BRUSSELS: EU countries scrambled Thursday to make sense of Russia’s decision to cut gas flows to Poland and Bulgaria, eager to maintain supply while steering clear of violating sanctions against Moscow.
On Tuesday, Russia’s Gazprom announced the halt of gas to both countries after not receiving payment in rubles from the two EU members.
The energy giant said the countries had violated an order by Russian President Vladimir Putin that payments for gas be made only in Russia’s currency and not dollars or euros.
The demand for rubles is largely interpreted as a ploy by the Kremlin to weaponise its gas supply and create legal loopholes in sanctions decided by the EU against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.
To meet its demand, Russia ordered that energy companies from “unfriendly countries” change their gas payments into rubles at Gazprombank, a request that some in the EU, including Germany, said did not break sanction rules.
“The payments will be made in euros and then transferred by Gazprombank into a so-called K account,” said German Economy Minister Robert Habeck, whose country is hugely dependent on Russian gas.
“That’s the path that we’re taking, that’s the path that Europe has shown us, that is the path that’s compatible with sanctions,” he added.
But others, including the European Commission, which drafts sanctions for the EU, warned that the transfer could constitute a violation, putting gas importers in legal danger. “If the contract stipulates that payments should be made in euros or in dollars, then the company’s obligation ends once it has made that payment in euros or dollars,” EU spokesman Eric Mamer said.
“If the payment takes place in rubles, then we are no longer talking about the agreed contract and we’re talking about a circumvention of the sanctions,” he said.
Bulgaria said its state energy firm had refused to meet Gazprom’s new payment terms, calling them “politically influenced”.
“If you look at it from a corporate perspective, there’s not a sensible person that would sign this,” Bulgarian Energy Minister Alexander Nikolov told reporters in Brussels.
To clear up the confusion, European energy ministers are holding an emergency meeting on Monday and will ask the commission, the EU’s executive, to give clearer legal advice on how to deal with Russia’s gas demands.
Member countries have expressed “some frustration on the commission’s guidance that has been interpreted in different ways by member states”, an EU diplomat said, on condition of anonymity.
Last year, Russia supplied 32 percent of the total gas demand of the European Union and Britain, up from 25 percent in 2009, according to the International Energy Agency.