Pokrovsk, Ukraine (AFP) – Russia opened a new front in its war in Ukraine on Wednesday, isolating two European Union states that back Kyiv firmly with gas, a dramatic escalation in an increasingly conflicting conflict. A broader battle with the West.
A day after the United States and other Western allies vowed to speed up more and better military supplies to Ukraine, the Kremlin upped the ante, using its most important exports as leverage. European gas prices jumped on the news, which European leaders denounced as “blackmail”.
Russia’s state-owned giant Gazprom said in a note it would cut off Poland and Bulgaria from natural gas because they refused to pay in Russian rubles as demanded by President Vladimir Putin. The company said it had not received any such payments since the beginning of the month.
Cutting off the gas does not immediately put countries in a bind as they have been sourcing alternative sources for several years now and the continent is heading into summer, making gas unnecessary for households.
However, it caused concern from the 27 European Union countries, which immediately formed a special coordination group to limit the impact of the move.
On the ground, too, geopolitical fighting has intensified, with the Russian military claiming on Wednesday that its missiles had hit an array of weapons delivered to Ukraine by the United States and European countries.
The day before, explosions rocked the breakaway region of Trans-Dniester in neighboring Moldova, destroying two powerful radio antennas and raising fears that war could extend across Ukraine’s borders. No one has claimed responsibility for the attacks – the second in as many days – but Ukraine has blamed Russia.
Ukrainian authorities said that a Russian missile had hit a strategic railway bridge linking the Ukrainian region of Odessa with neighboring Romania.
Across the border in Russia, Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said on the messaging app Telegram that an ammunition depot in the Belgorod region burned early Wednesday morning after several explosions were heard.
Gazprom’s decision to cut off gas to two European countries was another dark turn in the war, which revived the geopolitical divisions of the Cold War, and had an immediate effect. European gas prices are up 25%, with Dutch benchmark futures jumping from around €100 per megawatt-hour to around €125.
Fatih Birol, executive director of the Paris-based International Energy Agency, called the move “weaponizing energy supplies” in a tweet on Twitter.
“Gazprom’s move to completely shut down gas supplies to Poland is another sign of Russia’s politicization of existing agreements and will only accelerate European efforts to move away from Russian energy supplies,” he wrote.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen described the move as “another attempt by Russia to use gas as a tool for blackmail.”
Bulgarian Prime Minister Kirill Petkov also called for the suspension of gas deliveries to blackmail and said it was a “blatant violation of their contract”.
“We will not give in to such a racket,” he added.
Simon Tagliabitra, senior fellow at Bruegel Research Center in Brussels, said the stoppage marked a “historic turning point in the bilateral energy relationship” between Russia and Europe.
On Tuesday, the US defense secretary urged Ukraine’s allies to “move at war speed” to get more and heavier weapons to Kyiv as Russian forces fire into eastern and southern Ukraine.
Poland, Russia’s historical rival, has been a major gateway for arms deliveries to Ukraine and this week confirmed it would send the country’s tanks. She said she is well prepared for the gas cuts on Wednesday.
Analyst Emily MacLean of Rystad Energy said Poland also has ample reserves of natural gas, and will soon benefit from two pipelines that will be operational.
Bulgaria gets more than 90% of its gas from Russia, and officials said they are working to find other sources, such as Azerbaijan.
Both countries rejected Russia’s demands to pay in rubles, as did most of Russia’s gas customers in Europe.
After two months of fighting, Western weapons helped Ukraine stop the Russian invasion, but the country’s leaders said they needed more support quickly.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin held a meeting on Tuesday of officials from about 40 countries at the US air base in Ramstein, Germany, and said more help is on the way.
“We must move at war speed,” Austin said.
After unexpectedly fierce resistance by Ukrainian forces thwarted Russia’s attempt to seize the Ukrainian capital, Moscow now says its focus is on capturing Donbas, the Russian-speaking industrial region in eastern Ukraine.
In the devastated southern port city of Mariupol, authorities said Russian forces bombed the Azovstal steel plant with 35 air strikes over a 24-hour period. The factory is the last known stronghold of Ukrainian fighters in the city. About 1,000 civilians were said to have taken refuge there, along with an estimated 2,000 Ukrainian gunners.
Petro Andryushenko, an advisor to the mayor of Mariupol, said Russia was using heavy bombs for fortifications. He also accused Russian forces of bombing an escape route from the steel mill.
Ukraine also said Russian forces had bombed Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, which lies outside Donbass but is key to Russia’s apparent attempt to encircle Ukrainian forces in that region.
Ukrainian forces responded to the Kherson region in the south.
Tuesday’s attack on the bridge near Odessa – along with a series of strikes on major railway stations the day before – seemed to indicate a major shift in Russia’s approach. So far, Moscow has avoided strategic bridges, perhaps hoping to keep them for its own use in taking over Ukraine. But it now appears to be trying to thwart Ukraine’s efforts to move troops and supplies.
The southern coast of Ukraine and Moldova have been in a state of tension since a high-ranking Russian military officer said last week that the Kremlin’s goal is not only to secure eastern Ukraine but the entire south, so as to open the way to the Trans-Dniester, a long and narrow region. A strip of land of about 470,000 people along the Ukrainian border where about 1,500 Russian soldiers are stationed.
It was not clear who was behind the bombings in the Trans-Dniester, but the attacks raised fears that Russia was making trouble in order to create a pretext to either invade the Trans-Dniester or use the area as another springboard to attack Ukraine. .
Gambrell reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Associated Press journalist Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, David Keaton in Kyiv, Alexander Stashevsky in Chernobyl, Mstislav Chernov in Kharkiv, and AP staff around the world contributed to this report.
Follow the Associated Press’ coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine