Russia cuts gas to Poland, Bulgaria; West arms Ukraine
Moscow on Wednesday turned off the natural-gas spigot to the front-line Eastern European states of Poland and Bulgaria, signaling its willingness to take sharp economic aim at those who aid Ukraine, where Russian forces rained shells in the east as they pressed ahead with their devastating 2-month-old invasion.
Addressing the first such supply disruption since the war’s start, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov strongly hinted that other European economies may be next. Speaking to reporters Wednesday, he said that if some customers “decline to pay under the new system” Russia has instituted — meaning in rubles instead of dollars or euros — they would “of course” could face the same treatment.
Along a 300-mile battlefront in Ukraine’s Donbas region, meanwhile, Russian forces managed to capture a small town, Zarichne, the Ukrainian military said in an early morning operational report. The giant Azovstal steelworks in the battered southern port city of Mariupol, which has become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance, also came under new bombardment, the military said.
Russia has been trying since the start of the war to capture Mariupol, and the city’s last-ditch defenders and some civilians are holed up inside the sprawling Soviet-era steel complex laced with tunnels and bunkers. Even though fighting continues, Russian President Vladimir Putin has already claimed victory in the siege of the city, which Ukraine refuses to acknowledge.
In the northeastern city of Kharkiv, partially hemmed in by Russian troops and under heavy bombardment since the start of the war, loud explosions rocked the city shortly after midnight. Later, the regional governor said on the messaging app Telegram that overnight strikes in outlying towns had killed three people and wounded 15 others.
Heavy pounding in advance of major ground movement, sometimes including strikes on civilian areas, is key to the Russian strategy in the east, British military intelligence said in an assessment Wednesday.
Amid fears of a widening war, officials in a pro-Russian breakaway region of Moldova — Ukraine’s small, impoverished western neighbor — accused Ukraine on Wednesday of attacking it. Russia last week telegraphed its aim of seizing Ukraine’s southern seacoast in order to link up with that breakaway region, Transnistria, as well as with the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow seized illegally from Ukraine in 2014.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in an overnight address, said developments show that the Kremlin’s ultimate goal is “not just to seize the territory of Ukraine, but to dismember the entire center and east of Europe and deal a global blow to democracy.”
Because of that, he said, “the free world has the right to self-defense. And that is why it will help Ukraine even more.”
Wednesday’s announcement by Russia’s state-run fuel company, Gazprom, of the cutoff of Poland and Bulgaria came a day after Western allies, at U.S. urging, vowed to redouble shipments of weaponry to help Ukraine fight off Russian forces for what could prove to be a protracted confrontation.
Germany, in a policy shift, said it would ship armored antiaircraft systems to Ukraine. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III, speaking at Tuesday’s gathering of NATO and other allies at a U.S. air base in western Germany, called on those who want to help Ukraine to “move at the speed of war” to rush in more heavy armaments.
As Russia readies more troops and armor for its expanded offensive in eastern Ukraine, its defense ministry said 59 Ukrainian military targets were destroyed overnight in airstrikes. It said targets included hangars containing foreign-supplied weapons and ammunition, but did not provide specifics. The claims could not be independently verified.
The suspension of gas exports to Poland and Bulgaria came after both countries, along with most other European Union nations, rejected Russia’s demand that energy shipments be paid for in rubles, which would help prop up the Russian currency. Existing contracts almost uniformly specify dollar payments.
The EU promised Wednesday it would forge a unified response to the cutoff, which Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, called a Russian attempt to “blackmail” Europe.
“This is unjustified and unacceptable,” Von der Leyen said in a statement. “And it shows once again the unreliability of Russia as a gas supplier.”
Polish Prime Minister Mareusz Morawiecki also scoffed at Moscow’s move. He told lawmakers that Russian-supplied energy was expected to be replaced by a combination of local production and gas transported from Norway.
Poland has drawn particular Russian ire because it has not only supplied Ukraine with weapons, but has been a key conduit for arms from other NATO countries. The Polish government said it was prepared for the Russian step, which the onset of spring and warmer temperatures makes less alarming than if it had occurred just a few weeks ago.
The claim of Ukrainian aggression in Transnistria came from the interior ministry of the self-declared separatist region, which said Ukraine launched drones and fired shots aimed at its territory. Local officials said this week that two radio towers were damaged in strikes, with explosions also reported in the pro-Moscow enclave’s capital, Tiraspol.
The Ukrainian government in Kyiv has denied any hostile actions directed at Transnistria, where a Russian garrison is stationed.
In Mariupol, prospects of relieving the dire humanitarian situation for civilians — tens of thousands of whom remained trapped in the city, in addition to the few thousand sheltering at the steel plant — continued to remain distant.
Ukrainian officials said no agreements had been reached for setting up a humanitarian corridor Wednesday to try to get civilians out. A trickle of people has managed to flee the city, but Ukraine says Russia has repeatedly reneged on promises of safe passage for noncombatants.
Municipal authorities have estimated that the siege has left some 20,000 dead in bombardment and from starvation, and satellite imagery testifies to the presence of several mass graves on Mariupol’s outskirts.
Meanwhile, Ukraine said there were no prospects for face-to-face talks between Zelensky and Putin, something Kyiv has repeatedly called for.
“The time of a meeting of the two countries’ presidents and the context of the meeting have not yet been determined,” said Ukraine’s lead negotiator, Mykhailo Podolyak.
Bulos reported from Kharkiv and King from Krakow, Poland.