Russia escalates conflict by shutting off gas supplies to two EU countries

POKROVSK, Ukraine (AP) — Russia on Wednesday opened a new front in the war over Ukraine by deciding to cut off gas supplies to two European Union countries that strongly support Kyiv, in a sharp escalation of a conflict that has become increasingly wider battle with the West.

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 the President of the Commission of the European Union called an attempt to “blackmail”.

The escalation came in a memo from the state-controlled Russian giant Gazprom, which said it had cut off natural gas supplies to Poland and Bulgaria because they refused to pay in Russian rubles, as demanded by President Vladimir Putin. The company said it had not received any payments since the beginning of the month.

On the ground, there were also fears that the war could go beyond the borders of Ukraine. For the second day in a row, explosions rocked the separatist Transnistrian region in neighboring Moldova on Tuesday, knocking out two powerful radio antennas. No one claimed responsibility for the attacks, 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.

A Belarusian worker is on duty at a gas compressor station on the Yamal-Europe gas pipeline near Nesvizh, about 130 km southwest of the capital Minsk, Belarus, Dec. 29, 2006. Officials in Poland and Bulgaria say Russia is suspending their natural gas supplies to countries with environment.

AP Photo/Sergey Grits, file

Gazprom’s decision to cut gas supplies to two European countries was another grim turn in the war, resurrecting Cold War geopolitical divisions with immediate consequences. European gas prices jumped by as much as 24%.

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 hasten 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.” This is unjustified and unacceptable.”

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 eastern and southern Ukraine.

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.

Poland also has ample natural gas reserves and will soon benefit from the commissioning of two pipelines, according to Rystad Energy analyst Emily McClain.

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.

In the gutted southern port city of Mariupol, Russian forces launched 35 airstrikes on the Azovstal steel plant in 24 hours, authorities said. 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 attacks 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 hoping to keep them for its own use in seizing Ukraine. But now he seems 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, in order 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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