US backs EU; charges Russia with 'weaponizing' energy supplies

A view of a hardware of the Gaz-System's gas station in Rembelszczyzna, near Warsaw, Poland, April 27, 2022. Polish and Bulgarian leaders accused Moscow of using natural gas to blackmail their countries. (Photo: Czarek Sokolowski/AP)
A view of a hardware of the Gaz-System's gas station in Rembelszczyzna, near Warsaw, Poland, April 27, 2022. Polish and Bulgarian leaders accused Moscow of using natural gas to blackmail their countries. (Photo: Czarek Sokolowski/AP)

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – On Wednesday, Russia's state-controlled energy firm Gazprom announced that it was suspending its export of natural gas to Poland and Bulgaria for their failure to pay for their imports in Russian currency, as Moscow had demanded.

Poland and Bulgaria are both members of NATO and the European Union. Ursula von der Leyen, head of the European Commission, denounced Gazprom's announcement as "yet another attempt by Russia to use gas as an instrument of blackmail."

The US strongly supported the EU position. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki described the move as "almost weaponizing energy supplies" while affirming that the US would assist Europe in dealing with the challenge.

Energy Supplies and "Hybrid Warfare"

"Weaponizing" a particular activity is very much in the nature of a form of warfare that the US calls "hybrid warfare." It often includes the coercive, or covert, manipulation of some aspect of life not ordinarily associated with conflict in order to advance that country's national security objectives.

In this case, it is energy supplies that Moscow is manipulating. Early this year, before Russia invaded Ukraine, but as it mobilized a large number of troops around Ukraine, a European intelligence source told Kurdistan 24 that Moscow was covertly supporting political movements that called for clean energy.

Moscow's goal was to increase Europe's dependence on Russian energy supplies, as opposed to using their own "dirty" coal. That was a prescient observation, and the consequences are now in play.

Background to Gazprom's Demand

On Mar. 23, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that "unfriendly countries" would have to start paying for their energy imports in rubles rather than dollars or euros. 

That was a month after Russia invaded Ukraine. The quick conquest Putin had expected failed to materialize. Rather, the Ukrainians put up a courageous and unexpected resistance, and the US and Europe imposed tough economic sanctions. That dealt a severe blow to the Russian economy, including its currency, and as a counter, Putin demanded payment for energy exports in rubles. 

The first such payments were due a month after Putin's announcement—hence Wednesday's demand from Gazprom. 

Neither Poland nor Bulgaria imports large quantities of natural gas from Russia, and other European countries have said they will fill the gap created by Gazprom's move. 

Analysts have suggested that Gazprom's announcement is aimed at other European countries that import much larger quantities of Russian energy, including Germany and Austria. Indeed, Moscow subsequently threatened other countries with the same suspension of supplies if they did not start paying for their imports in rubles. 

Russia has nearly doubled its income from energy exports to Europe over the past two months of the Ukraine war, according to The Guardian. Thus, Europe is importing less energy from Russia as it attempts to wean itself off such dependence, but energy prices have risen significantly, creating the paradox that as European sanctions Russia, the immediate effect is to send yet more money to Moscow.

So in the two months since Feb. 24, when Russia's invasion began, European countries have sent Russia nearly $80 billion—testimony to their gross misreading of Russian politics, even as the US, going back to the Trump administration, repeatedly warned Europe of the risks in its ever-growing dependence on cheap Russian fossil fuels.

Putin's Threat to those Supporting Ukraine

In another sign of rising tensions between Russia and the West, Putin issued a new threat on Wednesday. His words were ominous, even as his warning was vague. 

"If anyone sets out to intervene in the current events," meaning the war in Ukraine, "and creates unacceptable threats for us that are strategic in nature, they should know that our response will be lightning-fast," Putin told Russian lawmakers in St. Petersburg. 

"We have all the tools for this, that no one else can boast of having," Putin continued. "We won't boast about it: we'll use them, if needed. And I want everyone to know that," he said.

Last week, Russia tested a new intercontinental ballistic missile. Putin used that occasion to threaten countries supporting Ukraine, asserting, "It will make those who, in the frenzy of rabid and aggressive rhetoric, are trying to threaten our country, think twice."

The Wall Street Journal described those remarks as Putin's "latest nuclear saber-rattling since invading Ukraine."

Addressing reporters on Wednesday, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby described such language as "irresponsible."

"It's certainly not what you would expect from a modern nuclear power," Kirby said, "nor should anybody expect from a modern nuclear power."