(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters)
LONDON - As EU energy ministers prepared to meet in Brussels on Tuesday, Ukraine’s Gas Transmission System Operator warned that Russian counterpart Gazprom had suddenly increased pressure in the Urengoy-Pomary-Uzhhorod pipeline across its territory without warning, risking sudden damage.
Gazprom had also given notice that it was reducing shipments through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline to Germany to a tenth of normal volume, citing maintenance issues.
With the EU ministers about to discuss efforts to wean Europe off Russian gas, few in Europe saw either step as a coincidence.
Six months into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin appears to be adopting an increasingly nuanced strategy when it comes to what has become a global battle for influence, energy and food. With soaring prices bringing inflation and recession, Russia is threatening and mocking Europe and the West while openly wooing less-developed nations.
Following last week’s deal brokered by Turkey and the United Nations to allow food shipments to leave Ukrainian ports, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has this week been on a tour of Africa, blaming Western sanctions for disruptions to grain and fertiliser supplies. Whether supplies will truly resume, however, remains in question – Moscow has continued to strike what it says are civilian targets on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast, while insurers remain reluctant to cover the cargos.
As with gas supplies, Western officials are concerned that Moscow may be deliberately disingenuous over what happens next, presenting itself as a responsible international actor even as it quietly takes steps behind the scenes to make sure supplies remain disrupted. Alternatively, it may endeavour to ensure that shipments only go to countries in which the Kremlin wishes to build its influence, winning friends in Africa and Asia even as it tightens the screws on mainland Europe.
DIFFERENCES OF OPINION
Tuesday's Brussels meeting was designed to mitigate that risk, described by German Economy Minister Robert Habeck as a sign of "European solidarity and unity" and Spanish Minister for the Ecological Transition Teresa Ribera as a "spectacular step forward".
Markets were much less convinced, rising sharply following the meeting. EU nations promised to reduce their gas demand by up to 15% over the next eight months – but with details distinctly sketchy over how this would really happen. In particular, proposals to give the European Commission the power to impose mandatory cuts in times of crisis were quietly dropped.
The meeting highlighted significant differences of opinions within Europe along similar lines to the euro zone crisis of the 2010s, with Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and other peripheral nations demanding considerable leeway.
Spain and Portugal saw their required cuts in gas consumption pared down to just 7% each, with Greece negotiating the freedom not to cut at all if it believed domestic energy security was threatened. Ireland, Cyprus and Malta will make no cuts at all, justified because they were not connected to Europe’s main gas supply grid.
The Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were also given the right to use gas freely, although a complete shutdown of Russian gas would leave them dependent on sourcing supplies from elsewhere in the world to keep their power plants open.
Russian TV news shows on Tuesday highlighted what they said were serious ongoing divisions within Europe, suggesting the Kremlin might still cut off gas completely this winter and claiming that Germany's "economic miracle" in recent years was only possible due to Russian energy.
EYES ON FOOD CONVOYS
Meanwhile, Ukrainian officials said they hoped the first ships in months would sail from Odesa and nearby ports following last Friday’s deal, seen as a major diplomatic victory for Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan.
Ukrainian officials and commentators say they remain extremely sceptical that Russia will honour the deal, with some warning that initial Russian strikes against Odesa last weekend might invalidate it altogether. Ukraine has also said that it will only clear sea mines from direct routes used by grain shipping, leaving them in place elsewhere to complicate any further Russian landings.
Last week’s grain deal was covered extensively across Middle Eastern and African media, described as a "breakthrough" by Qatar-based Al Jazeera and promoted by Russian channels in Arabic as an essential "trust-building" measure. In Cairo on Saturday, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov’s speech also won hefty regional coverage – although his visits later in the week to Uganda, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo received much less attention.
Much, of course, will depend on how the war develops on the ground. In recent months, Russia has reportedly exported large quantities of grain from areas it has seized within Ukraine, particularly to Syria. However, Russian troops are now reportedly on the defensive in several of these areas, particularly in the region of Kherson, a key Ukrainian transport hub just north of Crimea.
In the short term, that might limit Moscow's ability to credibly attempt to seize Odesa or the rest of Ukraine’s Black Sea coast, perhaps one reason why the Kremlin has chosen to allow the port to re-open in the hope of a diplomatic win. In the longer run, however, as with gas, Russia may hope to sometimes constrain or halt supplies without taking direct responsibility.
That may be difficult for the West to handle, particularly when it comes to projecting a clear narrative to less-aligned developing world states. It is one thing to have strong suspicions about what Russia is doing, it can be another thing to prove them.
** Peter Apps is a writer on international affairs, globalisation, conflict and other issues. He is the founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank. Paralysed by a war-zone car crash in 2006, he also blogs about his disability and other topics. He was previously a reporter for Reuters and continues to be paid by Thomson Reuters. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party.
(Editing by Nick Macfie)