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

Recognition…Hannibal Hänschke/Reuters

BERLIN — When the main natural gas link between Russia and Germany, the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, was shut down for 10 days of scheduled maintenance last week, European leaders began preparing for the possibility that Russian President Vladimir V Putin would not turn it back on in retaliation for opposing Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

But Mr Putin has suggested the gas will flow back to Europe after work on the pipeline – controlled by Russia’s state-owned energy giant Gazprom – is completed on Thursday, although he has warned supplies could be further curtailed.

The European Commission called on the 27 members of the bloc to take immediate action to cut gas consumption by 15 percent. “Russia is blackmailing us. Russia uses energy as a weapon,” Ursula von der Leyen, President of the Commission, told reporters in Brussels on Wednesday.

But analysts have pointed out that the country would lose an element of leverage in the economic struggle it has waged against the continent since Ukraine invaded if Russia cut off gas supplies to Europe, allowing Putin to take control about deliveries and prices.

Speaking to reporters late Tuesday in Tehran after a meeting with leaders of Iran and Turkey, Mr Putin warned that Gazprom will only send “half of the intended volume” through the Nord Stream pipeline. Before it was shut down for annual maintenance on July 11, flow had already been reduced to 40 percent of capacity.

Maintaining such reduced natural gas flow could be beneficial for the Russian leader, analysts said, allowing it to keep Europeans in a prolonged state of uncertainty and close to panic. Russia has already halted gas supplies to Europe through other major pipelines crossing Poland and Ukraine.

“To the extent that Putin maintains some gas flows on Nord Stream 1, he enjoys both income and influence,” said David L. Goldwyn, a former senior State Department energy diplomat who served in the first term of the Obama administration. “Once he cuts supplies, he loses both and there’s no turning back.”

European gas prices have risen to three or four times what they were a year ago, prompting a rise in inflation and concerns about social unrest as temperatures begin to drop.

The European Union imported 45 percent of its natural gas from Russia last year. In the first three months of this year it was only 28 percent. At the same time, total gas imports in the bloc rose, mainly due to a 72 percent increase in liquefied natural gas purchases.

Gazprom has blamed reduced flow through Nord Stream on a turbine that was sent to Montreal for repairs and could not be returned due to sanctions against Russia. German officials disputed Gazprom’s claim that the turbine could have caused such a blackout.

Recognition…Pool photo by Alexey Maishev

Since then, the federal government has secured the return of equipment manufactured and repaired by Siemens Energy at a facility in Canada. But Mr Putin said another of the turbines in the six compressors near Russia’s Baltic coast now needs an overhaul, noting that several others are also experiencing problems.

“If one more comes, then it’s good, two go. And if it doesn’t come, there will be, it will only be 30 million cubic meters per day,” he told reporters. That’s less than 20 percent 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 showed that a tiny amount of gas flowed through the pipeline in what appeared to be a test Tuesday afternoon. A website operated by the Gascade network operator showed that capacity was booked through Nord Stream for Thursday. These aren’t guarantees that the gas will flow, but it could indicate Russia’s continued interest in channeling gas to Europe.

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

“Maintaining Europe’s energy dependency on Russia and fueling uncertainty over natural gas supplies, which can only help boost prices,” he said, are among the reasons Mr Putin wants to keep Nord Stream online. Mr Prasad said there was the added attraction of “being able to control the economic destiny of Europe to a certain extent”.

But a return of flows from Russia this week is no guarantee they will continue in the future or be sufficient for Germany and its European partners to meet their goal of filling gas storage tanks to 80 percent 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 percent by Wednesday – just above the European average.

This week Ms von der Leyen traveled to Azerbaijan to finalize an agreement to double Azerbaijan’s natural gas imports to at least 20 billion cubic meters (706 billion cubic feet) a year by 2027 as part of Europe-wide efforts to secure gas sources outside Russia.

Germany has turned to the Netherlands and Norway for more gas and bought more liquefied natural gas from the United States and Qatar. But none of the 26 LNG terminals in Europe that are needed to convert the gas back into gas from its frozen state is in Germany.

Robert Habeck, Federal Minister of Economics and Vice Chancellor, has secured 2.94 billion euros for the lease of four floating LNG terminals. The first should go into operation by the end of the year.

But if Europe faces an unusually cold winter, it might not be soon enough to ensure Germany is heating its homes and keeping factories running. Germany has already activated two steps of a three-stage “gas contingency plan” that will bring back coal-fired power plants to replace those that run on gas and run through scenarios of what would happen if gas shut down completely.

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

“Will he give us gas? Will he break the flow? Europe is hanging on Putin’s every word again,” said Janis Kluge, a Russia analyst at the German Institute for International Politics and Security 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 reporting from Brussels, and Anton Trojanowski from Berlin.

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