic heroes who are valiantly fighting the Russian invaders. The Azov fighters are calling on Kyiv to save them, but so far Ukraine has said it is unable to do that because Mariupol is now firmly in Russian hands. Russia accuses the Azov forces of using civilians trapped in the plant as “human shields” because they are not freeing them. Russian media has shown interviews of civilians released from the plant accusing Ukrainian fighters of not letting them out.
Azov fighters, meanwhile, claim Russian troops are endangering the civilians’ lives. Ukrainian and Western media have interviewed many survivors from the Azovstal plant who said conditions in the bunkers were horrendous due to Russian bombs. In recent days, the United Nations and Red Cross have led efforts to get about 300 civilians released from the plant.
Meanwhile, the information war between the West and Russia is intensifying with the White House insisting that Russia has lost the war in Ukraine and the New York Times reporting that U.S. intelligence has helped Ukraine kill numerous top Russian military field commanders.
The war is increasingly turning into a larger conflict over history, culture and religion. This aspect of the war came to the forefront on Thursday as the EU proposed seizing the assets of Kirill and Pope Francis accused the patriarch in Moscow of being Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “altar boy.”
In an interview with the Corriere della Sera, an Italian newspaper, Francis said he spoke this week with Kirill for 40 minutes via Zoom.
“The first 20 with a card in hand he read me all the justifications for the war,” the pope said. “I listened and told him: I don’t understand anything about this. Brother, we are not clerics of state, we cannot use the language of politics, but that of Jesus.”
The pope has sought a meeting with Putin and Kirill, but such encounters haven’t been agreed upon.
The Moscow Patriarchate issued an irate response to Francis, saying that the conversation he alluded to took place on March 16 and that the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the head of the Church of England, also took part. The statement said Kirill told Francis that the war started after Ukraine’s government was overthrown in 2014 during a coup and because NATO broke a promise not to expand east. Such explanations for the war chimes with reasons Putin has cited for the invasion.
“It is regrettable that one and a half months after the conversation with Patriarch Kirill, Pope Francis chose the wrong tone to convey the content of this conversation,” the Moscow Patriarchate said. “Such statements are unlikely to contribute to the establishment of a constructive dialogue between the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches, which is especially necessary at the present time.”
Since Putin launched the invasion on Feb. 24, anti-Russian sentiment has exploded across Europe.
Recently, Wimbledon banned Russian and Belarusian tennis players; other sporting organizations have taken similar actions. In the Baltics and Central and Eastern Europe, especially in Ukraine, monuments have been pulled down that commemorate the achievements of Soviet soldiers during World War II. Others with Russian links have been vandalized and defaced. Hundreds of Russian politicians, businessmen and media figures have been sanctioned. Most Western businesses have left Russia. Western scholars and politicians routinely call Putin a new Adolf Hitler.
In Russia, anti-Western sentiment is exploding too as the government bans Western media outlets, internet services, slaps sanctions on hundreds of Western politicians and accuses the United States and its allies of waging a proxy war on Russia. Inside Russia, sentiments of nationalism and of being aggrieved are running strong. Sanctions on Kirill may only deepen such feelings.
With the Ukraine war showing no sign of ending, the West is looking at how it can further punish Russia with sanctions. Militarily, the West is hoping its massive shipments of heavy weapons and other support, including intelligence sharing and training, will lead to a Russian defeat on the battlefield.
The EU’s ability to impose an oil embargo therefore is seen as a pivotal step in derailing the Kremlin’s war machine. With about a quarter of its oil and 40% of its natural gas coming from Russia, the EU spends hundreds of millions of dollars a day on Russian energy imports. For now, an embargo on Russian gas seems unlikely any time soon, but Brussels is pushing for an embargo by the end of the war.
But this push for an oil blockade is reopening internal conflicts within the EU.
The government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has said it will veto the oil embargo, arguing that it would be too painful for its economy. The EU has said it would give Hungary, and other EU nations that rely on Russian oil, more time to enact the embargo, but Budapest was not ready to budge.
Hungary’s resistance is not only about economics. Orban is an ally of Putin and the two regimes share similar anti-liberal, traditionalist and nationalistic rhetoric. Orban is in a long-running battle with EU leaders who see his government’s illiberal policies as a major danger to the bloc.
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.