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Russia escalates conflict by cutting off gas to Poland and Bulgaria

POKROVSK, Ukraine (AP) — Russia opened a new front in its war against Ukraine on Wednesday, deciding to cut off gas to two European Union countries that staunchly support kyiv, a dramatic escalation in a conflict that is becoming serious. increasingly a wider battle with the West.

A day after the United States and other Western allies pledged to expedite the shipment of more and better military supplies to Ukraine, the Kremlin upped the ante, using its most essential exports as leverage. Gas prices in Europe soared on the news, which the President of the European Union Commission described as an attempt at “blackmail”.

The escalation came in a note from state-controlled Russian giant Gazprom, which said it had halted natural gas deliveries to Poland and Bulgaria because they refused to pay in Russian roubles, as demanded by President Vladimir Putin. The company said it had not received any payments since the start of the month.

On the ground too, there were fears that the war would overflow the borders of Ukraine. For the second day, explosions rocked the separatist region of Trans-Dniester in neighboring Moldova on Tuesday, knocking out two powerful radio antennas. No one claimed responsibility for the attacks, but Ukraine almost blamed Russia.

And a Russian missile hit a strategic railway bridge linking Ukraine’s port region of Odessa with neighboring NATO member Romania, Ukrainian authorities said.

Just across the border in Russia, an ammunition depot in the Belgorod region was burning early Wednesday after several explosions, Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said on the Telegram messaging app.

A Belarusian worker on duty at a gas compressor station of the Yamal-Europe gas pipeline near Nesvizh, about 130 km (81 miles) southwest of the capital Minsk, Belarus, December 29, 2006. Polish and Bulgarian officials say Russia is suspending natural gas deliveries to their countries starting Wednesday.

AP Photo/Sergei Grits, file

Gazprom’s decision to cut off gas to two European countries was another dark turning point in the war, which reignited Cold War geopolitical divisions and had an immediate impact. Gas prices in Europe soared by up to 24%.

Fatih Birol, executive director of the Paris-based International Energy Agency, called the move a “militarization of energy supplies” in a tweet.

“Gazprom’s decision to completely shut off gas supplies to Poland is another sign of Russia’s politicization of existing agreements and will only accelerate European efforts to move away from Russian energy supplies,” he wrote.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called the move “just another attempt by Russia to use gas as an instrument of blackmail”. It is unjustified and unacceptable. »

On Tuesday, the US defense chief urged Ukraine’s allies to ‘move at the speed of war’ to get more and heavier weapons to kyiv as Russian forces rained fire on the east and southern Ukraine.

Poland, Russia’s historic rival, has been a major gateway for delivering arms to Ukraine and this week confirmed it was sending tanks to the country. He said he was well prepared for Wednesday’s gas cut.

Poland also has plenty of natural gas in storage and will soon benefit from the commissioning of two pipelines, said analyst Emily McClain of Rystad Energy.

Bulgaria gets more than 90% of its gas from Russia, and officials said they were working to find other sources, such as Azerbaijan.

Both countries had refused Russia’s demands to pay in rubles, as have nearly all Russian gas customers in Europe.

Two months into the fighting, Western weapons helped Ukraine block the Russian invasion, but the country’s leaders said they needed more support soon.

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin convened a meeting of officials from about 40 countries at US Air Force Base in Ramstein, Germany, on Tuesday and said more help was on the way.

“We must move at the speed of war,” Austin said.

After fierce resistance by Ukrainian forces thwarted Russia’s bid to take the Ukrainian capital, Moscow now says its goal is to take Donbass, the predominantly Russian-speaking industrial area in eastern Ukraine.

In the gutted southern port city of Mariupol, authorities said Russian forces hit the Azovstal steelworks with 35 airstrikes in 24 hours. The factory is the last known stronghold of Ukrainian fighters in the city. Around 1,000 civilians are believed to have taken refuge there along with around 2,000 Ukrainian defenders.

Petro Andryushchenko, adviser to the mayor of Mariupol, said Russia was using heavy cargo bombs. He also accused Russian forces of shelling a route they had proposed as an evacuation corridor from the steel plant.

Ukraine also said Russian forces shelled Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, located outside Donbass but seen as key to Russia’s apparent attempt to surround Ukrainian troops in the region. .

Ukrainian forces retaliated in the Kherson region to the south.

Tuesday’s attack on the bridge near Odessa – along with a series of strikes at key train stations a day earlier – appear to signal a major shift in Russia’s approach. So far, Moscow has spared strategic bridges, perhaps hoping to keep them for its own use when taking over Ukraine. But now he appears to be trying to thwart Ukraine’s efforts to move troops and supplies.

Ukraine’s southern coast and Moldova have been on edge since a senior Russian military officer said last week that the Kremlin’s goal was to secure not just eastern Ukraine, but all the south, in order to open the way to the Trans-Dniester, a long and narrow strip of land with around 470,000 people along the Ukrainian border where around 1,500 Russian soldiers are based.

It was unclear who was behind the explosions in the Trans-Dniester, but the attacks raised fears that Russia was stirring up trouble in order to create a pretext to either invade the Trans-Dniester or use the area as another launching point to attack Ukraine. .

Gambrell reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Associated Press reporter Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, David Keyton in Kyiv, Oleksandr Stashevskyi in Chernobyl, Mstyslav Chernov in Kharkiv and AP staff around the world contributed to this report.

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