The negotiations were bumpy and the deal may be imperfect, but the agreement of European Union leaders to introduce a sixth sanctions package on Russia is an important achievement that sends a signal of unity at a critical moment in the war in Ukraine.
Expectations were low going into this week’s summit after a month of talks on the new package of measures had hit a logjam over Hungary’s opposition to a ban on imports of Russian oil – the centrepiece of the proposed package.
Going into the summit, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban said there was “no agreement at all” and accused the European Commission of “irresponsible behaviour” in its handling of the plan. The tensions between Budapest and the commission were inseparable from the broader dispute over the erosion of democratic norms under Orban’s rule, which has caused the commission to seek to withhold funds.
Just days ago, Germany’s economy minister said Europe’s unity on sanctions against Russia was “starting to crumble”.
The new sanctions deal, which will temporarily exempt oil pipeline deliveries so as to assuage the concerns of Hungary as well as Slovakia and the Czech Republic, shows that that unity is holding even as the costs of the war to Europe itself continue to mount.
The move, targeting all seaborne crude, will cut Russian oil imports in the EU by two-thirds, staunching to a significant degree the flow of funding to Moscow’s war effort. Plans by Germany and Poland to stop using Russian oil by the end of the year will cut imports by closer to 90 per cent.
At present Russia takes in about €1billion every day from the export of oil and gas. The package will also bar Russia’s largest bank, Sberbank, from the Swift payments system, ban three Russian state broadcasters and add more individuals connected to the war to the EU sanctions list.
The latest EU action will inevitably hit European consumers in the short-term by pushing up prices as companies scramble for alternative energy sources. But to have shirked the challenge of weaning itself off Russian oil at a time when Moscow continues to commit atrocities in Ukraine would have been unconscionable.
It will reassure Kyiv at a moment when its forces are suffering heavy losses – Ukraine is losing around 100 soldiers a day, according to President Volodymyr Zelenskiy – as they defend eastern territory in the face of renewed Russian offensives in the Donbas.
The war’s evolution into an attritional and likely protracted phase, coinciding with worsening economic conditions in Europe and murmurings in western debate about potential peace deals, has left many Ukrainians worried that European and American support could be weakening.
The EU’s decision to intensify the pressure on Moscow will allay some of those concerns. It is essential that that resolve holds firm.