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Bucha massacre tests Europe’s red lines on Russian energy

Flags of the European Union are seen outside the headquarters of the European Central Bank in Frankfurt, Germany. (Andreas Arnold/Bloomberg News)
7 min

Europe is united in its outrage over evidence of Russian atrocities in Ukraine. But the European Union is not sure what it is willing to do about it, especially when it comes to energy.

As photographs of bodies in the streets of the town of Bucha circulated online over the weekend, horrified Ukrainian and European officials called for the E.U. to finally stop buying Russian oil and gas.

Every barrel of oil and ton of gas is “soaked in the blood” of those killed, the speaker of Ukraine’s parliament said. Lithuania’s foreign minister warned other E.U. countries not to become “accomplices.”

With scenes of the devastation splashed across newspapers, French President Emmanuel Macron said Monday that indications of “war crimes” in Ukraine warranted new sanctions. The Élysée later confirmed that France would back an embargo on Russian oil and coal and that the proposals will be discussed on a European level on Wednesday.

German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht said Sunday that what happened in Bucha had put energy sanctions on the table, but other German leaders later suggested an energy embargo is unlikely — prompting Poland’s prime minister to call out Berlin for being an E.U. holdout.

The whole debate raises uncomfortable questions about where the E.U. draws its red lines on Russian energy — if those lines exist at all.

“If there is a red line, it probably hasn’t been crossed for Germany,” said Marcel Dirsus, a German political scientist and nonresident fellow at the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University.

In the weeks since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the E.U. has worked with the United States and other allies to hit Russia with sanctions packages, but it continues to buy Russian oil and gas.

When the United States and Britain cut imports, the E.U. argued that it could not afford to match the moves because the bloc is vastly more dependent on Russian energy. 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.

Rather than stop the purchases immediately, the E.U. vowed to wean itself off Russian imports, promising to cut gas imports by two-thirds this year as part of a gradual move away from Russian fossil fuels.

E.U. presents plan to cut Russian gas imports by two-thirds this year

The Baltic states and some Eastern European countries have called for the E.U. to do more, while major E.U. economies, including Germany, Italy and France, have opposed such calls.

But the scenes from Bucha could be a turning point. Italy’s foreign minister said Monday that the country will not veto sanctions on Russian gas.

“It is very clear that there are indications of war crimes,” Macron said in an interview with France Inter radio station. “I don’t think we can let it go. … What happened in Bucha dictates a new package of sanctions.”

Macron said more forceful sanctions are necessary to prevent similar devastation in other parts of Ukraine. “We are going to coordinate with our European partners, in particular with Germany,” he said. “In regards to coal and oil, we need to be able to move forward.”

But Macron and an Élysée official did not mention Russian natural gas, suggesting that an embargo on it may still be considered too contentious.

Macron, who is up for reelection, has advocated in favor of tougher measures on Russia, even as he has continued to hold talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in recent weeks.

In France, the debate over imposing sanctions on energy imports from Russia comes less than a week before the first round of the presidential election Sunday, which according to polls could lead to a runoff vote between Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

Both Macron and Le Pen have seen their standing in the polls improve in the wake of the Ukraine war, with Macron benefiting from his role on the international stage and Le Pen portraying herself as being more attuned to voters’ concerns over how the war will affect the purchasing power of the French.

Le Pen on Monday echoed Macron’s comments on Bucha, characterizing the destruction as a probable “war crime,” but she has called for more restraint in imposing sanctions on Russia.

The far-right leader, who was long seen as an ally of Putin, said last month that France “must choose sanctions that are not sanctions against the purchasing power of the French.”

France depends less on Russian gas than does neighboring Germany, but the ripple effects of a halt in imports from Russia could still have a significant impact on Europe’s deeply intertwined economies.

The revelations renewed pressure on German leaders, who vowed to mount a serious response but are still debating how far they are willing to go.

Germany, urged to ‘stop Putin’s war machine,’ resists embargo on Russian energy

Lambrecht, the defense minister, said Sunday that the E.U. should discuss halting gas supplies from Russia. The youth wings of the Social Democratic Party and the Free Democratic Party — two parties in Germany’s three-way coalition government — threw their weight behind stopping deliveries of Russian fossil fuels.

But on Monday, a spokeswoman for the economics and climate ministry reiterated that an immediate embargo was unrealistic. “Unfortunately, it is the case that Germany is strongly dependent on Russian imports, and this was not reduced in the past 10 years but rather increased,” Beate Baron told reporters.

As calls mounted for Germany to cut itself off from Russian energy supplies, Monday also brought a stark reminder of the competing pressure on the government. Christian Sewing, the Deutsche Bank chief executive and president of the Association of German Banks, or BdB, said halting imports of oil and gas would make a recession “virtually unavoidable.”

But Germany did move Monday to take control of a subsidiary of Russian energy company Gazprom, three days after the St. Petersburg-based company said it was abandoning business in Germany. In addition to announcing that move, the economics and climate minister, Robert Habeck of the Green Party, said new sanctions could target people around Putin as well as Russian financial institutions. He also said Germany should expand its weapons deliveries to Ukraine — a remarkable position for a leader of the Green Party, given its pacifist roots.

The government declined to comment on allegations from Poland’s prime minister that Germany is the main roadblock to tougher sanctions.

“There is widespread outrage in Germany, and German politicians will be forced to do something, but they don’t want to do something that will hurt Germany,” Dirsus said. “There are no good options left. Massive sanctions would do damage to Germany. But do nothing and you are complicit.”

Russia has demanded that “unfriendly countries” pay for gas in rubles, or risk getting no gas at all. “You almost get the impression that they want Putin to pull the plug for them,” Dirsus added. “Pressure would die down and they wouldn’t be responsible for all the misery.”

Austria’s finance minister, Magnus Brunner, on Monday threw cold water on proposals to overhaul sanctions in response to scenes from Bucha, saying it was important to “keep a cool head.” Sanctions, he said, “must not affect us more than Russia.”

“That’s why we are, together with Germany, very reluctant about a gas embargo,” he told reporters as he arrived in Luxembourg for a meeting of E.U. finance ministers.

A statement from European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen published Monday following a phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the E.U. has set up a Joint Investigation Team with Ukraine to collect evidence and investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity — but did not mention sanctions.

Noack reported from Paris and Stanley-Becker from Berlin. Vanessa Guinan-Bank in Berlin contributed to this report.