Russian strikes pound Ukraine as EU proposes new sanctions

Russia At War

BRUSSELS (NewsNation) — Russian forces unleashed artillery fire on towns in eastern Ukraine, killing and wounding dozens of civilians, and began storming the bombed-out steel mill in Mariupol from where scores were evacuated after enduring weeks of shelling against the city’s last pocket of resistance.

The governor of the eastern Donetsk region said Russian attacks left 21 dead on Tuesday, the highest number of known fatalities since April 8, when a missile attack on the railway station in Kramatorsk killed at least 59 people.

Adding pressure on Moscow, the European Union’s leader on Wednesday called on the 27-nation bloc to ban Russian oil imports in a new wave of sanctions.

“We will make sure that we phase out Russian oil in an orderly fashion, in a way that allows us and our partners to secure alternative supply routes and minimizes the impact on global markets,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France. She also proposed that Sberbank, Russia’s largest bank, and two other major banks be disconnected from the SWIFT international banking payment system.

Thanks to the evacuation effort over the weekend, 101 people — including women, the elderly and 17 children, the youngest six months old — emerged from the bunkers under Mariupol’s Azovstal steelworks to “see the daylight after two months,” said Osnat Lubrani, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Ukraine.

Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said authorities on Wednesday plan to continue efforts to evacuate civilians from Mariupol and nearby areas if the security situation allows it. Lubrani also expressed hope for further evacuations but said none had been worked out.

Von der Leyen proposed to EU’s member nations to phase out crude oil imports within six months and refined products by the end of the year.

The proposals need to be unanimously approved to take effect and are likely to be the subject of fierce debate. Von der Leyen conceded that getting all 27 member countries — some of them landlocked and highly dependent on Russia for energy supplies — to agree on oil sanctions “will not be easy.”

The EU gets about 25% of its oil from Russia, most of which goes toward gasoline and diesel for vehicles. Russia supplies about 14% of diesel, S&P Global analysts said, and a cutoff could send already high prices for truck and tractor fuel towering.

If approved, the ban on oil imports will be the second package of EU sanctions targeting Russia’s lucrative energy industry over its war in Ukraine that President Vladimir Putin started on Feb. 24. In addition to sanctions on various entities and individuals — including Putin himself and members of his family — the bloc previously approved an embargo on coal imports.

The EU has started discussions on a possible natural gas embargo, but consensus among member countries on targeting the fuel used to generate electricity and heat homes is more difficult to secure. The region gets about 40% of its natural gas from Russia.

In a sign of the political pressure that von der Leyen has been under to widen EU sanctions on Russia energy, some European Parliament members on Wednesday stepped up calls for the bloc to target imports of natural gas from Russia as well.

“That’s great news that we are moving on the oil embargo,” Luis Garicano, a Spanish member of the EU assembly, said after von der Leyen’s announcement. “But as you know, this is far short of what this parliament wants. We actually asked a month ago for a full embargo on gas and oil.”

Hungary and Slovakia have already said they wouldn’t participate in any oil sanctions, but von der Leyen didn’t elaborate on whether they would receive an exemption from the sanctions, although this appears likely.

Von der Leyen also said that the EU should target high-ranking military officers and others “who committed war crimes in Bucha,” a suburb of the capital Kyiv. Ukrainian officials have alleged that retreating Russian troops carried out mass killings of civilians in Bucha.

“This sends another important signal to all perpetrators of the Kremlin’s war: We know who you are. We will hold you accountable. You’re not getting away with this,” von der Leyen told the lawmakers.

Von der Leyen said that Putin’s intention is “to wipe out Ukraine from the map” but predicted he will fail in his deadly enterprise.

“On the contrary, Ukraine has risen in bravery and in unity,” she said. “And it is his own country, Russia, that Putin is sinking.”

Banks are also in the EU executive arm’s sights, and notably Sberbank. Von der Leyen said the aim is that “we de-SWIFT Sberbank.” SWIFT is the major global system for financial transfers.

Von der Leyen said Sberbank holds around 37% of the Russian banking sector.

“And we will also de-SWIFT two other major banks in Russia. By that, we hit banks that are systemically critical to the Russian financial system and Putin’s ability to wage destruction,” she said.

Von der Leyen added that those alleged to be spreading disinformation about the war in Ukraine would be targeted.

“We are banning three big Russian state-owned broadcasters from our airwaves. They will not be allowed to distribute their content anymore in the EU, in whatever shape or form, be it on cable, via satellite, on the internet or via smartphone apps.”

She didn’t name the broadcasters directly, but branded the television channels “as mouthpieces that amplify Putin´s lies and propaganda aggressively. We should not give them a stage anymore to spread these lies.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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