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Russia’s Gazprom sends force majeure letter to European clients

A Gazprom gas pipeline marker in Russia's far east on Oct. 12. (Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg News)

Russia’s state-run gas giant Gazprom has warned some European clients that it can no longer guarantee supply to the continent, the latest salvo in an economic dispute between Moscow and Europe over the war in Ukraine.

The notice, first reported by Reuters and confirmed by two German energy companies Tuesday, was dated Thursday and retroactively declared force majeure on gas supplies back to June 14.

Gazprom told European customers that it was no longer responsible for any gas shortfalls because of “extraordinary circumstances,” Reuters reported, citing a copy of the letter. The legal move comes amid a mounting energy crisis in Europe, where many countries rely on Russian gas, even as they seek to squeeze Moscow economically.

Force majeure is a standard contract provision that releases parties from responsibility for fulfilling their commitments in the case of extreme events — such as war, storms or fires — out of the company’s control. By invoking it, Gazprom is asserting it should not be held responsible for reneging on promised gas shipments to Europe in the context of the war.

Gas delivery via the Nord Stream pipeline has been paused for a week as the pipeline undergoes scheduled maintenance — but even before that, the flow of gas from Russia to Europe had slowed dramatically. Gazprom slashed gas deliveries through Nord Stream 1 to 40 percent of its capacity on June 14, the date the company later indicated as the start of the force majeure.

Uniper, Germany’s largest importer of Russian gas, confirmed to The Washington Post that it had received a notice from Gazprom “in which the company claims force majeure retroactively for past and current shortfalls in gas deliveries,” a Uniper spokesman wrote in an email. “We consider this as unjustified and have formally rejected the force majeure claim.”

RWE, Germany’s largest power producer, also received a force majeure letter from Gazprom, spokeswoman Stephanie Schunck confirmed to The Post. She declined to comment further.

Gazprom could not be immediately reached for comment.

The legal maneuver has raised concerns about the future of Russian gas supply to Europe at a time when tensions over energy security are already high. The reduction in gas delivery has hit Uniper hard, causing the company to lose tens of millions of euros daily since Moscow cut capacity in June, the New York Times reported. The company, which used up a 2 billion-euro credit line from the German state-owned investment bank on Monday, is seeking additional credit and an urgent bailout from the German government.

Gazprom has blamed Western sanctions over Russia’s war in Ukraine for the decreased supply, pointing to a missing turbine that was sent to Canada for repairs and could not be sent back to Russia because of economic sanctions. Germany challenged the notion that the absent turbine produced the dramatic cut. The Russian newspaper Kommersant reported that Canada sent the turbine by plane on Sunday to Germany, which will then send it on to Russia in the next week.

Fears in Europe have mounted in recent days that Russia may not restart gas deliveries via Nord Stream 1 after the planned maintenance is scheduled to end on Thursday. Gazprom has not committed to doing so.

“Russia continues to use natural gas as a political and economic weapon,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said at a news briefing Tuesday. “Russia’s energy corrosion has put pressure on energy markets, raised prices for consumers, and threatened global energy security.”

But it remains unclear whether the worries are justified. The declaration of force majeure is of “little significance” beyond legal wrangling, said Jens Suedekum, an economics professor at the Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf and adviser to Germany’s climate and energy ministry. Ultimately, no one knows yet what decision Russian President Vladimir Putin will take on whether to turn back on gas supplies, he said.

“We will only know how to interpret whatever Gazprom says when we know what will happen at the end of the week,” said Philipp Heilmaier, head of the future energy supply division at the German Energy Agency.

Loveday Morris contributed to this report.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees Friday to annex four occupied regions of Ukraine, following staged referendums that were widely denounced as illegal. Follow our live updates here.

The response: The Biden administration on Friday announced a new round of sanctions on Russia, in response to the annexations, targeting government officials and family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials and defense procurement networks. President Volodymyr Zelensky also said Friday that Ukraine is applying for “accelerated ascension” into NATO, in an apparent answer to the annexations.

In Russia: Putin declared a military mobilization on Sept. 21 to call up as many as 300,000 reservists in a dramatic bid to reverse setbacks in his war on Ukraine. The announcement led to an exodus of more than 180,000 people, mostly men who were subject to service, and renewed protests and other acts of defiance against the war.

The fight: Ukraine mounted a successful counteroffensive that forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in early September, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

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