A file photo showing Bulgargas’ Chiren gas station in Chiren. Bulgaria. AP
European leaders blasted Russia's decision to cut natural gas shipments to Poland and Bulgaria as "blackmail,” saying the cutoff and the Kremlin's warning that it might cease shipments to other countries is a failed attempt to divide the West over its support for Ukraine.
The European Union has warned Russia it will not bend to "blackmail" over its support for Kyiv after the Kremlin cut off gas supplies to Bulgaria and Poland.
The warning on Wednesday came ahead of UN chief Antonio Guterres arriving in Kyiv to meet Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky following talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki called Russia's move a "direct attack" on his country and assured that Poland would no longer need Russian gas from this autumn.
Bulgaria is almost completely dependent on Russia for gas.
Russia's move on Wednesday to use its most essential export as leverage marked a dramatic escalation in the economic war of sanctions and counter sanctions that has unfolded in parallel to the fighting on the battlefield.
UN chief Antonio Guterres attends a meeting. File/Reuters
The tactic against the two EU and NATO members 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.
Putin issued his own warning the same day, saying that if Western forces intervene in Ukraine, they will face a "lightning-fast" military response.
"We have all the tools for this, that no one else can boast of having," the Russian leader told lawmakers, implicitly referring to Moscow's ballistic missiles and nuclear arsenal.
"We won't boast about it: we'll use them, if needed. And I want everyone to know that," he said. "We have already taken all the decisions on this."
Poland has been a major gateway for the delivery of weapons to Ukraine and confirmed this week that it is sending the country tanks. Just hours before Russia's state energy giant Gazprom acted, Poland announced a new set of sanctions against the company and other Russian businesses and oligarchs.
A Gazprom logo is seen during the International Gas Forum in Saint Petersburg. File/AFP
Bulgaria, under a new liberal government that took office last fall, has cut many of its old ties to Moscow and likewise supported punitive measures against the Kremlin. 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 any dire trouble. Poland, especially, has been working for many years to line up other suppliers, and the continent is heading into summer, making gas less essential for households.
Also, Russian gas deliveries to both Poland and Bulgaria were expected to end later this year anyway.
The lettering on a sign reads 'Uwaga gaz' at the gas transmission point in Rembelszczyzna near Warsaw. AFP
Still, the cutoff and the Kremlin warning that other countries could be next sent shivers of worry through the 27-nation European Union. Germany, the largest economy on the continent, and Italy are among Europe’s biggest consumers of Russian natural gas, though they, too, have been taking steps to reduce their dependence on Moscow.
"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.”
Gazprom said it shut off the two countries because they refused to pay in rubles, as President Vladimir Putin has demanded of "unfriendly" nations. The Kremlin said other countries may be cut off if they don't agree to the payment arrangement.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen makes a statement in Brussels on Wednesday. AFP
Most European countries have publicly balked at Russia’s demand for rubles, but it is not clear how many have actually faced the moment of decision so far. Greece’s next scheduled payment to Gazprom is due on May 25, for example, and the government must decide then whether to comply.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told his country's parliament that he believes Poland’s support for Ukraine — and the new sanctions imposed by Warsaw on Tuesday — were the real reasons behind the gas cutoff.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki gives a press statement on the gas halt from Russia on Wednesday. AFP
Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov called the suspension blackmail, adding: "We will not succumb to such a racket.”
The European Commission will on Tuesday propose to member states a new package of sanctions to punish President Vladimir Putin's Kremlin for its invasion of Ukraine, including an embargo on Russian oil, officials said.
Seeking to force a military withdrawal from Ukraine by Russian President Vladimir Putin, the EU — along with Western allies — has already imposed a panoply of punishing sanctions including a freezing of the assets of the Russian central bank.
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