Chief of EU diplomacy: ‘Countries can act on their own to cut off Russian oil and gas’

Josep Borrell insists on continuing to send war material to Ukraine and says that ‘the war will have to be decided on the battlefield’

Josep Borrell
Josep Borrell at the European Council.JAMES RAJOTTE
Guillermo Abril

Every time the head of European diplomacy, Josep Borrell, is on the phone with a EU foreign minister and he gets asked where he is, he invariable replies: “Buying gas.” The High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, one of the key people in Brussels’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, considers it essential for the 27 members of the EU to achieve energy independence from Moscow. But he also acknowledges that right now the EU lacks the necessary unanimity to apply an embargo on the oil and gas imports that feed the Kremlin’s coffers every day. As an alternative, he proposes voluntary schemes to cut Europe’s ties to fossil fuels, and he insists on supporting Kyiv by sending weapons to Ukraine. “The war will have to be decided on the battlefield,” he said this Thursday in a video interview with news organizations that are part of the LENA alliance, including EL PAÍS.

Question. The Kremlin started this war nearly two months ago already. How do you see the situation?

Answer. Russia’s initial attempt at a swift operation has failed. They have not been able to take Kyiv. They have had to withdraw, change their tactics and concentrate all their efforts in the Donbas region. So far they have lost. For the Ukrainians the price to pay is very high: they have suffered heavy casualties, destruction of infrastructure, civilians fleeing and dying, but Russia has failed. Let’s see about the next battle.

Q. A phrase of yours sparked controversy a few days ago: "Wars are won or lost on the battlefield."

A. When the Austrian chancellor [Karl Nehammer] returned [from his recent visit to Moscow] saying that Putin does not want to negotiate, and that he is preparing a major offensive in the Donbas, he said that the war in this case will have to be won on the battlefield. It is the logical consequence. If someone says they don’t want to stop or negotiate and will instead continue to fight, then the war will have to be decided on the battlefield. I don’t see why people say, “My God, what did he say!”

Q. Would you go to a negotiating table with Russian President Vladimir Putin?

A. I would go tomorrow. Now, the problem is that Putin is saying that he will continue the war. Until when? I do not know. Meanwhile, we have to commit to supporting the Ukrainians because they have been attacked, being aware that the more weapons we provide, the more we are committed.

Q. Every time there is talk of more and more deliveries of weapons, tanks and planes. Are we at risk of being considered co-belligerents?

A. It’s a delicate balance. We support one of the parties in a war without wanting to be part of it. We provide weapons, they suffer the consequences of war. We will continue to make this effort and increase it, without becoming belligerent. We just want the Ukrainians to be able to defend themselves.

The decrease in oil bought from Russia is very important. And we are replacing the gas with gas from different sources

Q. Will they be supported to the point where Ukraine manages to recapture even Crimea, for example?

A. There are people who criticize us, saying that sending weapons means that the war will be longer and will cause more deaths, and that it must be stopped. Yes, certainly: if Ukraine is no longer armed, the war will stop. Then what? Doesn’t it matter how it stops? It is not only a question of when, it is also a question of how the war is stopped.

Q. When will new sanctions that include Russian oil and gas be approved?

A. I can’t give a date. Everyone can speculate, but as far as I know, there is no proposal on the table. But there are options on the best way to do it: a tax? An import ban? The Iranian system? Many economists say that the rational thing would be to make gas and oil more expensive so that incentives are created to look for alternative sources. None of these proposals has achieved the necessary unanimity. It is a decision that must be made by the European Council [the body where the leaders of the 27 sit]. It is high-level politics. And there hasn’t been an agreement yet.

Q. What needs to happen in Ukraine for the EU to completely sever ties with Russia instead of carrying on almost as usual? An Auschwitz? A nuclear bomb?

A. No, no. Nobody is carrying on as usual. The European Council has not provided guidance for approving a tax or a ban on imports [of oil and gas]. There are some member states, you know which ones, that have clearly said that they will veto it. If this is the case, then whether we like it or not, a unanimous decision cannot be made. I’m sorry, but it’s like that.

Q. Do you see any solutions?

A. If someone doesn’t want to participate, others can. Unanimity is not needed to act voluntarily, following a plan. They can decide to act according to a collective decision, which is not officially an EU decision. It will not be unanimously, but they can act on their side. This is what is already happening now and it is working. The effect will not be felt tomorrow, it is a reduction path. Germany has assured that it will get rid of Russian oil by the end of the year. And remember that Russia gets much more money from oil than from gas. It is already happening. The decrease in oil bought from Russia is very important. And we are replacing the gas with gas from different sources. We don’t act like it’s nothing. We talk to everyone and push for everyone to act. When Germany says that by the end of the year there will be no more Russian oil, it is making a big effort.

Remember during the Cold War, when we talked about non-aligned countries? We are witnessing the rebirth of a similar phenomenon

Q. And the gas?

A. Oil is much easier because it is not a raw material for industry. It’s just a power source. Gas is indeed a raw material; in the petrochemical industry, it is irreplaceable. But it will happen. Russia will see how the money from the sale of oil and gas decreases. If we could have unanimity I would be more than happy, and I am pushing for it, proposing arguments, exploring possibilities, looking for alternatives. Every time I call a colleague at the Foreign Affairs Council and they ask me where I am, I say: ‘Buying gas.’ I am somewhere in the world, in the Middle East, in the Congo, in Algeria, doing what? Buying gas.

P. How is the autonomy of the EU after the crisis in Ukraine?

A. Autonomy is a very broad concept, not just a military one. It is the ability to act without being limited by others. And it is clear that in many aspects Europe lacks autonomy, and the most important one today is energy. We are crucially dependent on supplies provided by someone with whom we have a very bad relationship today. So it is clear that Europe has to fight to have that energy autonomy, as a first step. This is the most important thing today. We can be criticized that it should have been done much earlier, when Putin took Crimea. Now we are seeing the real danger. And the whole world is decreasing its energy consumption and dependence on Russia.

Q. And in military terms?

A. Now everyone is going through their stockpiles to see what kind of material we have to provide to the Ukrainians. It’s a good check. What kind of military supplies to wage war do we have? What is its quality? It is a good lesson for building greater military capacity.

Q. What effects will the war have on the rest of the world?

A. We are concerned by the narrative that sanctions against Russia are creating world hunger. Yesterday I was speaking with the foreign minister of Indonesia, whose country will host the G-20 summit. And I was warned about how retaliation is perceived among emerging countries. They are going to suffer negative effects because energy and food prices will increase. Why? Because of the war. But Russia is making a great effort to spread – and China is echoing it – that this is a consequence of Western sanctions. We are going to witness a narrative battle like the one about masks and vaccines.

Q. What kind of world will emerge from this war?

A. It will be much more fragmented and this will create economic disruption. Wheat will also become a kind of weapon. Russia is already saying: “Our wheat will be for our friends; those who are not our friends will not have it.” There will be a new political landscape, with Russia and China on one side; the West on the other. And a lot of emerging countries will lean to one side or the other, depending on the circumstances. Remember during the Cold War, when we talked about non-aligned countries? We are witnessing the rebirth of a similar phenomenon.

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