WARSAW/SOFIA/ KYIV: Russia halted gas supplies to Bulgaria and Poland on Wednesday for rejecting its demand for payment in roubles, taking direct aim at European economies in a move that also exposed divisions in the EU on how to respond to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
The decision, denounced by European leaders as “blackmail”, comes as Russia’s own economy wilts under sweeping international sanctions and as Western countries ramp up arms shipments to help Ukraine fend off a new Russian assault in the east. Ukraine reported on Wednesday that Russian troops had made gains in several villages there.
Russia reported a number of blasts on its side of the border, and a blaze at an arms depot. Kyiv called the explosions “karma”. Ukraine’s prosecutor-general said Russian forces had used tear gas and stun grenades to disperse a pro-Ukraine rally in the southern city of Kherson, the first big urban centre seized by Moscow after the Feb. 24 invasion. Despite the collapse in ties between Russia and the West, Moscow and Washington carried out a prisoner swap.
The United States freed Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, jailed on drug trafficking charges. Russia released former US marine Trevor Reed, accused of fighting with police.
Gazprom, Russia’s gas export monopoly, said it had “completely suspended gas supplies” to the Polish and Bulgarian gas companies “due to absence of payments in roubles”, as stipulated in a decree from President Vladimir Putin that aims to soften the impact of sanctions on the Russian economy. Polish President Andrzej Duda said the move violated “basic legal principles”.
Bulgarian Energy Minister Alexander Nikolov said gas was being used as a “political and economic weapon”. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Russia remained a reliable energy supplier and denied it was engaging in blackmail. He declined to say how many countries had agreed to switch to paying for gas in roubles but other European customers said gas supplies were flowing normally.