Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is warning European countries to expect a difficult winter as Russia cuts its oil and natural gas exports to retaliate for their support of the Kyiv government in its fight against Russia’s invasion.
"Russia is preparing a decisive energy blow on all Europeans for this winter," he said in his Saturday night video address after Moscow earlier in the day shut down a main gas pipeline to the continent.
Moscow has blamed technical issues, along with economic sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies against Russia, for the energy disruptions. European countries that have sent munitions to the Kyiv government and helped train its fighters have accused Russia of weaponizing energy supplies they have purchased from Moscow.
Some war analysts say the fuel shortages and rising living costs could stress Western resolve in supporting Ukraine. Moscow says it plans to keep the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, its main gas conduit to Germany, closed and the Group of Seven or G-7 leading democratic economies said they would cap the price on Russian oil exports to limit its profits that help fund the war.
The Kremlin, in turn, said it would not sell oil to any countries that implemented the cap.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz promised Sunday that Germany would make it through the winter, telling a news conference in Berlin, "Russia is no longer a reliable energy partner."
Scholz announced a $65 billion relief plan that includes one-time payments to households, tax breaks for industries that use substantial amounts of fuel and cheaper public transportation options. The Berlin government also plans to guarantee its citizens a certain amount of electricity at a lower cost.
Zelenskyy’s wife, first lady Olena Zelenska, told the BBC she realized that higher fuel prices are imposing pain on Europeans, but that they come with an additional price for her homeland.
“I understand the situation is very tough,” she said. “The prices are going up in Ukraine, as well. But in addition, our people get killed. ... So, when you start counting pennies on your bank account or in your pocket, we do the same and count our casualties.”
On Saturday, European Union Economy Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni said that Europe is “well prepared to resist Russia's extreme use of the gas weapon” because of its storage capacity and energy conservation measures, even if Russia decides to stop all natural gas deliveries.
“We are not afraid of Putin's decisions; we are asking the Russians to respect contracts, but if they don't, we are ready to react,” Gentiloni said on the sidelines of an economic forum in Italy.
Gentiloni said that gas storage in the European Union "is currently at about 80%, thanks to the diversification of supplies," although the situation varies in each country.
Russian energy giant Gazprom said it could not resume the supply of natural gas to Germany, just hours before it was set to restart deliveries through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline. Russia blamed a technical fault in the pipeline for the move, which is likely to worsen Europe's energy crisis.
European Commission spokesperson Eric Mamer said Friday on Twitter that Gazprom acted under "fallacious pretenses" to shut down the pipeline.
Turbine-maker Siemens Energy, which supplies and maintains some of the pipeline equipment, said Friday that there was no technical reason to stop shipping natural gas.
Moscow has blamed Western sanctions that took effect after Russia invaded Ukraine for hindering the maintenance of the gas pipeline. Europe accuses Russia of using its leverage over gas supplies to retaliate against European sanctions.
The jockeying for control of energy supplies comes as Russian and Ukrainian forces traded more strikes near the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.
The head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog said Saturday that the Russian-controlled
plant in Ukraine was disconnected from its last external power line but still able to run electricity through a reserve line amid sustained shelling in the area.
International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Rafael Grossi said in a statement that agency experts, who arrived at Zaporizhzhia Thursday, were told by senior Ukrainian staff the fourth and last operational line was down. The three others were lost earlier during the conflict.
The IAEA experts learned that the reserve line linking the facility to a nearby thermal power plant was delivering the electricity the plant generates to the external grid, the statement said. That reserve line can provide backup power to the plant if needed.
“We already have a better understanding of the functionality of the reserve power line in connecting the facility to the grid,” Grossi said. “This is crucial information in assessing the overall situation there.”
In addition, the plant’s management informed the IAEA that one reactor was disconnected Saturday afternoon because of grid restrictions. Another reactor is still operating and producing electricity both for cooling and other essential safety functions at the site and for households, factories and others through the grid, the statement said.
Meanwhile, the British defense ministry said Sunday in an intelligence update on Twitter that “Russian forces continue to suffer from morale and discipline issues in Ukraine. In addition to combat fatigue and high casualties, one of the main grievances from deployed Russian soldiers probably continues to be problems with their pay.”
The ministry’s statement said, “In the Russian military, troops' income consists of a modest core salary, augmented by a complex variety of bonuses and allowances. In [the conflict with] Ukraine, there has highly likely been significant problems with sizable combat bonuses not being paid. This is probably due to inefficient military bureaucracy, the unusual legal status of the 'special military operation,' and at least some outright corruption amongst commanders.”
“The Russian military has consistently failed to provide basic entitlements to troops deployed in Ukraine, including appropriate uniform, arms and rations, as well as pay,” according to the British ministry. “This has almost certainly contributed to the continued fragile morale of much of the force.”
(VOA U.N. Correspondent Margaret Besheer contributed to this report.) Some information for this story came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.