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Putin challenges the unity of the EU with a gas cut that Brussels calls “blackmail” | International

The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, accused Moscow of “blackmail” on Tuesday after the decision of the Russian energy company Gazprom to cut gas supplies to Poland and Bulgaria. Von der Leyen has assured that the EU was already prepared for this scenario, with contingency plans at the national level of the affected countries and with a commitment to solidarity on the part of the rest. The supply cut to two of the 27 partners confirms, according to Brussels, the will of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, to use the energy supply as one more instrument of his war against Ukraine and in retaliation against the countries that provide aid to the Ukrainian government of Volodymyr Zelensky.

Community sources suspect that after Poland and Bulgaria there could be new cuts, especially in the part of Europe most directly linked to the gas pipelines. The Kremlin would be seeking to break the unity that the EU has maintained since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24 and that has begun to falter as the war caused by Moscow has led to an energy war between Russia and Europe .

Gazprom’s excuse for cutting off gas to Poland and Bulgaria has been the refusal of both countries to pay for the supply in rubles, as Putin had demanded. The Kremlin intends that the EU partners pay for their imports in Russian currency as a way to partially avoid the European financial sanctions, which have hit the price of the ruble and have vetoed Moscow’s access to a good part of its monetary reserves in the Foreign.

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, on Thursday at the body's headquarters in Brussels.
Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, on Thursday at the body’s headquarters in Brussels. KENZO TRIBOUILLARD / POOL (EFE)

Both the EU and the members of the G-7 refused to give in to Russian pressure and kept their payments in euros or dollars, as stipulated in the contracts signed with Gazprom. Moscow offered as an alternative the opening of an account in rubles in Gazprombank, one of the Russian entities that has not been sanctioned by the West, in which to deposit the supply payments.

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So far there is no evidence that any EU country has accepted that formula, although Gazprom sources, quoted by Bloomberg, have assured this Wednesday that four community partners would have opted for that route, although they have not identified them. Austria, which could be one of those countries, has denied this. “Before the Russian propaganda fake news spreads further. OMV [la compañía energética austríaca] will continue to pay in euros for gas deliveries from Russia”, assured the Austrian Chancellor, Karl Nehammer, in a tweet.

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Putin points to the floating line of European unity with a selective cut of two countries —Poland and Bulgaria— that receive 50% and 75% of their gas imports from Russia, respectively. Von der Leyen has assured that “Europeans can trust that we will act united and in total solidarity with the countries impacted by this new challenge”.

This same Wednesday, the so-called Gas Coordination Group met in Brussels, which includes the authorities of the 27 EU countries, regulators, representatives of the sector and consumers. The objective is to guarantee a united response to Moscow’s energy threats and retaliation and to provide cover for countries that may be affected by a supply cut. Community sources suspect that after Poland and Bulgaria there could be new cuts, especially in the part of Europe most directly linked to the gas pipelines.

Poland consumes about 22,100 million cubic meters of gas a year, a quarter of Germany and somewhat less than Spain (32,100 million), according to data from the European Commission. Bulgaria’s annual consumption is around 3 billion cubic meters, according to the same source. Community sources suspect that after Poland and Bulgaria there could be new cuts, especially in the part of Europe most directly linked to the gas pipelines.

The European Commission reviewed the risk groups at the end of last year and in the one related to Ukraine, in addition to Poland and Bulgaria, there are thirteen other partners, with Germany, Italy, Greece or Romania among them. Each group constitutes a platform intended to be the basic structure of cooperation in the event of a supply problem. Countries can adjust cross-border gas flows in an emergency to ensure that no country is left without supply.

The Gas Coordination Group already analyzed in its previous meeting, on March 29, the threat posed by the Russian demand to pay for the supply in rubles. The Commission insisted on the need to maintain payments in euros or dollars because otherwise it would amount to giving in to a unilateral review of the contracts by Russia. The community body was then against triggering the supply alarms provided for in community legislation so as not to give the impression that the cuts were imminent and thus cause a price increase that would benefit Moscow.

The escalation in the energy war between Russia and the EU, however, seems inevitable after the first gas supply cut. Until now, each side graduated and dealt its blows with a view to causing the greatest possible damage to the adversary and the least collateral damage to its own side. Germany blocked the opening of the Nord Stream II gas pipeline as soon as hostilities began in Ukraine and Moscow warned that it could also cut off the Nord Stream I although it has not carried out that threat.

Brussels, after many doubts, launched a new barrage in early April, with the suspension of purchases of Russian coal, a blow of 4,000 million euros a year for Russian exports. And the EU already has a partial and progressive embargo on Russian oil exports on the table as part of the sixth package of sanctions against Moscow since the aggression against Ukraine began in February.

Crude oil sales make up the bulk of Russia’s income from EU energy exports, for which it earns some 99 billion euros a year. And several countries, including Germany, have resisted sanctioning oil for fear that Moscow would cut off gas supplies in retaliation. But the spiral seems inevitable and points to a breakdown of energy ties between the EU and Russia much sooner than anticipated. Brussels had proposed this year to reduce the club’s energy dependency on Moscow by two thirds and consider it completely finished in 2026. A calendar that seems set to be rushed after Gazprom’s decision to close the first taps and the foreseeable European response with a tightening of sanctions.

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