BRUSSELS – The fallout from the war in Ukraine intensified on Wednesday, shaking energy markets and spilling across borders, as Russia reacted to escalating arms shipments and economic sanctions from the West by cutting off gas supplies to two European countries and threatening further unspecified reprisals.
The senior European Union official called the announcement that Russia was suspending natural gas shipments to Poland and Bulgaria “blackmail”. Although the immediate impact is likely to be limited, the cut was the Kremlin’s toughest riposte yet against a US-led alliance that President Vladimir V. Putin has accused of waging a war by proxy aimed at weakening Russia.
Even as news of a US-Russian prisoner swap offered a glimmer of hope for diplomatic engagement, Mr Putin warned he would order more “counterattacks” against any adversary who “created threats of strategic nature unacceptable to Russia”.
Meanwhile, a series of explosions across Ukraine’s borders have fueled fears that the war, now in its third month, may be spreading. Explosions were reported in three Russian districts on Wednesday morning, and suspicion fell on Ukrainian forces, which benefit from increasingly sophisticated weapons and intelligence from the United States and its allies.
The blasts came a day after blasts rocked Transnistria, a pro-Russian breakaway region of Moldova, on Ukraine’s southwestern flank. Some analysts – and Ukrainian and Moldovan officials – said it was likely that Russia, which has thousands of troops in Transnistria, orchestrated the explosions to create a pretext to invade Ukraine from that direction.
Taken together, the developments have increased the risk of worse to come.
“What is the ‘so what’ of this escalation cycle? Further escalation becomes more likely as animosity mounts,” said Cliff Kupchan, chairman of the Eurasia Group, a political risk advisory organization. “The likelihood of Russia reaching a preparation facility in Poland is increasing. The risk of NATO supplying aircraft to Ukraine is increasing. Ukraine could hit bigger targets in Russia. Moscow could cut off gas to more European countries.
Economists have warned that Europe could face a sharp slowdown in growth if the cut in sales of Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned gas company, spreads – or if Europe imposes an embargo on Russian gas. European natural gas prices jumped 28% on Wednesday and the value of the euro fell below $1.06 for the first time in five years on rising energy security concerns and slowing growth. European. The currency fell almost 4% against the US dollar in April alone.
The reason given by Gazprom for stopping gas deliveries was the refusal of Poland and Bulgaria to pay in rubles, a new requirement that Russia announced last month, despite the fact that its foreign contracts generally provide for payment in rubles. dollars or euros. Most European buyers did not comply, which would reverse European Union financial sanctions imposed on Russia after the invasion of Ukraine and help support the battered rouble.
The European Union had prepared for the possibility of Russia suspending natural gas deliveries, said Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission. Nonetheless, she told a press conference, the Russian move was an attempt “to use gas as an instrument of blackmail”.
Poland and Bulgaria will quickly receive gas supplies from neighboring EU countries to compensate for the loss of Russian gas, she said, declaring that “the era of Russian fossil fuels in Europe is coming to an end” .
Poland and Bulgaria said the Russian cut would have little impact. In Poland, where electricity is largely generated by coal rather than gas, the government has sought to allay public fears. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki assured Poles that gas storage tanks were three-quarters full – far more than in other countries.
And if the Kremlin’s plan was to bully Poland and Bulgaria with a future of unheated homes and cold meals in hopes of breaking Western unity to help Ukraine, it may have miscalculated. On a sunny spring day in Warsaw, the Polish capital, many people reacted with shrugs to the news, mixed with disbelief that anyone would ever consider Russia a trustworthy supplier.
“We have nothing to worry about if the weather stays like this,” said Joanna Gres, a ballet dancer from a troupe attached to the Polish army.
Bulgaria also has enough gas for next month, Energy Minister Alexander Nikolov told Bulgarian media, promising the country “would not negotiate under pressure and with its head down”. ”
A senior German official said the flow of Russian gas to Germany, Russia’s biggest energy customer, remained stable, while adding that the country could live on existing reserves at least until next winter .
Russia announced the cut a day after 40 US-led allies met at Ramstein Air Base in Germany and pledged to provide Ukraine with long-term military aid, following a weekend visit to the country by top Biden administration officials who said they wanted to see Russia not just defeated but militarily degraded.
This hardened American message is seen by Mr. Putin and his subordinates as validation of their argument that the war in Ukraine is really about the American desire to weaken Russia, and they are indirectly at war with NATO.
Despite fears of an expanded war, there was also little cooperation on Wednesday between Russia and the United States, which announced a prisoner swap.
They confirmed that Trevor R. Reed, a former Marine convicted on charges his family said were false, had been released, an unexpected diplomatic success. Mr Reed, first detained in 2019, was released in exchange for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot serving a long sentence in the United States for trafficking cocaine.
Other Americans are still being held in Russia, including Paul Whelan, sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in prison for espionage in a trial closed to the public; and Brittney Griner, a basketball star arrested in mid-February on drug trafficking charges that could carry a sentence of up to 10 years.
Neither the US nor Russian sides gave any indication that the exchange signaled a broader diplomatic effort to defuse the Ukraine crisis.
Ukraine appears to have attempted to strike deeper into Russian territory overnight, although officials on both sides have been vague on the specifics. Three local governors described the drone flights and explosions as attacks.
Mykhailo Podolyak, a close adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, also described the explosions inside Russia as attacks on sites Russia had used to launch the invasion, but he attributed them to ‘karma’. – and not to the Ukrainian army.
As described by the three Russian governors and the Russian media, an ammunition depot was set on fire near Belgorod, a town less than 20 miles from the border, two explosions were reported in Voronezh, nearly 200 miles from the border, and a Ukrainian drone was shot down. above Kursk, about 70 miles from the border. If Ukraine were responsible, the attacks in Kursk and Voronezh would be the deepest inside Russia since the February 24 invasion.
In Moscow, Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Mr Putin’s security council, urged Russian officials in much of the southwestern region near Ukraine to ensure that emergency alerts and civil defense facilities “operate reliably”.
Ukraine’s Defense Ministry has generally declined to discuss reports of attacks on Russian soil. Ukrainian officials, for example, declined to comment on Russia’s claim that two Ukrainian helicopters fired on an oil depot in Belgorod in early April. In more than two months of war, the fighting has been largely contained within Ukraine’s borders.
In recent weeks, Russian forces have focused on a large-scale assault in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, where analysts say Russia is making slow and measured progress on the ground as to confront entrenched Ukrainian troops.
The pace of Russia’s ground assault appears more planned and deliberate than the initial invasion in February, which aimed to seize more Ukrainian territory and depended on the rapid advance of tanks – a failed strategy, at the high cost of the Russian forces.
Military analysts from the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based research group, said in their Tuesday assessment that Russian forces had “adopted a more robust pattern of operational movement in eastern Ukraine.” , allowing them to “bring more combat power to wear”. “in their narrower goal of capturing only the eastern region.
Ukrainian troops have been defending positions in the Donbass region since 2014, when secessionists, backed by Russia, proclaimed themselves the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic.
Matina Stevis-Gridneff reported from Brussels, Neil MacFarquhar from Istanbul, and Bengali Shashank and Megan Specia from London. The report was provided by Andre Higgins from Warsaw, Ivan Nechepurenko from Tbilisi, Georgia, Cora Engelbrechtfrom Krakow, Poland, Liz Aldermanfrom Paris, Jane Arraf from Lviv, Ukraine, Matthew Mpoke Bigg of London and Rick Gladstone from New York.