A day after the United States and other Western allies pledged to increase and improve military supplies to Ukraine, the Kremlin upped the ante, using its most important export as leverage. European gas prices jumped on news that European leaders condemned as “blackmail”.
In a memo, state-controlled Russian giant Gazprom said it was cutting off Poland and Bulgaria from its natural gas because they refused to pay in Russian rubles, as demanded by President Vladimir Putin. The company said it had not received such payments since the beginning of the month.
Gas shutdowns do not immediately create major problems for countries as they have been working to find alternative sources for several years now and the continent is approaching summer, making gas less essential for households.
However, it caused tremors in the European Union of 27 countries, which immediately convened an ad hoc coordination group to limit the impact of the move.
On the ground, the geopolitical struggle has also intensified, with the Russian military saying on Wednesday that their missiles hit a shipment of weapons that the United States and European countries have supplied to Ukraine.
A day earlier, explosions rocked the separatist Transnistrian region in neighboring Moldova, knocking out two powerful radio antennas and raising fears that the war could spread beyond Ukraine’s borders. No one claimed responsibility for the attack – the second in days – but Ukraine almost blamed Russia.
According to Ukrainian authorities, a Russian missile hit a strategic railroad bridge connecting the port area of Odessa with neighboring Romania, a NATO member.
An ammunition depot caught fire across the border in the Belgorod region early Wednesday morning after several explosions, Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said on the messaging app Telegram.
Gazprom’s decision to cut gas supplies to two European countries was another grim turn in the war, resurrecting the geopolitical divisions of the Cold War, and had immediate consequences. European gas prices jumped 25%, with underlying Dutch futures jumping from 100 euros per MWh to 125 euros.
Fatih Birol, chief executive of the Paris-based International Energy Agency, called the move “weaponizing energy supplies” in a tweet.
“Gazprom’s action to completely cut off gas supplies to Poland is yet another sign of Russia’s politicization of existing agreements and will only accelerate Europe’s efforts to cut off energy supplies from Russia,” he wrote.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called the move “another attempt by Russia to use gas as a tool of blackmail.”
Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov also called the suspension of gas supplies blackmail and called it a “gross violation of their contract”.
“We will not fall for such a racket,” he added.
The shutdown marked a “historic turning point in bilateral energy relations” between Russia and Europe, said Simone Tagliapietra, a senior fellow at the Bruegel think tank in Brussels.
On Tuesday, the US Defense Secretary urged Ukraine’s allies to “move at the speed of war” to deliver more and heavier weapons to Kyiv as Russian forces shell Ukraine’s east and south.
Poland, Russia’s historical rival, has been a major arms gateway to Ukraine and confirmed this week that it is sending tanks into the country. He said he was well prepared for the gas shutdown on Wednesday.
According to Rystad Energy analyst Emily McClain, Poland also has enough natural gas in storage and will soon benefit from the commissioning of two pipelines.
Bulgaria gets more than 90% of its gas from Russia, and officials have said they are working to find other sources, such as Azerbaijan.
Both countries refused Russia’s demand to pay in rubles, as did almost all consumers of Russian gas in Europe.
After two months of fighting, Western weapons helped Ukraine stop a Russian invasion, but the country’s leaders said they urgently needed more support.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin called a meeting of officials from about 40 countries Tuesday at the US Air Force Base in Ramstein, Germany, and said more aid is on the way.
“We have to move at the speed of war,” Austin said.
After unexpectedly fierce resistance from Ukrainian forces thwarted a Russian attempt to seize the Ukrainian capital, Moscow now says its focus is on capturing the Donbass, a predominantly Russian-speaking industrial region in eastern Ukraine.
Authorities said that in the gutted southern port city of Mariupol, Russian troops carried out 35 airstrikes on the Azovstal steel plant within 24 hours. The plant is the last known stronghold of Ukrainian militants in the city. About 1,000 civilians and about 2,000 Ukrainian defenders are reported to have taken refuge there.
Petr Andryushchenko, an adviser to the mayor of Mariupol, said Russia is using heavy bunker bombs. He also accused Russian forces of shelling a route they had proposed as an escape corridor from the steel mill.
Ukraine also said Russian forces shelled Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, which lies outside Donbass but is seen as a key to Russia’s apparent attempts to encircle Ukrainian forces in the region.
Ukrainian forces struck back in the Kherson region in the south.
Tuesday’s attack on a bridge near Odessa – along with a series of strikes on key rail stations a day earlier – appears to signal a major change in Russia’s approach. So far, Moscow has spared strategic bridges, perhaps in the hope of keeping them for its own use in seizing Ukraine. But now he appears to be trying to prevent Ukraine from moving troops and supplies.
The southern coast of Ukraine and Moldova have been in tension since a senior Russian military official said last week that the Kremlin’s goal is to secure not only eastern Ukraine, but the entire south, to open the way to Transnistria, a long and narrow strip of lands with a population of about 470,000 along the border with Ukraine, where about 1,500 Russian troops are based.
It is not clear who is behind the Transnistria bombings, but the attacks have raised fears that Russia is fueling unrest to create an excuse to either invade Transnistria or use the region as another launching point for an attack on Ukraine. .
Gambrell reported from Lvov, Ukraine. Associated Press journalist Yuri Karmanov in Lvov, David Caton in Kyiv, Alexander Stashevsky in Chernobyl, Mstislav Chernov in Kharkiv, and AP staff around the world contributed to this report.
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