Ukraine News: Kyiv intensifies attacks on Russian positions in the south

Credit…Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters

BERLIN – When the main natural gas artery between Russia and Germany, the Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline, was taken out of service last week for 10 days of scheduled maintenance, European leaders began to prepare for the possibility that Russian President Vladimir V. Putin does not. turn it back on in retaliation for opposing Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

But Mr Putin has suggested gas will resume on its way to Europe after work on the pipeline – controlled by Russian energy giant Gazprom – ends on Thursday, although he warned supplies could still be tight. reduced.

The European Commission has called on the 27-member bloc to immediately start taking action to cut gas consumption by 15%. “Russia is blackmailing us. Russia uses energy as a weapon,” Ursula von der Leyen, chair of the commission, told reporters in Brussels on Wednesday.

But analysts have pointed out that if Russia stops gas flows to Europe, the country will lose an element of leverage in the economic battle it has been waging against the continent since the invasion of Ukraine, allowing Mr. Putin to exercise control over supplies and prices.

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday night in Tehran after meeting Iranian and Turkish leaders, Putin warned that Gazprom would only send “half the expected volume” through the Nord Stream pipeline. Before it closed on July 11 for annual maintenance, flows had already been reduced to 40% of capacity.

Maintaining such a reduced flow of natural gas could benefit the Russian leader, analysts said, allowing him to keep Europeans in a prolonged state of uncertainty and near-panic. Russia has already halted gas deliveries via other major gas pipelines to Europe that pass through Poland and Ukraine.

“To the extent that Putin maintains some gas flows on Nord Stream 1, he benefits from both revenue and leverage,” said David L. Goldwyn, a former senior State Department diplomat in charge of the energy that served during the first term of the Obama administration. “Once he cuts off the supply, he loses both and there’s no turning back.”

Gas prices in Europe have soared to three or four times those of a year ago, causing inflation to jump and raising concerns about social unrest once temperatures start to drop.

The European Union imported 45% of its natural gas from Russia last year. That figure fell to just 28% in the first three months of this year. At the same time, overall gas imports into the bloc have increased, largely driven by a 72% increase in liquefied natural gas purchases.

Gazprom blamed the reduction in flows via Nord Stream on a turbine that was sent to Montreal for repair and could not be returned due to sanctions against Russia. German officials disputed Gazprom’s claim that the turbine could have caused such a reduction in flows.

Credit…Pool photo by Alexey Maishev

Since then, the German government has secured the return of the equipment, which was manufactured and repaired by Siemens Energy at a factory in Canada. But Mr Putin said another of the six compressor turbines near Russia’s Baltic Sea coast now needed refurbishment and said there were also problems with several others.

“If one more comes, then that’s fine, two will go. And if it doesn’t come, there will be one, it will only be 30 million cubic meters a day,” he told reporters. That’s less than 20% of the pipeline’s capacity of 160 million cubic meters of gas per day, or 5,600 million cubic feet.

Records on a Nord Stream website said a tiny amount of gas passed through the pipeline on Tuesday afternoon in an apparent test. A site run by network provider Gascade showed capacity had been booked through Nord Stream for Thursday. These are not guarantees that the gas will flow, but it could indicate Russia’s continued interest in getting gas to Europe.

Eswar Prasad, an economist at Cornell University, said maintaining low throughput through Nord Stream could strengthen Russia’s position and even weaken Europe’s resolve if the war drags on.

“Keeping Europe’s energy dependence on Russia and fueling uncertainty about natural gas supplies, which can only drive up prices,” he said, are among the reasons Mr. Putin would want to keep Nord Stream online. There is the added attraction, Mr Prasad said, of being able “to some extent to control the economic destiny of Europe”.

But a return of flows from Russia this week is no guarantee that they will continue in the future or be enough for Germany and its European partners to meet their targets of filling gas storage tanks to 80% of their capacity by early November. In Germany, where half of homes are heated with natural gas and the fuel is needed for the chemical, steel and paper industries, storage levels reached 65% on Wednesday, just above the European average.

This week, Ms von der Leyen traveled to Azerbaijan to strike a deal to double Azeri natural gas imports to at least 20 billion cubic meters (706 billion cubic feet) per year by 2027 as part of efforts across Europe to secure gas from sources beyond Russia.

Germany has turned to the Netherlands and Norway for more gas, as well as buying more liquefied natural gas from the United States and Qatar. But none of the 26 European LNG terminals, which are needed to convert the gas back from its deep cooling state into gas, are in Germany.

Robert Habeck, German Economy Minister and Vice-Chancellor, obtained 2.94 billion euros to lease four floating LNG terminals. The first should be operational by the end of the year.

But if Europe faces an unusually cold winter, it might not be soon enough to ensure Germany keeps its homes warm and its factories running. Germany has already activated two stages of a three-step ‘gas emergency’ plan, bringing coal-fired power stations back to replace gas-powered ones and analyzing scenarios of what would happen if the gas was cut off completely .

For some observers, the panic of recent weeks is exactly what Mr Putin wants.

“Is he going to give us gas?” Will he cut the power? Europe is on Putin’s lips again,” said Janis Kluge, Russia analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. wrote on Twitter. “However, the Nord Stream 1 saga continues, he definitely loves every part of it.”

Melissa Eddy reported from Berlin and Patricia Cohen from London. Matina Stevis-Gridneff contributed to reporting from Brussels, and Anton Troyanovsky from Berlin.

Christi C. Elwood