(CN) — The chasm between Russia and the West grew even wider on Tuesday after Moscow announced an unexpected large reduction in natural gas flows to the European Union and said it will withdraw from the International Space Station in two years.
Meanwhile, on the battlefields in Ukraine fighting and fierce shelling continued for a 153rd day with reports of heavy bombardment by Russia on parts of southern Ukraine, where Kyiv is trying to push forward a counteroffensive.
With the war in Ukraine grinding on with no clear winner emerging, Russian President Vladimir Putin seems determined to test the EU’s resolve by using its vast gas and oil resources as a powerful weapon against the West in retaliation for its unprecedented sanctions on Russia and arming of Ukraine.
Late Monday, Gazprom, the Russian state-owned gas giant, said it was cutting gas flows because of maintenance work and unresolved issues related to Western sanctions on Nord Stream 1, a main pipeline into the EU. Starting Wednesday, gas supplies will be cut to about 20% of the pipeline’s capacity.
Gazprom’s move puts even more pressure on the EU, which was already struggling with soaring energy costs caused by sanctions on Russia and the war in Ukraine.
In the EU and Ukraine, Gazprom’s announcement was blasted as part of a “gas war” by the Kremlin to drive up gas prices and leave the EU unable to stock up enough gas for the coming cold months.
“Putin’s gas war against Europe is a direct continuation of his war on Ukraine,” said Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister. “Wherever he can bring harm, he will. He will use every dependence Europe has on Russia to ruin the normal life of every European family. The only way is to hit back hard and get rid of any dependence.”
On Tuesday, EU energy ministers meeting in Brussels agreed on a voluntary plan to reduce gas consumption by 15% over the colder months. But the plan also exposed growing tensions within the EU over the effects of rejecting Russian gas with a number of countries demanding exemptions and delays. Also, the new plan curtails the European Commission’s move to enforce a mandatory reduction in gas use of 15% if it deemed that necessary.
It will not be easy for the EU to replace Russian gas, which provided about 150 billion cubic meters of gas last year to the 27-nation bloc. The EU consumes about 500 billion cubic meters of gas each year. It is scrambling to find alternative sources of gas and has signed energy deals with the United States, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Qatar, Egypt and Norway.
Also Tuesday, Yury Borisov, the head of Russia’s space agency Roscosmos, said Russia will stop participating in the International Space Station and build its own space outpost.
“I think that by that time we will start putting together a Russian orbital station,” Borisov said in a meeting with Putin.
The ISS was launched in 1998 by the Russian and U.S. space agencies and has been a rare area of cooperation between Moscow and Washington.
NASA said it had not received an official notice from Russia about its plan to quit the space station. Earlier this year, NASA announced plans to keep the station in orbit until January 2031.
In Ukraine, Russia launched a barrage of missiles on a sea resort near Odesa and on Mykolaiv, a city in southern Ukraine under Kyiv's control.
In recent days, Kyiv has talked about its efforts to mount a counteroffensive in southern Ukraine. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said his forces will retake the southern city of Kherson “step by step” in the coming weeks.
There are reports that Russia is beefing up its troop levels in Kherson as the war heats up there. Russia's military also reported that it repelled Ukrainian attacks in Kherson. Russia is preparing to hold a referendum in Kherson on the region becoming part of Russia.
Fighting continued to be fierce in Donbas, the eastern region that has been the focus of Russia's invasion.
Russian and pro-Russian Ukrainian forces are attacking Ukrainian defenses in the Donetsk region, but they have run up against stiff resistance and reported few advances. There were reports that Russian forces had taken control of the Vuhlehirska power station, a large coal-powered thermal power plant near Svitlodarsk in Donetsk region.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.Follow @cainburdeau
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