The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Russia cuts off gas to Poland, Bulgaria, stoking tensions with E.U.

Zelensky accuses Moscow of ‘energy blackmail’; U.S. says Ukraine has the right to attack Russia in addition to defending itself

A worker for Russia's state-controlled gas company, Gazprom, operates a well in Siberia in October 2021. (Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg News)
Placeholder while article actions load
correction

An earlier version of the map included with this story showed Turkey as a non-NATO country. The map has been updated.

BRUSSELS — Russia’s state-controlled gas company shut off the supply of natural gas to Poland and Bulgaria on Wednesday, and the Kremlin warned that other countries could face the same fate, escalating tensions between Russia and Europe over the war in Ukraine.

Although both Poland and Bulgaria secured enough natural gas from other European Union countries to keep the lights on for now, it is not clear how the bloc would manage additional cutoffs or avoid dramatic price increases, especially if Russia stopped sending gas to Germany and Italy.

The action by Russia’s Gazprom came on the same day the United States and Russia conducted a prisoner exchange, releasing a former Marine detained by Moscow and a Russian pilot convicted by a U.S. court on drug smuggling charges.

The gas cutoff was the first supply disruption since Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened that “unfriendly countries” would have to pay for natural gas in rubles — a requirement that appeared designed to stabilize the his economy against punishing Western sanctions and pressure E.U. countries into breaking ranks and violating their sanctions regime.

In a speech to Russia’s Council of Legislators, Putin warned other nations not to interfere in the conflict, which is expected to involve grueling combat in eastern Ukraine in coming weeks. On a day when volunteers raced across the Donbas region to evacuate men and women from their homes within earshot of heavy shelling, Putin said that if Russia perceived a threat of a “strategic” nature, the result will be “lightning fast” counterstrikes.

Putin did not explicitly threaten to use nuclear weapons. But U.S. and European officials have warned that the possibility cannot be dismissed, particularly if Putin felt his conventional military options were limited.

“We have all the tools for this,” Putin said. “Those that no one else right now can boast of having. And we will not brag about them. We will use them if necessary. I want everyone to know that.”

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said April 27 that Russia's decision to halt gas supplies to Poland and Bulgaria was an "instrument of blackmail." (Video: Reuters)

Agony, endurance and escape: Ukraine in pictures

In Washington, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told lawmakers that Ukraine had the prerogative to launch attacks on Russia in addition to defending its own territory. His remarks followed a series of explosions in southern Russia and a fire at an ammunition depot, events that a senior Ukrainian official described as “karma” for Russia’s invasion.

“My own view is that it’s vital that they do whatever is necessary to defend against Russian aggression. And the tactics of this are their decisions,” Blinken told a Senate panel. He said the goal of Western arms shipments to Ukraine was “making sure that Ukrainians have the means to defend themselves.”

Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak did not outright claim responsibility for the explosions. But he said if a country decides to “massively attack another country, massively kill everyone there, massively crush peaceful people with tanks, and use warehouses in your regions to enable the killings, then sooner or later the debts will have to be repaid.”

The halting of the flow of natural gas to Poland and Bulgaria sharpened the European debate over energy access and how best to pressure Russia over the invasion without triggering economic disaster in the West. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky characterized the move as “energy blackmail” — echoing language by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and German Economy Minister Robert Habeck — and said “no one in Europe can hope to maintain any normal economic cooperation with Russia.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed such accusations, saying Russia remained a reliable partner, even as he warned of more shut-offs.

Former Marine, Russian pilot freed in U.S.-Russia prisoner exchange

In a statement, Gazprom said it had stopped supplying natural gas to Poland’s PGNiG gas company and Bulgaria’s Bulgargaz because they had not complied with an order to pay in Russian currency. The suspension will last “until the payments are made” in rubles, Gazprom said.

The E.U. is trying to wean itself from Russian energy, with a coal embargo already in place. An oil embargo is still under debate, although Berlin signaled Tuesday that it might back such a move if Poland could help fill Germany’s oil supply gap. Dependence on gas has been an even thornier issue.

NATO members

Pipelines

Yamal-Europe

NOR.

FIN.

SWE.

Northern

Lights

North

Sea

Nord

Stream

EST.

LIT.

RUS.

Brotherhood

GER.

BEL.

POL.

KAZ.

UKR.

HUN.

CRO.

ROM.

CRIMEA

ITALY

BUL.

GEO.

GRE.

TUR.

IRAN

200 MILES

Sources: S&P Global Platts, Gascade Gastransport,

Trans Adriatic Pipeline

THE WASHINGTON POST

NATO members

Pipelines

NOR.

SWE.

FIN.

Yamal-Europe

North

Sea

Nord

Stream

Northern

Lights

EST.

Moscow

LIT.

Brotherhood

RUS.

GER.

BEL.

POL.

KAZ.

Kyiv

UKR.

HUN.

CRO.

ROM.

CRIMEA

ITALY

GEO.

BUL.

GRE.

200 MILES

TUR.

