Ukraine has accused Russia of blackmailing Europe as it follows through on threats to cut off natural gas supplies to some nations, dramatically escalating tensions with the West.
Poland’s state-run gas firm PGNiG said that it would “entirely suspend” gas supplies along the Yamal pipeline from early Wednesday (local time), after a warning from Russian state-owned energy giant Gazprom.
“On April 26, Gazprom informed PGNiG of its intention to entirely suspend deliveries under the Yamal contract at the beginning of the contract day on April 27,”PGNiG said.
The Bulgarian energy ministry said its state-owned gas company Bulgargaz had also been told that supplies would be cut from Wednesday.
Russian state news agency TASS reported on Tuesday that Gazprom spokesman Sergey Kupriyanov had said Russian gas must be paid for in roubles.
Poland and Bulgaria are both members of the European Union and NATO.
Andriy Yermak, the chief of staff to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, said Russia was “beginning the gas blackmail of Europe”.
“Russia is trying to shatter the unity of our allies. Russia is also proving that energy resources are a weapon. That is why the EU needs to be united and impose an embargo on energy resources, depriving the Russians of their energy weapons,” he said.
Wednesday’s suspensions are the first since Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement last month that “unfriendly foreign buyers” would have to transact with Gazprom in roubles instead of dollars and euros.
Only Hungary has agreed to do so. Other countries have rejected 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 up natural gas prices and possibly leading to rationing. Gas futures in the US rose about 3 per cent on Tuesday as the news emerged.
However, it would also deal a blow to Russia’s own economy.
The Yamal-Europe pipeline carries gas from Russia to Poland and Germany, via Belarus. Poland receives about nine billion cubic meters annually, fulfilling 45 per cent of its needs.
PGNiG said it was considering legal action over Moscow’s payment demand.
But Climate Minister Anna Moskwa said Poland was prepared to make do after having worked to reduce its reliance on Russian energy sources.
“There will be no shortage of gas in Polish homes,” Ms Moskwa tweeted on Tuesday.
Bulgaria said it was working with state gas companies to find alternative sources. No restrictions on domestic consumption would be imposed for now, even though Russian imports supply more than 90 per cent of the Balkan country’s gas needs.
Poland has been a strong supporter of neighbouring Ukraine during the Russian invasion and has acted as a transit point for weapons the USs 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 year and also since the invasion. It has supported sanctions against Russia and sent humanitarian aid to Ukraine.
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.
About 60 per cent of imports are paid in euros, and the rest in US dollars. Putin’s demand was apparently intended to help bolster the Russian currency against Western sanctions.
Russia’s ambassador to the US has warned Washington to stop sending arms to Ukraine, saying that large Western deliveries of weapons are inflaming the situation.
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov warned on Monday that: “NATO, in essence, is engaged in a war with Russia through a proxy and is arming that proxy. War means war,” saying the risks of nuclear conflict should not be underestimated.
US Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said there was no reason for the conflict in Ukraine to escalate to nuclear war.
“A nuclear war cannot be won and it shouldn’t be fought,” he said.
Ukraine also accused Moscow on Tuesday of trying to drag Moldova’s breakaway region of Transdniestria into the conflict after authorities in the Moscow-backed region said they had been targeted by a series of attacks.
The Kremlin, which has troops and peacekeepers in the region, said it was seriously concerned.
Meanwhile, fighting continued in eastern and southern Ukraine.
Russia’s defence ministry said its forces had “liberated” the entire Kherson region in southern Ukraine and parts of the Zaporizhzhia, Mykolaiv and Kharkiv regions, Interfax news agency reported.
If confirmed, that would represent a significant Russian advance.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, in Moscow on Tuesday, made a proposal for evacuating people from the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol, involving a “Humanitarian Contact Group” of Russia, Ukraine and UN officials.
Ukraine said no corridors were operating on Tuesday due to continued fighting.
The UN said Mr Putin had agreed “in principle” during talks with Mr Guterres to UN and Red Cross involvement in evacuating civilians from the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, scene of the worst fighting of the war.