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EU braces for Russian gas cutoff, Kremlin expands war aims

With the Ukraine war entering its sixth month, the fighting looks set to rage into the winter. The European Union is preparing for a total cutoff of Russian natural gas and the Kremlin says it wants to seize even more territory in Ukraine.

(CN) — The battle lines over Ukraine hardened significantly on Wednesday with the European Union’s president telling Europeans to steel themselves for a total cutoff of Russian natural gas and the Kremlin saying it aims to conquer much more than Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.

Wednesday’s developments underscored that the war in Ukraine may drag on into the winter months, carrying with it greater risks for further military escalation, global unrest, economic recession and famine in the poorest parts of the world.

On the battlefields of Ukraine, meanwhile, fighting was again turning particularly fierce as Russian and pro-Russian Ukrainian separatist forces pushed to seize cities still holding out in the eastern Donetsk region. There also were reports that Ukraine was desperately striking back hard at Russian-held territories, including a hit on a strategic bridge in Kherson in the south.

Speaking to journalists in Brussels, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen laid out a plan to enforce, if necessary, a 15% reduction in natural gas consumption across the bloc. She said all 27 member states must begin diminishing their gas use now and stock up for the winter months.

“We have to prepare for a potential of a full disruption of Russian gas and this is a likely scenario,” von der Leyen said. “Russia is blackmailing us. Russia is using energy as a weapon.”

For the past three months, the Kremlin has been slowly squeezing Europe by cutting off gas flows to companies and countries that refuse to abide by a new payment system using rubles. EU leaders are rejecting the Kremlin's ruble scheme.

Moscow’s demands for ruble payments came in response to the United States and its allies cutting Russian banks off from the dollar-dominated international system for bank transactions.

Von der Leyen said 12 EU countries have already seen their gas from Russia cut and that the EU as a whole is taking in less than a third of what it did before the start of the Ukraine invasion.

The disruption of Russian gas is causing prices to soar in Europe and threatens to cause an economic recession. Much attention is being paid to whether Gazprom, the Russian gas giant, will announce the resumption of gas flows through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline on Thursday following scheduled maintenance.

In a bid to replace Russian gas, the EU has increased its supply from other countries by about 35 billion cubic meters, von der Leyen said. The EU is scrambling to find alternative sources of gas and it's signed new deals with the U.S., Algeria, Azerbaijan, Qatar, Norway and Egypt since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the invasion on Feb. 24.

But it will not be easy to replace Russia, which provided about 150 billion cubic meters of gas last year to the EU. The EU consumes about 500 billion cubic meters of gas each year.

Frans Timmermans, an EU commission vice-president, said Europeans must make sacrifices by taking “no-regret measures” such as switching off lights and using less air conditioning and heating.

“We remain masters of our destiny if we really do this,” he said. By giving up “a few comforts” he said the EU can “avoid a full-blown crisis next winter.”

In Moscow, meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Russian media that the Kremlin now sees it necessary to control a large swath of Ukraine to ensure Russia’s safety against the arrival of advanced Western weapons systems in Ukraine.

“Now the geography is different,” Lavrov said in an interview, as reported by RIA Novosti, a Russian state news outlet.

He said Russia must not only control Donetsk and Luhansk, two industrial regions in the east that make up Donbas, but that it needs to seize Kherson, Zaporizhzhia and “a number of other territories” to deal with the threat posed by long-distance Western weapons.

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“We cannot allow that part of Ukraine that Zelenskyy will control – or who will replace him – to have weapons that will pose a direct threat to our territory and the territory of those republics that have declared their independence,” Lavrov said, referring to the self-declared “people's republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk.

“By confessing dreams to grab more Ukrainian land, the Russian foreign minister proves that Russia rejects diplomacy and focuses on war and terror,” said Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in a statement on Twitter. “Russians want blood, not talks. I call on all partners to step up sanctions pressure on Russia and speed up arms deliveries to Ukraine.”

Russia is particularly fearful of the arrival of U.S.-supplied high mobility artillery rocket systems, known as HIMARS, to Ukraine. Twelve of these high-precision rocket launchers have been sent to Kyiv and on Wednesday the U.S. promised to send four more. Kyiv says it can win the war if it gets enough of the rocket launchers.

The HIMARS are mobile systems that shoot guided missiles with a range of about 50 miles. So far, the U.S. says it is not sending Ukraine long-distance missiles because of the risk that Kyiv would use them to hit targets inside Russia.

Kyiv has said it may use HIMARS to hit Crimea, a threat that drew an angry response from Russia, which considers the peninsula firmly part of its territory. Crimea is populated largely by ethnic Russians.

Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 following the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych, a democratically elected Ukrainian president whose decisions to steer Ukraine away from the West and toward Russia sparked a popular uprising that led to a series of bloody events and the outbreak of war in Donbas.

Russia claims to have destroyed three HIMARS launchers. Ukraine says it has struck Russian command posts, ammunition and fuel depots and other targets with the HIMARS.

On Wednesday, officials in Russian-held Kherson said a HIMARS attack hit the Antonovsky Bridge, one of two strategic bridges that cross the Dnieper River in the southern region. The bridge is considered key for Russia to supply its troops fighting to hold Kherson, a region on the Black Sea that fell to Russia at the outset of the invasion.

Ukraine is attempting to retake Kherson and vowed to push Russian forces off the Black Sea coast. Ukraine's grain shipments have been largely blocked because of Russia's occupation of large swaths of its Black Sea coast. A deal to unblock grain shipments, considered vital to ease a global food shortage, may be close.

Reports from the battlefields in Ukraine indicate that fierce fighting is taking place at numerous points on the front lines, which extend roughly 600 miles in a jagged curve from Sumy along Ukraine's northeastern border with Russia down to Kherson on the Black Sea.

Ukraine continues to strike areas inside the Russian territory along the border and to launch missiles against Russian-held cities in eastern Ukraine with many of rockets landing around Donetsk, the region's main industrial city that has been under Russian control since 2014.

In a worrisome development, there have been reports of explosions at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Europe's largest. The power plant, built by the Soviet Union, is near the city of Enerhodar, which fell under Russian control early in the invasion.

Russian officials accused Ukraine of attacking the plant with drones. Ukrainian sources said Russia was using the plant to store weapons and soldiers.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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