gas pipelines that enter Europe from Russia
Gas pipelines that enter Europe from Russia

Bulgaria's Deputy Prime Minister says Russia is "breaking its contract" by cutting off gas supplies to Bulgaria and Poland. Russia's state-owned gas company Gazprom says it is stopping deliveries to the two countries after those deemed "unfriendly" by President Putin refused to pay in roubles instead of dollars or euros.

On Tuesday (Apr 26), Moscow fought against Europe’s economy, telling Poland and Bulgaria that it was halting natural gas supplies. Both countries and Europe, in general, are heavily dependent.

European countries have suffered sporadic interruptions in Russian gas supplies in the past. Still, these were essentially the result of squabbles between Russia and Ukraine over what Gazprom claimed were unpaid bills and the theft of gas destined for Europe through a pipeline that crosses Ukrainian territory.

A decision by Russia’s energy behemoth Gazprom to cut off gas supplies to 2 countries that are both members of Nato and the European Union marks the first time that Moscow has directly and openly targeted Europe with its energy weapon. The move upends assurances by Moscow since the Soviet era that, no matter what the political climate, Russia could be counted on as a reliable supplier of natural gas.

On Tuesday, however, Poland’s leading importer of Russian gas, the state-owned company PGNiG, said Gazprom announced the “complete suspension” of deliveries through the Yamal pipeline, stretching from northern Siberia to Poland and Germany, Belarus.

PGNiG said that it had received a letter from Gazprom informing it that all deliveries through the Yamal pipeline were being halted.

Bulgaria’s energy ministry said later Tuesday that it, too, had been told by Gazprom that its own gas supplies from Russia, which flow through the Ukrainian pipeline, would stop.

Germany also receives some gas through the Yamal pipeline. Still, most of what it needs from Russia flows through Nord Stream, a separate pipeline under the Baltic Sea that appeared to be operating normally Tuesday.

Poland, the biggest economy in Europe’s formerly communist east, gets more than 45 per cent of its gas from Russia, while Bulgaria receives around 90 per cent.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb 24, both countries have announced plans to wean themselves off Russian energy. Still, Tuesday's abrupt halt could seriously wound both countries' ability to heat homes and run businesses.

But with winter now over, warming temperatures should help lessen the blow in both, at least in the coming months. Unlike some of its neighbours, Poland burns coal, not gas, for most of its electricity, so it is less vulnerable to that front.

Poland’s climate minister, Anna Moskwa, played down the impact of Russia’s decision, insisting at a news conference in Warsaw on Tuesday that “we are ready to be fully cut off” from Russian gas. Bulgaria’s energy ministry, in a statement, assured consumers that “currently, no restrictions are required on gas consumption in Bulgaria”.

Russia’s decision nonetheless marked a significant ratcheting up of tensions with the European Union. Since Russia invaded Ukraine, it has joined the United States in imposing increasingly stringent economic sanctions, badly damaging the Russian economy.

Both Poland and Bulgaria, along with other European countries except for Hungary, rejected a demand by President Vladimir Putin of Russia that energy purchases be paid for in rubles to help prop up his currency. However, the contracts for foreign sales generally require payment in dollars.

Russia has been particularly angry at Poland because of Warsaw’s robust support for Ukraine, which has received many of its Nato-supplied arms through Polish territory and from which nearly 3 million refugees have fled across the Polish border.

Bulgaria’s new coalition government has been convulsed by tension over whether to send arms to Ukraine. Bulgaria is traditionally more pro-Russian than most other European countries, particularly Poland. Still, it nonetheless endorsed EU sanctions against Russia — unlike Serbia, a Russia-friendly country that is not a member of the European bloc.

Russia has made clear for months that it will favour countries that don’t criticise it with reliable energy supplies. During a visit to Moscow from Hungary’s Kremlin-friendly leader, Viktor Orban, shortly before Russia invaded Ukraine, Putin offered assurances that Hungary, unlike other European countries, did not have to worry about running short of natural gas.

In a sarcastic message on social media last month, Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy head of the Kremlin’s security council and a longtime ally of Putin, sneered at European leaders as fools for taking measures against Russia that he said would ensure they don’t have enough energy.

“Excellent. The wise decisions of European politicians,” Medvedev wrote.

The bloc has vowed to cut off its large imports of Russian oil and coal for months as it searches for replacements and adjusts to higher fuel costs. But Europe is even more dependent on Russian gas, and ending those imports would be more economically damaging; EU ministers have said they will reduce the flow from Russia but not shut it off until 2030.