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Russia pressures Europe by slashing its natural gas supply

Europe is trying to reduce its dependence on Russian gas but the supply cuts could create an energy crisis in coming months.
Nord Stream 1 Baltic Sea pipeline
The gas receiving station of the Nord Stream 1 Baltic Sea pipeline and the transfer station of the OPAL long-distance gas pipeline in Mecklenburg, Germany.Stefan Sauer / picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images file

Russia has slashed the flow of natural gas to Europe in a move European leaders called a clear attempt to strike back at Western countries for their support of Ukraine.

Russia on Friday reduced natural gas deliveries by half to Italy and Slovakia and cut off France entirely, marking a third consecutive day of gas reductions in a growing economic confrontation between Moscow and the West. Moscow had previously cut off all natural gas flow to Poland, Bulgaria, Finland, the Netherlands and Denmark.

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the European Union joined the U.S. in imposing sweeping financial sanctions on Russia. But European governments have been bracing for economic retaliation from the Kremlin and officials portrayed this week’s squeeze on natural gas supplies as an effort by Moscow to exert political pressure and push energy prices up.

Russia’s cuts prompted a rise in natural gas prices that were already high and led the German government to appeal to citizens to conserve energy. Short-term gas prices remained high on Friday, up about 50% since Monday at 126 euros ($132) per megawatt for month-ahead gas futures.

“Every kilowatt hour helps in this situation. It is a situation that is serious, but not a situation that endangers supply security in Germany,” said German Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck in a video posted Wednesday. Germany gets about 35 percent of its natural gas from Russia. 

Habeck said Russian President Vladimir Putin “is doing what was to be feared from the beginning: He is reducing the volume of gas, not in one go but step by step.”

The Russian state-owned energy giant Gazprom announced cuts to natural gas flows to Germany and Italy this week. To Germany, the company blamed the cut on maintenance repairs for the Nord Stream 1 pipeline under the Baltic Sea, saying needed equipment had been held up in Canada because of Western sanctions.

But Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi dismissed the explanation, saying it was a political decision.

“Both we and Germany and others maintain it’s a lie, there’s a political use of gas,” Draghi said at a news conference during a visit with German and French leaders to Kyiv.

Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, called the cutbacks “blackmail (against) both individual countries and Europe as a whole." 

Gazprom did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Europe has sought to reduce its dependence on Russian oil and gas, announcing plans to cut off 90 percent of its Russian oil imports and two-thirds of its Russian gas imports by the end of the year. The Biden administration has promised to help Europe secure more natural gas from U.S. exporters.

European governments are buying gas on the spot market and trying to secure alternative sources, including importing liquefied natural gas from the United States and elsewhere. But Europe still has limited infrastructure to receive LNG shipments and a fire at a key U.S. export depot in Freeport, Texas, undercut U.S. gas export capacity and highlighted Europe’s vulnerable position, experts said.

“Europe must not to be complacent and urgently scale-up coordination so the continent is prepared for a possibly difficult winter ahead,” said Simone Tagliapietra, a senior fellow at Bruegel, a think tank in Belgium.