Has Russia scored an own goal by denying gas to Poland and Bulgaria?

It is forcing EU countries to look for alternatives and further antagonising them

Gazprom's logo is pictured at one of its petrol stations in Sofia, Bulgaria, on Wednesday. AFP
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Russia’s decision to cut gas exports to Poland and Bulgaria represents a significant escalation in Moscow’s confrontation with the West over Ukraine, one that could have far-reaching consequences for how European leaders respond to the conflict in the months to come.

Moscow’s official explanation for cutting supplies is that the two countries refused to comply with Russia’s demand that future payments be made in roubles. While that is to an extent true, the Kremlin's real motivation behind the decision appears to be to punish Warsaw and Sofia for the support they are providing to Ukraine.

Poland, in particular, has become a linchpin for western efforts to provide Kyiv with military and humanitarian support, as well as being a major transit point for the millions of refugees seeking to flee the conflict. Bulgaria has also taken a strong stand, offering to send some of its Soviet-era MiG-29 warplanes to support Ukraine’s war effort.

The prospects of a diplomatic resolution to the conflict have become more distant by the day

It can be no coincidence, then, that Moscow’s decision to cut gas supplies took place in the same week that the two countries expanded sanctions against Russia, with Poland including the state-owned energy company Gazprom on a new list of economic sanctions against 50 businesses and oligarchs.

Russia’s action, which resulted in a slight rise in global gas prices, has prompted widespread international condemnation.

In his nightly address this week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy accused Russia of launching a “new round” of “blackmail” against Europe, claiming that Moscow considered energy exports and trade to be “weapons” with which to pursue its military and political aims. “The sooner everyone in Europe acknowledges that its trade can’t depend on Russia, the sooner it will be possible to guarantee the stability of European markets,” he said.

Mr Zelenskyy’s sentiments were echoed by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who described Russia's action as "an instrument of blackmail" and called it "unjustified and unacceptable". She added: "It shows once again the unreliability of Russia as a gas supplier."

Moscow’s action will certainly have concentrated the minds of European leaders, many of whom have historically relied heavily on Russia for their energy needs. Even after invading Ukraine, Moscow has continued to supply a large amount of gas to many countries, with Germany and Italy among the EU member states most dependent on it. Russia currently accounts for an estimated 41 per cent of the EU’s natural gas imports, with Germany being its largest customer, as it receives 42.6 billion cubic metres of gas each year. Italy receives 29.2bn cubic metres.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen during a presser in Brussels as she responds to questions about Gazprom's decision to halt gas shipments to Poland and Bulgaria. EPA

The threat of disruption to Europe’s energy supplies has been growing since the start of the conflict in February, when western powers imposed a range of economic sanctions against Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin responded by announcing that “unfriendly” countries would in future have to pay for gas in roubles.

Mrs Von der Leyen has warned European energy providers against complying with Russian demands, saying that this would most likely be a breach of EU sanctions. Yet, Russia's latest move represents a serious intensification in tensions, one that will require European leaders to consider their options on a number of fronts.

First and foremost, their priority will be to ensure that Russia’s willingness to play politics with its energy policy does not result in Europe facing an energy crisis. To this extent, a number of measures have already been put in place. Poland, for example, has acted to refill its gas stocks in anticipation of the Russian move, with Warsaw reporting that its stocks currently stand at around 80 per cent.

In addition, Poland, which had already announced its intention to stop importing Russian oil, gas and coal by the end of the year, is in the process of securing gas from Norway via the new Baltic Pipe Project, which is expected to be operational by the end of the year. With the prospect of other countries being affected as well, the EU will be urgently exploring ways to make up for the possible shortfall.

Moscow’s action is also likely to see a hardening of the position of many European leaders with regard to the conflict.

A more assertive tone was reflected in a speech made by British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss this week, when she insisted a Ukrainian victory in the conflict was a “strategic imperative”. She even called on Nato allies to “ramp up” military spending towards this end.

The deterioration in Moscow-Nato relations can also be seen in German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s recent U-turn over a call to provide Ukrainian forces with tanks. Mr Scholz had been criticised for his reluctance to supply Kyiv with heavy weapons over concerns it would antagonise the Kremlin. His decision to sell 50 German anti-aircraft tanks is, therefore, a major shift in Berlin’s position, one that indicates that the Chancellor is unafraid to confront Mr Putin.

With countries such as Germany adopting an increasingly hardline position, the prospects of a diplomatic resolution to the conflict have become more distant by the day.

Published: April 28, 2022, 2:00 PM