BRUSSELS — The European Commission on Tuesday presented a plan to cut Russian gas imports by two-thirds this year, steeply reducing — but not severing — energy ties to Moscow.
President Biden on Tuesday announced that the United States is banning imports of Russian oil and natural gas. Britain said it will phase out Russian oil this year. Together, the moves will hit a critical source of revenue for the Kremlin — but could also give the global economy a destabilizing shock.
Since the invasion, the United States, the European Union and others have moved in tandem to isolate Russia, shutting its government and some banks out of financial markets, restricting exports and freezing assets of oligarchs and lawmakers. But they have been slower to truly tackle energy.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has called for a full boycott of Russian goods, energy included, comparing buying Russian oil to giving money to a terrorist. When Shell made headlines last week for buying Russian oil, Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, asked the company if it smelled “like Ukrainian blood” — prompting an apology from the company’s CEO. Polish officials have also said it is time to act.
But there has been strong European pushback to the idea of a ban because of the potential impact on European economies and consumers. Europe imports about 40 percent of its gas and more than a quarter of its oil from Russia. The United States and Britain import far less.
Many E.U. nations have dismissed the idea of a boycott. “Supplying Europe with energy for heat generation, mobility, electricity supply and industry cannot be secured in any other way at the moment,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said in a statement Monday.
Still, if the E.U. in fact meets the two-thirds goal, it could have a major impact. “Most Russian pipelines are heading to Europe,” said Thomas Pellerin-Carlin, the director for the energy center at the Jacques Delors Institute, a French think tank. “The cornerstone of Russia’s economy and of its regime is based on exports of oil and gas.”
Britain plans to phase out Russian oil by the end of the year to “give the market, businesses and supply chains more than enough time to replace Russian imports, which make up 8% of UK demand,” Business Minister Kwasi Kwarteng tweeted Tuesday. He said the government was looking at how to curb Russian natural gas imports, which make up less than 4 percent of supply.
The E.U. proposal presented Tuesday presents the curbs to Russian imports as a first step toward full independence from fossil fuels “well before” 2030. To start, the E.U says it will diversify gas supplies by upping Liquefied Natural Gas and pipeline imports from non-Russia suppliers, boost the production and import of biomethane and renewable hydrogen, as well as upgrade buildings to reduce energy consumption.
This plan also sets out measures to respond to rising energy prices in Europe and to ensure adequate gas stocks for next winter.
“It will be hard, bloody hard,” said the Commission’s Executive Vice President Frans Timmermans on Tuesday. “But it’s possible.”
Meeting these targets could also have additional benefits. “Cutting imports of Russian gas by two-thirds would not only improve E.U. geopolitics, but reduce E.U. greenhouse gas emissions substantially, since Russia’s gas system has massive methane leaks,” said former Clinton White House adviser Paul Bledsoe, a strategic adviser at the Washington-based Progressive Policy Institute.
Some within the E.U. have warned for years about relying on Russian fossil fuels. By mid-February, as Russia continued to amass troops around Ukraine, E.U. officials seemed to take the issue more seriously and were sketching out new plans.
Germany’s decision to halt Nord Stream 2, a controversial undersea pipeline meant to deliver natural gas from Russia to Germany prompted stark warnings from Russia.
“German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has issued an order to halt the process of certifying the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline,” Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council and a former prime minister, tweeted Feb. 22. “Well. Welcome to the brave new world where Europeans are very soon going to pay €2,000 for 1,000 cubic meters of natural gas!”
Ahead of Tuesday’s announcement, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak appeared to threaten Europe once again, saying Western bans might lead Russia to close Nord Stream 1, a critical pipeline. “A rejection of Russian oil,” he said, “Would lead to catastrophic consequences for the global market.”
E.U. officials said Tuesday that it was time to take away that leverage. “We must become independent from Russian oil, coal and gas,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a statement. “We simply cannot rely on a supplier who explicitly threatens us.”
Quentin Ariès in Brussels and Karla Adams in London contributed to this report.