EU leaders slam Russian gas cut as ‘blackmail’
European leaders slammed Russia’s decision to cut natural gas shipments to Poland and Bulgaria as “blackmail”, saying the cut and the Kremlin’s warning that it could halt shipments to other countries are a failed attempt to divide the West over its support for Ukraine.
Russia’s move on Wednesday to use its most essential exports as leverage marked a dramatic escalation in the economic war of sanctions and counter-sanctions that has unfolded alongside fighting on the battlefield.
The tactic against both EU and NATO members could eventually force targeted countries to ration gas and deal another blow to economies suffering from rising prices. At the same time, it could deprive Russia of badly needed revenue to fund its war effort.
Poland has been a major gateway for arms delivery to Ukraine and confirmed this week that it is sending tanks to the country. Just hours before Russian energy giant Gazprom took action, Poland announced a new round of sanctions against the company and other Russian companies and oligarchs.
Bulgaria, under a new liberal government that took office last fall, severed many of its old ties with Moscow and also backed punitive measures against the Kremlin. It 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 difficulty. Poland, in particular, has been working for many years to line up other suppliers, and the continent is heading into summer, making gas less essential for households.
In addition, deliveries of Russian gas to Poland and Bulgaria were due to end later this year anyway.
Yet the cut and the Kremlin’s warning that other countries could be next to send shivers of worry through the 27-nation European Union. Germany, the continent’s largest economy, and Italy are among the biggest European consumers of Russian natural gas, although they have also taken steps to reduce their dependence on Moscow.
“It’s no surprise that the Kremlin is using fossil fuels to try to blackmail us,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said. “Today, the Kremlin has again failed in its attempt to sow division among member states. The era of Russian fossil fuels in Europe is coming to an end.
Gazprom said it shut down the two countries because they refused to pay in roubles, as President Vladimir Putin demanded of “unfriendly” nations. The Kremlin said other countries could be cut off if they did not agree to the payment arrangement.
Most European countries have publicly balked at Russia’s demand for rubles, but it’s unclear how many have actually faced the moment of the decision so far. Greece’s next scheduled payment to Gazprom is due on May 25, for example, and the government must then decide whether to comply.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told his country’s parliament that he believed Poland’s support for Ukraine – and new sanctions imposed by Warsaw on Tuesday – were the real reasons for the gas cut.
Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov called the suspension blackmail, adding: “We will not succumb to such racketeering.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russia sees gas as a weapon of political blackmail and “sees a united Europe as a target”.
On the battlefield, fighting continued in the east of the country along a largely static front line some 480 kilometers long.
Russia claimed that its missiles hit a batch of weapons that the United States and European countries had delivered to Ukraine. One person was killed and at least two injured when rockets hit a residential area of Kharkiv.
Western officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence findings, said Russia had made slow progress in the eastern Donbas region, with “minor gains” including capturing of villages and small towns south of Izyum and on the outskirts of Rubizhne.
Serhiy Haidai, the governor of the Luhansk region, acknowledged that Russia had made some progress in its advance on Rubizhne thanks to its almost constant shelling, but that Ukrainian troops fought back and only retreated when there was no more nothing to defend.
“There is no point in staying in territory that has been shot so many times that every yard is well known,” he said.
Maxim, a Ukrainian tank commander in Donbass who did not give his last name, explained why Ukrainian forces were able to hold back the better-equipped Russian army: “The strength is not in the tank; the strength is in the people.
Western officials said some Russian troops had been moved from the gutted port city of Mariupol to other parts of Donbass. But some remain in Mariupol to fight the Ukrainian forces entrenched at the Azovstal steelworks, the city’s last stronghold. Around 1,000 civilians are believed to have taken refuge there along with around 2,000 Ukrainian defenders.
“The situation is very difficult. There are huge problems with water, food,” said Serhii Volynskyi, commander of the marine unit inside the plant, in a Facebook video post. He said hundreds of fighters and civilians were injured and needed medical help, and those inside included children, the elderly and people with disabilities.
In the Black Sea port city of Kherson, which Russian forces have occupied since the start of the war, a series of explosions erupted near the TV tower on Wednesday night and at least temporarily shut down Russian channels, reports reported Ukrainian and Russian news agencies.
Just across the border with Donbass in Russia, an ammunition depot in the Belgorod region burned down after multiple explosions, the governor said. Explosions were also reported in Russia’s Kursk region near the border, and authorities in Russia’s Voronezh region said an air defense system shot down a drone.
Earlier this week, an oil storage facility in the Russian city of Bryansk was engulfed in fire.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak hinted at the country’s involvement in the fires, saying in a Telegram post that “karma (is) a hard thing”.
With the aid of Western weapons, Ukrainian forces managed to thwart the attempt by Russian forces to storm kyiv. Moscow now says its goal is the capture of Donbass, Ukraine’s predominantly Russian-speaking industrial heartland.
A defiant Putin vowed that Russia would achieve its military goals, telling parliament: “All tasks of the special military operation we are carrying out in Donbass and Ukraine, launched on February 24, will be fulfilled unconditionally.
Gambrell reported from Lviv, Ukraine, and Gera reported from Warsaw, Poland. Associated Press reporters Jill Lawless in London, Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, David Keyton in Kyiv, Oleksandr Stashevskyi in Chernobyl, Mstyslav Chernov in Kharkiv and AP staff around the world contributed to this report.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine