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Bucha massacre tests Europe’s ‘red lines’ on Russian energy

Steam leaves a cooling tower of the Lichterfelde gas-fired power plant in Berlin, Germany, Wednesday, March 30, 2022. Shocking pictures from the Ukrainian town of Bucha and accusations of Russian war crimes are building pressure for more sanctions against Moscow Monday.Michael Sohn/Associated Press

Europe is united in its outrage over evidence of alleged 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 EU 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 EU countries not to become “accomplices.”


With scenes of the devastation splashed across newspapers, President Emmanuel Macron of France said Monday that indications of “war crimes” in Ukraine warranted new sanctions and that he will work with Germany and other EU partners to move forward on the issue of Russian oil and coal.

Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht of Germany said Sunday that 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 EU holdout.

The whole debate raises uncomfortable questions about where the EU 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 EU 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 the United Kingdom cut imports, the EU argued that it could not afford to match the moves because the bloc is vastly more dependent on Russia 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 EU 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.

The Baltic states and some Eastern European countries have called for the EU to do more, while major EU 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 imposes 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."

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

In France, the debate over imposing sanctions on oil and gas 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.

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


But 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."

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 Germany politicians will be forced 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."

Austria's finance minister, Magnus Brunner, also 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 EU finance ministers.

A statement from Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission’s president, published on Monday following a phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the EU 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.