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Russia halts gas exports to Poland and Bulgaria, hitting back at Europe over sanctions

The logo of Russia's energy giant Gazprom is pictured at a gas station in Moscow.
The logo of Russia's energy giant Gazprom is pictured at a gas station in Moscow.

LVIV, Ukraine — Russian energy giant Gazprom says it has stopped fuel exports to Poland and Bulgaria, marking a rise in tensions with the European Union over Russia's war against Ukraine.

In a statement, Gazprom attributed the stoppage to the Polish and Bulgarian gas companies' refusal to pay in rubles, the Russian currency. The gas is delivered via the Yamal pipeline, which runs from Siberia to Europe.

President Vladimir Putin ordered nations deemed "unfriendly" by Moscow should settle their gas bills in rubleslast month — a response to Western sanctions against Russia over its military actions in Ukraine.

The move was widely seen as an effort to prop up the currency and strike back at Europe amid an onslaught of Western penalties levied against Russia's banking sector.

Writing on his Telegram channel, Andriy Yermak, chief of staff to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, likened the stoppage to blackmail and said Russia "always" disregarded rules. He urged the EU to stay united in support of Ukraine and deprive Russia of its "energy weapons." The European Union buys a significant portion of its fuel from Russia.

The Kremlin defended the switch as "necessary" given what it called "unprecedented unfriendly steps" — including a decision to freeze the Russian central bank's foreign currency reserves.

"They blocked our accounts, or — to put in Russian — they 'stole' a significant portion of our reserves," said spokesmen Dmitry Peskov in a call with journalists.

Peskov compared the currency switch to merely opening a new bank account in rubles.

"Russia was and remains a trusted source for gas deliveries and remains committed to all its contractual obligations," added Peskov.

Polish gas company PGNiG says the stoppage has not affected energy delivery to its customers.

"We are prepared," said Poland's climate and environment minister Anna Moskwa in a press conference on Tuesday. "We have introduced energy diversification strategies that allow us to feel safe." Poland imports energy from elsewhere and also has plenty of fuel in storage, she says.

The other country targeted — Bulgaria — imports more than 90% of its gas from Russia. Julian Popov, a former environment minister in Bulgaria, says his country has reserves as well as the capability to import gas from neighboring countries, including Turkey and Greece.

Europe can expect more of the same from Russia

Popov sees Russia's fuel cutoff as a "warning" to Bulgaria over its delivery of ammunition to Ukraine.

"The headline for me in this whole thing is that we're transferring this concept, the fog of war, into energy markets," he says. With Gazprom, "everything in the past was about predictability, and now everything is becoming unpredictable."

Europe should learn to live in this kind of world, Popov says.

He adds that Russia may be retaliating against Poland because its government has been so outspoken about Russia's war against Ukraine. Poland is one of the loudest critics of EU dependence on Russian fuel imports. The Polish government announced earlier this month that it would phase out all Russian fuel imports by the end of the year, and has been urging other member-states to do the same. The EU planned a more gradual phase-out — by 2030 — but planned to drastically reduce its purchase of Russian gas by the end of the year.

Russia's earning a reputation as an unreliable gas supplier

Aleksandra Gawlikowska-Fyk, director of the Power Sector Program at Forum Energii, a Warsaw-based think tank, says Poland is shielded for now, since warm weather requires less energy. But, she adds, the stoppage could affect energy prices.

"This was probably taken into account by the EU," she says. "It underlines what kind of unreliable supplier Russia and Gazprom are."

Agata Łoskot-Strachota, a senior fellow in energy policy at the Centre for Eastern Studies in Warsaw, says some EU countries, like Germany and Hungary, are highly dependent on Russian fuel imports and are more cautious about denouncing Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

By shutting off the gas tap, she says, "what Russia can achieve is to divide Europe. We must do everything possible to make sure that doesn't come true."

The EU planned a more gradual phase-out of Russian fuel imports by 2030 but also intended to drastically reduce its purchase of Russian gas by the end of the year. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted on Wednesday that the EU response to Gazprom's "blackmail ... will be immediate, united and coordinated."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joanna Kakissis
Joanna Kakissis is an international correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she leads NPR's bureau and coverage of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.