Russia opened a new front in its war over Ukraine on Wednesday, deciding to shut off gas to two European Union nations that staunchly back Kyiv, a dramatic escalation in a conflict that is increasingly becoming a wider battle with the West.
One day after the United States and other Western allies vowed to speed more and better military supplies to Ukraine, the Kremlin upped the ante, using its most essential export as leverage. European gas prices shot up on the news, which the European Union commission’s president called an attempt at “blackmail.”
On the ground too, there were fears the war could spill over Ukraine’s borders. For the second day, explosions rocked the separatist region of Trans-Dniester Tuesday in neighboring Moldova, knocking out two powerful radio antennas. No one claimed responsibility for the attacks, but Ukraine all but blamed Russia.
And a Russian missile hit a strategic railroad bridge linking Ukraine’s Odesa port region to neighboring Romania, a NATO member, Ukrainian authorities said.
The escalation around gas shipments came in a memo from state-controlled Russian giant Gazprom, which said it had cut natural gas deliveries to Poland and Bulgaria because they refused to pay in Russian rubles, as President Vladimir Putin had demanded. The company said it had not received any payment since the beginning of the month.
The suspensions would be the first since Putin’s announcement last month that “unfriendly foreign buyers” would have to transact with Gazprom in rubles instead of dollars and euros. Only Hungary has agreed to do so, with other countries rejecting the demand as an unacceptable, one-sided breach of contracts and a violation of sanctions.
If deliveries are halted to other countries as well, it could cause economic pain in Europe, driving natural gas prices up and possibly leading to rationing — but it would also deal a blow to Russia’s own economy.
Wednesday’s cutoffs will affect deliveries of Russian gas to Poland through the Yamal-Europe pipeline, according to Polish state gas company PGNiG, and to Bulgaria via the TurkStream pipeline, that country’s Energy Ministry said.
The Yamal-Europe line carries gas from Russia to Poland and Germany, via Belarus. Poland has been receiving some 9 billion cubic meters annually, fulfilling some 45% of the country’s need.
PGNiG said it was considering legal action over Moscow’s payment demand.
But Climate Minister Anna Moskwa said Poland is prepared to make do after having worked to reduce its reliance on Russian energy sources. Several years ago the country opened its first terminal for liquefied natural gas, or LNG, in Swinoujscie, on the Baltic Sea coast, and later this year a pipeline from Norway is to become operational.
“There will be no shortage of gas in Polish homes,” Moskwa tweeted.
Analyst Emily McClain of Rystad Energy concurred, saying that Poland has ample natural gas in storage and has the capacity to ramp up imports.
Bulgaria said it was working with state gas companies to find alternative sources and that no restrictions on domestic consumption would be imposed for now, even though the Balkan country of 6.5 million people meets over 90% of its gas needs with Russian imports.
One feasible and relatively immediate option available to the Bulgarian government would be to increase their imports of Azeri gas, which comes through a pipeline from Azerbaijan completed at the very end of 2020.
As the Russian invasion of Ukraine has dragged on, the endgame has become less clear. NBCLX storyteller Clark Fouraker spoke to Philip Wasielewski of the Foreign Policy Research Institute about the war’s possible outcomes, which hinge on a key question: Does Russia want to fight — or find a way out?
Poland has been a strong supporter of neighboring Ukraine during the Russian invasion and has acted as a transit point for weapons the United States and other Western nations have provided to Kyiv.
Warsaw said this week that it, too, was sending weaponry to Ukraine’s army, in the form of tanks. On Tuesday it announced sanctions targeting 50 Russian oligarchs and companies, including Gazprom.
Bulgaria, once one of Moscow’s closest allies, has cut many of its ties with Russia after a new, liberal government took the reins last fall and also in the wake of the invasion. It has supported sanctions against Russia and sent humanitarian aid to Ukraine.
Bulgaria has been hesitant to provide military aid, but Prime Minister Kiril Petkov and members of his coalition government were expected in Kyiv on Wednesday for talks about further assistance.
Europe buys large amounts of Russian natural gas for residential heating, electrical generation and the fuel industry, with Germany particularly dependent on it. The imports have continued despite the war.
Around 60% of imports are paid in euros, and the rest in dollars. Putin’s demand was apparently intended to help bolster the Russian currency against Western sanctions.
In Washington, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the U.S. had been preparing for such a cutoff by Russia.
“Some of that has been asking some countries in Asia who have excess supply to provide that to Europe,” Psaki said. “We’ve done that in some cases, and it’s been an ongoing effort.”
Click here for complete coverage of the crisis in Ukraine.
Russia’s war with Ukraine continues to drag on as Ukraine receives U.S. aid and Russia hurts from sanctions. Though some say there’s pressure for Putin to end the war before May 9, a significant victory day in Russian history, it looks like there’s no end in sight to the war, says Joel Rubin, former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state.
Associated Press writers Veselin Toshkov in Sofia, Bulgaria, and Zeke Miller and Paul Wiseman in Washington contributed to this report.
Source: NBC New York
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