European Leaders Blast the Cutoff of Russian Gas

POKROVSK, Ukraine — European leaders blasted Russia’s decision to cut natural gas shipments to Poland and Bulgaria as “blackmail,” saying the cutoff and the Kremlin’s warning that it might cease shipments to other countries is a failed attempt to divide the West over its support for Ukraine.

Russia’s move Wednesday to use its most essential export as leverage marked a dramatic escalation in the economic war of sanctions and countersanctions that has unfolded in parallel to the fighting on the battlefield.

Targeted countries could end up having to ration gasoline and suffer another setback from the EU or NATO member nations. Russia could lose vital income for its war-fare efforts.

Poland was a significant gateway for weapons deliveries to Ukraine. It confirmed this week that it will send the tanks. Just hours before Russia’s state energy giant Gazprom acted, Poland announced a new set of sanctions against the company and other Russian businesses and oligarchs.

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A new, liberal government in Bulgaria took power last autumn and cut its ties with Moscow. It also supported punitive actions against the Kremlin. It has also hosted Western fighter jets at a new NATO outpost on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast.

They are not in immediate danger from gas shortages. Poland has worked for years to find other suppliers. The continent is entering summer and gas will be less important for householders.

Also, Russian gas supplies to Bulgaria and Poland were to cease later in the year.

The Kremlin’s warnings that additional countries might be affected by the cutoff sent chills through 27 member states of the European Union. Germany, the largest economy on the continent, and Italy are among Europe’s biggest consumers of Russian natural gas, though they, too, have been taking steps to reduce their dependence on Moscow.

“It comes as no surprise that the Kremlin uses fossil fuels to try to blackmail us,” said EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. “Today, the Kremlin failed once again in his attempt to sow division amongst member states. The era of Russian fossil fuel in Europe is coming to an end.”

Gazprom said it shut off the two countries because they refused to pay in rubles, as President Vladimir Putin has demanded of “unfriendly” nations. The Kremlin said other countries may be cut off if they don’t agree to the payment arrangement.

Most European countries have publicly balked at Russia’s demand for rubles, but it is not clear how many have actually faced the moment of decision so far. Greece’s next scheduled payment to Gazprom is due on May 25, for example, and the government must decide then whether to comply.

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Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told his country’s parliament that he believes Poland’s support for Ukraine — and the new sanctions imposed by Warsaw on Tuesday — were the real reasons behind the gas cutoff.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov called the suspension blackmail, adding: “We will not succumb to such a racket.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that Russia views gas as a weapon for political blackmail and “sees a united Europe as a target.”

Slow progress by Russia in Donbass

On the battlefield, fighting continued in the country’s east along a largely static front line some 300 miles (480 kilometers) long.

Russia claims that its missiles struck a group of weapons the U.S., European and other nations had sent to Ukraine. A rocket struck Kharkiv’s residential area, killing one and injuring two more.

Western officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence findings, said Russia has made slow progress in the eastern Donbas region, with “minor gains,” including the capture of villages and small towns south of Izyum and on the outskirts of Rubizhne.

Serhiy Hadidai, governor of Luhansk, acknowledged that Russia made some progress on Rubizhne’s advance through almost continuous bombardment. But that Ukrainian troops were fighting back and retreating only when they have nothing to defend.

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“There is no point in staying on territory that has been fired on so often that every meter is well known,” he said.

Maxim, a Ukrainian tank commander in the Donbas who didn’t give his last name, offered his rationale for why Ukrainian forces have been able to hold back the better-equipped Russian army: “The strength is not in the tank; the strength is in the people.”

Officials from Western countries claimed that some Russian troops were moved to the Donbas, from Mariupol in the devastated southern port. However, some are still in Mariupol in order to confront the Ukrainian troops huddled in the Azovstal metal plant. It is this last stronghold of the city. There were approximately 1,000 civilians sheltering there, along with an estimated 2000 Ukrainian defenders.

“The situation is very difficult. There are huge problems with water, food,” Serhii Volynskyi, commander of the marine unit inside the plant, said in a Facebook video message. He claimed that many fighters and civilians had been injured, with some in dire need of medical assistance.

A series of blasts erupted Wednesday night near Kherson in Black Sea, the city that Russian forces occupy since the beginning of the war. This explosion temporarily disrupted the Russian television channels, according to Ukrainian and Russian news agencies.

A ammunition depot was destroyed in Belgorod, Russia just over the border from Russia’s Donbas. The Governor said that several explosions had been heard. Blasts were also reported in Russia’s Kursk region near the border, and authorities in Russia’s Voronezh region said an air defense system shot down a drone.

An oil storage building in Bryansk, Russia was set on fire earlier this week.

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Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak hinted at the country’s involvement in the fires, saying in a Telegram post that “karma (is) a harsh thing.”

With the help of Western arms, Ukrainian forces managed to thwart Russian forces’ attempt to storm Kyiv. Moscow now says its focus is the capture of the Donbas, Ukraine’s mostly Russian-speaking industrial heartland.

A defiant Putin vowed Russia will achieve its military goals, telling parliament, “All the tasks of the special military operation we are conducting in the Donbas and Ukraine, launched on Feb. 24, will be unconditionally fulfilled.”

Gambrell reported in Lviv, Ukraine. Gera was reporting from Warsaw (Poland). The report was contributed to by Associated Press journalists Jill Lawless (London), Yuras Karmanau, David Keyton, Oleksandr Statashevskyi in Chernobyl and Mstyslav Chernov in Kharkiv.

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