European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has declared Europe's dependence on Russian oil and gas "history," Politico reports.
But others, from senior Ukrainian officials to MEPs and industry insiders, say that chapter of history is still being written.
Significant quantities of Russian hydrocarbons, particularly oil, are still flowing around sanctions and into the European market, they say, earning payments that fund Vladimir Putin's war machine.
“I had a friend in New York in the 1990s who complained cockroaches would get into his apartment through any available hole — that’s what Russia is doing with its energy,” Oleg Ustenko, economic adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, told Politico. “We have to fix these holes to stop Russia receiving this blood money they are using to finance the military machine that is destroying our country and killing our people.”
Crude oil is notoriously difficult to track on global markets. It can easily be mixed or blended with other shipments in transit countries, effectively creating a larger batch of oil whose origins can't be determined. The refining process, necessary for any practical application, also removes all traces of the feedstock's origin.
A complex network of shipping companies, carrying the flags of inscrutable offshore jurisdictions, adds a further layer of mystery; some have been accused of helping Russia to hide the origin of its crude exports using a variety of different means.
“Unlike pipeline gas, the oil market is global. Swap and netting systems, and mixing varieties are common practice,” said Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a prominent exiled critic of Putin and the former CEO of oil and gas giant Yukos.
“The result of the embargo is a significant increase in Russian transportation costs, a significant redistribution of income in favor of intermediaries, and some additional discount due to the narrowing of the buyers' market.”
The EU has largely banned Russian fossil fuels since the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, with exceptions for limited quantities of pipeline crude oil, pipeline gas, liquefied natural gas (LNG), and oil products.
But large volumes of Russian crude oil — a bigger source of revenue than gas — are still being shipped onto global markets, leading some experts to suspect they are finding their way to Europe's market through the back door.
“Since the introduction of sanctions, the volumes of crude oil Russia is exporting have remained more or less steady,” said Saad Rahim, chief economist at global commodities trading firm Trafigura. “It’s possible that Russian oil is still being sold on to the EU and Western nations via middlemen."