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Is the EU ready for life without Russian diesel?

February 3, 2023

The bloc has already shunned Russian seaborne crude oil but giving up on the country's diesel could be much more painful. However, China and India could play a big role in easing some of that disruption.

Demonstrators, and Ukrainian activists stand in front of signs reading "Stop Putin's oil" during a vigil for Ukraine near the European Union (EU) headquarters in Brussels
The EU ban on Russian diesel is aimed at hurting an industry that's been instrumental in bankrolling the Ukraine warImage: Nicolas Landemard/Le Pictorium/MAXPPP/dpa/picture alliance

The European Union has joined the United States and the United Kingdom in banning imports of Russian diesel and other refined oil products as it looks to end its energy ties with Moscow, which for years had been its biggest source of energy.

The ban is coupled with a price cap on Russian refined fuel, aimed at hurting Russian revenue while ensuring the EU fuel embargo doesn't end up driving up global diesel prices, which are already high.

The oil products embargo comes two months after a similar ban on Russian crude oil brought in by sea.  Both were announced in June as part of the EU's sixth sanctions package against Russia in response to Moscow's "brutal and unprovoked attack on Ukraine."

While the crude oil embargo and the oil price cap, which came into effect on December 5, passed off without any major disruption, the ban on refined fuels — in particular, diesel with its wide industrial and domestic usage — has pushed the market into uncertainty amid historically low diesel stocks in Europe.

"The crude is more fungible," said Eugene Lindell and Joshua Folds from FGE energy consultancy. "It's much more difficult to produce diesel/gasoil whereas, for crude oil, the upstream production is much more varied on a global scale. There's a lot more kind of crude in the market and there potentially is diesel/gasoil," they told DW.

Will the ban drive up diesel prices?

That would largely depend on how successful the European countries are in finding alternative sellers to help fill up the void caused by the ban and how effective Moscow is in finding new markets for its fuel, now shunned by the EU. If those two things happen, then the impact on supply and prices would be muted and short-lived.

If not, then the sanction could lead to major disruptions in diesel-reliant industries such as transportation and agriculture, with fuel price rises further undermining the fight against inflation.

The perceived disruption is already driving up diesel prices, which already have been stubbornly high over the past year and a half. While the situation has improved in recent months due to a mild winter, diesel stocks remain at uncomfortable levels.

Diesel prices could climb further in the short term to reflect an increase in shipping costs, as supplies would now need to come from regions further afield, higher production costs in countries such as the US and the risk premium.      

"The market is very sensitive right now and very worried," the FGE analysts told DW. "The world still has to see that those Russian flows do get rerouted and that there is not a sustainable disruption to Russian flows. Once the market recognizes that, then the risk premium and the sentiment levels should go lower."

A German tanker ship at a fuel storage facility in Kiel, Germany
Diesel inventories in the EU fell last year as soaring natural gas prices pushed up demand for the fuel for heatingImage: picture-alliance/imagebroker/M. Dietrich

Who could the EU turn to for diesel?

The EU relied on Russia for nearly half its diesel needs before Russia's invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. That share dropped over the past year but remained significant with EU members buying in excess of 200 million barrels of diesel last year, according to energy analytics firm Vortexa.

In fact, in the run-up to the ban, the bloc increased its purchases from the country to pre-invasion levels in preparation to wean itself off Russian fuel, something Kevin Wright, an analyst from energy data firm Kpler, described as the "last hurrah" before the embargo kicked in. "The last chance to buy from the nearest large source, keeping freight costs down compared to supply from further afield," he wrote in an analysis on Kpler's website.

The ban has left the EU with a void of about 600,000 barrels of diesel and related oil products per day, a gap that the EU intends to plug with increased supplies from the Middle East, Asia and the US. With its own refining capacity under duress, the EU has already been relying on those regions over the past months to make up for the shortfall.

That dependence is only likely to increase with the ramp-up of large refineries such as the Al-Zour plant in Kuwait and the Jazan refinery in Saudi Arabia. Additionally, Germany has inked a deal with UAE's Abu Dhabi National Oil Co that would see the oil firm provide 250,000 tons of diesel a month in 2023.

The bloc could also benefit from so-called washing, wherein Russian diesel would be blended with other non-Russian products in countries such as Turkey and re-exported back into Europe.

How about China and India?

India and China, which have emerged as the biggest buyers of Russian crude oil in the last 12 months, could play a big role in shoring up the EU's diesel stocks.

India's diesel exports to Europe have soared since the invasion as refiners take advantage of low feedstock costs thanks to steeply discounted Russian crude and high diesel prices.

In a sign of times to come, last year, when workers' strikes shut down the French refining sector, the EU saw a surge in diesel and related products imports from India, which isn't a traditional supplier of the fuel to Europe.

China has raised its first batch of 2023 export quotas for diesel and other refined oil products, exports of which have surged in recent months. The move is expected to keep its diesel exports at record levels, which could potentially help push barrels from other producers westward into Europe.

"China policy is the game changer," said Mark Williams, a research director at Wood Mackenzie, adding in a note to clients that the country "holds the key to all of the surplus refining capacity globally."

Greek tankers moving Russian oil before ban

Where will Russia sell its diesel?

Russia has managed to keep its crude oil flowing, largely with support from India and China, who have snapped up the oil shunned by Moscow's traditional European buyers at huge discounts. However, rerouting its diesel away from its largest market could be more challenging in the absence of a ready market for Russian fuel.

Experts expect Russian diesel earlier sold to Europe to be diverted to Turkey and countries in Latin America and Africa.

"Russia has already been forced to discount its diesel heavily to get it sold to people that don't necessarily need it," Lindell said.

Lindell, who is the head of refined products at FGE, expects a large portion of the Russian diesel to reach Turkey and then be rebranded and reexported into Europe as "Turkish diesel." Turkey has seen a big rise in diesel imports from Russia in the past months.

"There are countries that are willing to accommodate and to take discounted barrels," Lindell said, a reason why FGE doesn't see a decline in Russian oil product exports in 2023.

Yet, there are others who say Russia would struggle to relocate all of its diesel and might be forced to cut output.

What would be the impact of the diesel price cap?

The European Union and the Group of Seven (G7) industrialized countries on Friday agreed to set a $100 (€91) per barrel price cap on Russian diesel and a $45 per barrel cap on discounted products like fuel oil.

The price cap is meant to ensure that Russian diesel and other oil products can still be sold to third countries and prevent any massive spike in prices following the EU ban. The mechanism would allow European insurance and shipping firms to continue offering their services to shippers carrying Russian oil products to other regions as long as the fuel is purchased at or below an agreed cap level.

The oil products price cap would have minimal impact on Russian refining crude runs and distillate exports,  Wood Mackenzie's Williams said, adding that with Russian crude prices as low as $40 a barrel, refining margins would still remain strong.

"At these levels, Russian refining economics are still very strong, so the incentive to refine crude into oil products remains high," Williams said.

The price cap mirrors a similar measure put in place for Russian crude. The crude oil price cap of $60 a barrel has helped keep Russian oil flowing but at steep discounts, as was intended.

Edited by: Uwe Hessler

Portrait photo of Ashutosh Pandey wearing a blue collared shirt and a navy-blue blazer
Ashutosh Pandey Business editor with a focus on international trade, financial markets and the energy sector.@ashutoshpande85