Russia has warned it could cut off gas supplies to other nations after turning the taps off for Nato members Poland and Bulgaria.
In a sign of even further tensions between the Kremlin and the west over Ukraine, Russia threatened to target nations if they did not comply with President Putin’s demands to pay for fuel in roubles.
The threat came after an announcement earlier on Wednesday that gas bound for Poland and Bulgaria would be halted. That move led to leaders across Europe accusing Moscow of “blackmail” over gas provision.
But refusing to back down, the Kremlin said other countries could suffer the same fate. Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov denied Russia was engaging in blackmail and said it was a reliable energy supplier. But, he added: “When the payment deadlines approach, if some consumers decline to pay under the new system, then the president’s decree of course will be applied.”
Vladimir Putin had previously said “unfriendly” countries must pay for gas in roubles.
Poland and Bulgaria are the first to have their gas cut off by Europe’s main supplier since Moscow launched its invasion of Ukraine in mid-February.
In a further move against the west, Russia’s foreign ministry also announced it imposed sanctions on 287 members of the House of Commons in retaliation for UK measures over the Ukraine invasion.
‘Unacceptable and unjustified’
Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission called the move to cut gas supplies to Poland and Bulgaria, also two European Union members states, “unacceptable and unjustified.”
“The announcement by Gazprom that it is unilaterally stopping delivery of gas to customers in Europe is yet another attempt by Russia to use gas as an instrument of blackmail,” Ms von der Leyen said.
“We are prepared for this scenario. We are in close contact with all member states. We have been working to ensure alternative deliveries and the best possible storage levels across the EU.”
On Wednesday, speaking to the Polish parliament, prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki said he believed the move was for the announcement of sanctions which targeted 50 Russian oligarchs and companies, including Gazprom, earlier this week.
Mr Morawiecki said Poland had received notice that Gazprom was cutting off supplies with hours of the state-owned energy giant’s announcement. However, the prime minister said Poland could still provide for its people because it had secured gas from other countries.
Bulgarian prime minister Kiril Petkov called Gazprom’s suspension of gas deliveries to his country “a gross violation of their contract” and “blackmail”.
“We will not succumb to such a racket,” he added.
‘Get out of Russian possible as soon as possible’
German gas lobby group Zukunft Gas (Future Gas) said Berlin must immediately start stockpiling more gas now that Russia is using the energy source as a political tool.
“We need to save gas now so that we have enough in winter,” said the group’s head Timm Kehler in a statement.
However, four European buyers have already paid for gas supplies in roubles meeting president Putin’s demand, Bloomberg News reported, citing a source close to Gazprom while another 10 European company shave already opened accounts at Gazprombank to pay in the Russian currency.
Tom Marzec-Manser, head of gas analytics at the Independent Chemical and Energy Market Intelligence, said the move from Russia sent a “seismic warning shot” to the west.
“It shows the request for paying into a Gazprom bank account is a serious one,” Mr Marzec-Manser told The Independent.
“It’s a warning shot and many major buyers that want to get their gas will have to open a Gazprom account.”
Ukraine’s former foreign minister Pavlo Klimkin warned nations that Russia is no longer a reliable gas supplier. “It’s a full-blown economic war, Russia is not a reliable supplier anymore, this perception is over forever,” Mr Klimkin told the BBC.
“The lesson to be drawn is very simple, get out of Russian gas as soon as possible, it’s a threat to your security.”
Europe imports large amounts of Russian natural gas, but the war in Ukraine has caused many countries to pledge to find other sources to satisfy their domestic needs.
Polish gas company PGNiG has repeatedly said it would not comply with the new scheme of payments and that Russia’s demand to be paid in roubles represented a breach of contract.
Poland’s gas supply contract with Gazprom covers about 50 per cent of national consumption.
Bulgaria, which meets 90 per cent of its gas needs with Gazprom’s imports, said it has taken steps to find alternative supplies and no restrictions on consumption was required for now.
A spokesman for the Bulgarian government said: “The Russian proposal for a two-step payment procedure is in violation with the current contract and bears considerable risks for Bulgaria, including to make payments without receiving any gas deliveries from Russia.”
In other developments, Russia has accused Nato of fighting a proxy war in Ukraine and said the danger of a third world war was “serious and real”.
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Additional reporting by agencies