EU head says Russia’s gas cut-offs will fail to sow discord among Ukraine’s allies | CBC News

In a move called out as “blackmail,” Russia cut off natural gas to NATO members Poland and Bulgaria on Wednesday and threatened to do the same to other countries, dramatically escalating its standoff with the West over the war in Ukraine. 

A day after the U.S. and other Western allies vowed to send more and heavier weapons to Ukraine, the Kremlin used its most essential export as leverage against two of Kyiv’s staunch backers. Gas prices in Europe shot up at the news.

The tactic could eventually force targeted nations to ration gas and deal another blow to economies suffering from rising prices. At the same time, it could deprive Russia of badly needed income to fund its war effort.

Poland has been a major gateway for the delivery of weapons to Ukraine and confirmed this week that it is sending tanks.

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Bulgaria, under a new liberal government that took office last fall, has cut many of its old ties to Moscow and supported sanctions against Russia. It has also hosted Western fighter jets at a new NATO outpost on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast.

The gas cuts do not immediately put the two countries in dire trouble. Poland has been working for several years to line up other sources of energy, and the continent is heading into summer, making gas less essential for households.

Yet the cut-off — and the Kremlin warning that other countries could be next — sent shivers of worry through the 27-nation European Union.

The end of the era of Russian fossil fuel 

Western leaders and analysts portrayed the move by Russia as a bid to divide the Western allies and undermine their unity in support of Ukraine.

“It comes as no surprise that the Kremlin uses fossil fuels to try to blackmail us,” said EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. “Today, the Kremlin failed once again in his attempt to sow division amongst member states. The era of Russian fossil fuel in Europe is coming to an end.”

“This is unjustified and unacceptable,” von der Leyen said. “Our response will be immediate, united and co-ordinated.”

Von der Leyen said that following an urgent meeting of member states, both Poland and Bulgaria are now receiving gas from their EU neighbours.

A tanker loads its cargo of liquefied natural gas from the Sakhalin-2 project in the port of Prigorodnoye, Russia, on Oct. 29, 2021. In an abrupt move, Russian energy giant Gazprom said it would halt gas supplies to Poland and Bulgaria. (The Associated Press)

State-controlled Russian giant Gazprom said it was shutting off the two countries because they refused to pay in Russian rubles, as President Vladimir Putin had demanded. A number of other gas-importing countries have also refused to do business in rubles.

The move is Russia’s toughest retaliation so far against international sanctions over the war in Ukraine.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki vowed that Poland would not be cowed by the gas cut-off. He said Poland was safe thanks to years of efforts aimed at securing gas from other countries.

While Poland is far more dependent on coal, with gas only accounting for nine per cent of the country’s overall energy use, Russia supplied about 45 per cent of the country’s gas.

Russian supplies to Poland were already due to end later this year and Poland had already made new plans. A new pipeline, The Baltic Pipe Project, is due to become operational in the fall.

A political tool meant to shatter unity

Bulgarian Energy Minister Alexander Nikolov said on Wednesday that the gas was still flowing for the time being, and that his country would be able to meet the needs of users for at least one month. 

“Obviously gas is used as a political tool. As long as I am minister, Bulgaria will not negotiate under pressure. Bulgaria is not for sale and does not succumb to any trade counterpart.”

Russia’s energy exports have largely continued since the war began, an exception to sanctions that have otherwise cut off Moscow from much of its trade with the West.

Russian gas company Gazprom’s headquarters is seen at the Lakhta Centre business tower in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Wednesday. Polish and Bulgarian leaders have accused Russia of cutting gas supplies to blackmail their countries. (Dmitri Lovetsky/The Associated Press)

Ukraine has accused Russia of blackmailing Europe over energy in an attempt to break its allies as fighting in Ukraine entered a third month. Buyers say Moscow’s demands for payment in rubles violates contracts, which call for payment in euros.

Andriy Yermak, chief of staff to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, said Russia was “trying to shatter the unity of our allies.”

Bulgaria, which is almost completely reliant on Russian gas imports, said the proposed new payment scheme was in breach of its arrangement with Gazprom. It has held talks to import liquefied natural gas through neighbouring Turkey and Greece.

Kremlin denies using blackmail

Russia responded to the accusations and denied it was using natural gas supplies as a tool of blackmail. 

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters: “Russia was and remains a reliable supplier of energy resources to its consumers and remains committed to its contractual obligations.”

He declined to say how many countries had agreed to switch to paying for gas in rubles after a decree was issued last month by President Vladimir Putin.

“When the payment deadlines approach, if some consumers decline to pay under the new system, then the president’s decree of course will be applied,” Peskov said.

Asked whether Russia was ready for the budget losses it could sustain if European countries declined to pay for gas in rubles, Peskov said: “Everything has been calculated, all risks have been forecast and necessary measures taken.” 

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