Moscow has told Poland and Bulgaria that it will halt gas supplies from Wednesday, following their refusal to pay the Russian energy giant Gazprom in roubles, in an apparent warning shot to the rest of Europe.
The decision to kill supply at 8am CET had also followed Poland’s announcement earlier on Tuesday that it was imposing sanctions on 50 entities and individuals – including Russia’s biggest gas company – over Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
Andriy Yermak, the chief of staff to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said Russia was “beginning the gas blackmail of Europe”.
“Russia is trying to shatter the unity of our allies. Russia is also providing 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.”
The move will be a serious concern to those countries who are the most heavily dependent on Russian gas, such as Germany, but at a hastily arranged press conference, Polish ministers said they had sufficient supplies to weather an interruption while accusing Gazprom of a breach of contract.
Anna Moskwa, Poland’s minister for climate, said: “There are no worries about shortages of gas in our homes. It is worth pointing out that liquefied natural gas alone supplies the market sufficiently. LNG deliveries in [terminal] Świnoujście are growing – in 2015 there was one, in 2021 it was already 35. As of today, it provides for about 50 deliveries.”
She added: “Appropriate diversification strategies that we have introduced allow us to feel on the safe side in this situation.”
PGNiG, Poland’s largest gas supplier, said it would file a breach of contract lawsuit over Gazprom’s decision.
Russia currently supplies about 55% of Poland’s annual demand of about 21bn cubic meters (bcm) of gas but the country’s government has still been pushing the EU and other western allies to go further in punishing the Kremlin.
Later on Tuesday, Bulgaria’s energy ministry said it had been told that supplies of Russian gas via the TurkStream pipeline would also cease on Wednesday.
Once a close ally of Moscow, Bulgaria has cut many of its ties with Russia, supporting sanctions against Russia and providing humanitarian aid to Ukraine.
Kiril Petkov, the country’s prime minister, and members of his coalition government were due to travel to Kyiv on Wednesday for aid talks with Ukrainian officials.
The Balkan country meets more than 90% of its gas needs with Russian imports, but the government insisted that no restrictions would be imposed on domestic gas consumption would be imposed for.
The NGO Europe Beyond Coal has calculated that the EU has sent more than €41bn (£34.7bn) to Russia in payments for fossil fuels since it invaded Ukraine two months ago.
Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, had already said he intended to ban Russian gas and oil imports by the end of the year and there has been a move to diversify to cover for losses.
The key Yamal pipeline carries natural gas from Russia to Poland and Germany, through Belarus. But the Polish government had made a clear move away from dependency by constructing a liquefied natural gas terminal in the Baltic port of Świnoujście, run by Qatari and US companies, which is capable of handling 5 bcm of gas. It is being expanded to 7.5 bcm by 2023.
The extent to which Polish industry will be able to rely on this flow is yet to be seen, however, and other countries will be worried about the development.
Moscow had warned clients in March that they risked having their gas supplies cut unless they paid in roubles.
The European Commission had however said companies should continue to pay Gazprom in the currency agreed in their contracts, about 97% of which are in euros or dollars.
The only EU leader who has suggested he would pay Gazprom in roubles is Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, whose rightwing government has pursued a close relationship with Putin’s regime for over a decade.
The move by the Kremlin comes as EU member states are drawing up a sixth wave of sanctions that could include imposing a ceiling on the price paid for Russian oil.
But there remains a reluctance in Berlin, in particular, to go hard on gas imports given the German economy’s dependence on Russia in that field.
In early April, Germany’s chancellor, Olaf Scholz, told the Bundestag that the country’s energy reliance had “grown over decades and cannot be ended from one day to the next”, given that it would lead to the rationing of energy to industry and the potential closure of its largest factories.
On Tuesday, Gazprom denied that gas flows to Poland had been stopped. Spokesperson Sergei Kupriyanov said: “Today Poland has to pay for gas supplies according to the new payment procedure.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism