EU defies gas ‘blackmail’ as Russia drives deeper into Ukraine

kyiv forces are facing a new Russian offensive that is gaining ground in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine © AFP/Yasuyoshi CHIBA

Brussels (AFP), April 27 – The European Union warned Russia on Wednesday that it would not “blackmail” its support for kyiv after the Kremlin cut gas supplies to Bulgaria and Poland.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, has warned that if Western forces intervene in Ukraine, they will face a “lightning-fast” military response.

“We have all the tools for that, which no one else can boast of having,” he told lawmakers, implicitly referring to ballistic missiles and Moscow’s nuclear arsenal.

“We won’t brag about them: we will use them, if need be. And I want everyone to know that,” he said. “We have already made all the decisions on this.”

The dire threats came as Moscow claimed it had carried out a missile strike in southern Ukraine to destroy a “big batch” of weapons supplied by the West.

As the war, which has already claimed thousands of lives, entered its third month, kyiv acknowledged that Russian forces had made gains in the east.

The Russian military offensive saw it capture a series of villages in the Donbas region, now the immediate target of its invasion force.

And in its economic standoff with the West, Moscow has cut gas supplies to Bulgaria and Poland, two EU and NATO members backing Ukraine in the conflict.

In Brussels, Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, insisted that EU member states were ready to move.

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– ‘Blackmail’ –

The dependence of several European countries on energy supplies from Russia has created a weak link in their sanctions package © AFP / JANEK SKARZYNSKI

She described the announcement by Russian energy giant Gazprom as “another Kremlin provocation” that would be countered.

“It’s no surprise that the Kremlin is using fossil fuels to try to blackmail us… Our response will be immediate, united and coordinated.

“Poland and Bulgaria now receive gas from their EU neighbours,” she said. “The era of Russian fossil fuels in Europe will come to an end.”

European powers have imposed massive sanctions on Russia since Putin’s decision to invade its neighbor, while shipping arms to Ukraine’s defenders.

But they have made slow progress in hitting Moscow’s vast gas exports, with many EU members – notably the German industrial giant – relying on Russian power to keep their lights on.

Putin has tried to ratchet up the pressure by insisting that Russia will only accept gas payments in rubles – hoping to force his enemies to back his currency.

Gazprom announced the halt in gas supplies to highly dependent Poland and Bulgaria, saying it had not received payment in rubles from the two EU members.

But von der Leyen said “around 97%” of all EU contracts explicitly stipulate payments in euros or dollars – and warned importing firms not to pay in roubles.

“It would be a sanctions violation,” she told reporters.

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– ‘Heaven and earth’ –

The site of the global atomic disaster, Chernobyl, celebrated the 36th anniversary since the collapse relieved to be back under Kyiv’s control © AFP / Sergei SUPINSKY

Moscow has defended its demand that Western customers buy rubles, saying sanctions against its central bank have forced it to replenish its foreign exchange reserves.

“They blocked us – or, to put it plainly, stole – a fairly large amount of our reserves,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. “There is therefore no question of blackmail here.”

The first phase of the Russian invasion failed to reach kyiv and overthrow the government of President Volodymyr Zelensky after encountering strong Ukrainian resistance reinforced by Western weapons.

The campaign refocused on seizing the east and south of the country, while the increased use of long-range missile strikes against western and central Ukraine to counter the Western response.

The first phase of the Russian invasion failed to reach kyiv and overthrow the government after encountering strong Ukrainian resistance © AFP/Yasuyoshi CHIBA

On Wednesday, the Russian Defense Ministry said its forces had destroyed a “large batch” of weapons and ammunition supplied by the United States and European countries.

Russia hit the hangars of an aluminum factory near the Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia with “high-precision, long-range sea-based Kalibr missiles”, the ministry said.

On Tuesday, at a summit in Germany of 40 Western allies to discuss arming Ukraine, Washington pledged to move “heaven and earth” to enable kyiv to emerge victorious from the war.

Tensions are also rising in a breakaway region of Moldova bordering southwestern Ukraine.

In the Transnistria region, pro-Russian separatists said shots were fired across the border at a village housing a Russian arms depot, after drones flew over Ukraine.

– ‘Ramp up’ –

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Explosions in Transnistria © AFP / Sylvie HUSSON

The unrecognized region has reported a series of explosions in recent days that it has called “terrorist attacks”, leading kyiv to accuse Moscow of seeking to spread the war further into Europe.

The targeting of Western-supplied weapons came as the United States and Europe began to heed Zelensky’s call for heavier firepower.

Western allies still fear being drawn into war with Russia, but have stepped up military support as Ukraine has maintained its fierce resistance.

Germany announced on Tuesday that it would send anti-aircraft tanks, in a sharp reversal of its much-criticized cautious stance.

Britain will urge Kyiv’s allies on Wednesday to ‘step up’ military production, including tanks and planes, to help Ukraine, with Foreign Secretary Liz Truss set to call for a ‘new approach’ to confront Putin.

Fighting continues to rage in eastern Ukraine, the Defense Ministry in kyiv said, confirming that Russian forces had seized several villages in their new attempt to “liberate” the Donbass region.

The ministry said two villages in the northeastern region of Kharkiv and two in the Donetsk region fell.

Meanwhile, three people died and 15 others were injured in shelling around the eastern city of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, regional governor Oleg Synegubov said.

Moscow aims to create a land bridge between territory held by pro-Russian separatists in parts of Donbass and the Russian-annexed Black Sea peninsula in Crimea.

Separately, Moscow also said it was expelling eight Japanese diplomats in a tit-for-tat response to deportations by Tokyo over the conflict in Ukraine.

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