IRAN

Sources: S&P Global Platts, Gascade Gastransport, Trans Adriatic Pipeline

THE WASHINGTON POST

NATO members

Pipelines

NORWAY

Yamal-Europe

FINLAND

200 MILES

SWEDEN

North

Sea

Nord Stream

Northern

Lights

ESTONIA

Moscow

Brotherhood

LITHUANIA

RUSSIA

Berlin

Minsk

GERMANY

Warsaw

BELARUS

Frankfurt

POLAND

Kyiv

KAZAKHSTAN

UKRAINE

Separatist-

controlled

area in Ukraine

HUNGARY

CROATIA

ROMANIA

CRIMEA

Annexed by

Russia in 2014

ITALY

BULGARIA

GEORGIA

GREECE

Ankara

TURKEY

IRAN

Sources: S&P Global Platts, Gascade Gastransport, Trans Adriatic Pipeline

THE WASHINGTON POST

On Wednesday, European officials tried to reassure citizens that the immediate fallout had been contained. “There will be no shortage of gas in Polish homes,” Poland’s climate minister, Anna Moskwa, said on Twitter. Bulgaria’s government promised there would be no domestic restrictions on consumption.

Von der Leyen confirmed that Poland and Bulgaria were getting gas from other E.U. countries and said the bloc has made “contingency plans.”

If and how the cutoff would affect gas moving through Poland and Bulgaria to other E.U. countries was not immediately clear. Gazprom said that if PGNiG or Bulgargaz were to siphon off gas intended for third countries, the supplies for those countries “will be reduced.”

A similar shut-off can’t be ruled out for Germany, Habeck said, warning that he would expect such a move to trigger a recession in Europe’s largest economy. “I take this very seriously,” he said, adding that it shows Russia is following through on its threats.

“The situation has been tense for months,” Habeck said. “But payments will continue to be made in euros.”

Poland spent decades trying to quit Russian gas. Now it has no chance.

Germany has been trying to diversify its gas supplies but still relies on Russia for 35 percent of its imports. During a visit to Warsaw on Tuesday, Habeck said Berlin was days away from striking a deal with Poland that could enable it to find an alternative for the 12 percent of the country’s oil that still comes from Russia.

Jens Suedekum, a professor of international economics at the Düsseldorf Institute for Competition Economics and an adviser to the German government, said on Twitter that the timing of Moscow’s Polish cutoff points to possible retaliation for those plans.

Despite a U.S. embargo on oil, gas and coal, and the European coal embargo, Russia is still making about as much money from fossil fuel sales as it was making before the invasion, according to estimates by the Wednesday Group, a team of experts tracking Russian energy sales. That amounts to about $1 billion a day, and possibly $1.5 billion a day, in revenue.

Western officials have discussed whether to put all payments for Russian energy purchases into a closely monitored escrow account that could be accessed by Moscow only for specific purchases, such as food and medicine, according to two people familiar with the talks. Another idea would be to coordinate a reduction in the amount the Europeans pay for Russian oil, effectively gambling that if the Europeans insist on paying less, Russia would be forced to collect the lower revenue. The people spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss matters not yet made public.

Discussion of such measures had been on hold until the results of the French election. But President Emmanuel Macron’s victory on Sunday over right-wing challenger Marine Le Pen allowed the allies to push on. If any of the measures were implemented, the United States may also threaten “secondary sanctions” on third-party countries, like China or India, that try to undermine Europe’s coordinated attempts to reduce Russian oil revenue.

“An escrow for fossil fuel exports could be good if you really had a lockbox so that money could not be used to buy guns and ammunition,” said Simon Johnson, a researcher at MIT who is part of the Wednesday Group.

E.U. presents plan to cut Russian gas imports by two-thirds this year, stops short of boycott

Officials and experts have long worried that the E.U. is too dependent on Moscow and warned that the relationship could be weaponized. The two countries targeted Tuesday are especially vulnerable: Poland gets more than 45 percent of its natural gas from Russia, and Bulgaria gets more than 70 percent, according to E.U. data.

The E.U. last month pledged to wean itself off Russian fossil fuels by 2030, starting by cutting gas imports by two-thirds by the end of this year.

Some analysts said Gazprom’s move could expedite the severing of ties. Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, called it “yet another sign of Russia’s politicization of existing agreements.”

Russia’s latest moves will only speed up the E.U.’s goal to “phase out” Russian energy, Eduard Heger, prime minister of Slovakia, tweeted. Norbert Röttgen, a lawmaker from Germany’s center-right Christian Democratic Union, said an oil and gas embargo is now a matter of European “solidarity.”

In another example of Moscow being isolated, the International Ice Hockey Federation has announced that Russia will no longer host the 2023 international championship, stating it was concerned for “the safety and well-being of all participating players, officials, media, and fans.”

Russia’s Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, said it was banning entry to 287 British lawmakers for “whipping up unwarranted Russophobic hysteria” over the Ukraine invasion. The ministry said the latest development was in response to Britain’s imposing sanctions on 386 members of the Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, last month.

Ukrainian officials accused Russian forces of terrorizing the surviving population in the besieged port city of Mariupol. Ukraine’s human rights ombudsman, Lyudmyla Denisova, said on Telegram that Ukrainians who want to get into Mariupol cannot do so without a special certificate, while citizens of Russia and the Donetsk Peoples Republic — a self-proclaimed independent area in eastern Ukraine — are allowed entry.

Russians have also established a separate paper permit to stay on the street, Denisova said. She accused Russians of stealing all valuable artworks from two museums.

Morris reported from Berlin; Stein, Thebault and Harris from Washington; and Pietsch from Seoul. Louisa Loveluck in Pokrovsk, Ukraine; Paul Sonne, Julian Mark, Paulina Villegas and John Hudson in Washington; Frederik Seeler in Berlin; Quentin Ariès in Brussels; Karla Adam and Annabelle Chapman in London; and Irynka Hromotska in Columbia, Mo., contributed to this report.

Loading...