(CN) — The war in Ukraine appears to be entering a new decisive phase as Russia’s army seeks to regroup and reinforce its troops in the long-running and entrenched battle over eastern Ukraine, which has been raging for eight years between Ukrainian troops and Russia-backed separatists.
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin put immense pressure on the European Union on Thursday by signing a decree that Russian natural gas will have to be paid for in rubles starting Friday, something European leaders have refused to do.
“If such payments are not made, we will consider this a default on the part of buyers, with all the ensuing consequences,” Putin said. “Nobody sells us anything for free, and we are not going to do charity either – that is, existing contracts will be stopped.”
The move is retaliation for Western sanctions and a mechanism to shore up Russia’s hard-hit currency, which lost a lot of its value after Putin launched the Ukraine invasion on Feb. 24, though the ruble has since rebounded.
A shut-off of supplies could become disastrous for both sides because Russia’s treasury depends on energy sales and the EU faces devastating economic damage if it must go without Russian energy. German manufacturers are warning about closing factories and laying off workers if gas supplies are cut off.
So far, European leaders are talking tough about not going along with the Kremlin’s ultimatum, arguing that existing contracts stipulate payments are to be made in euros and dollars.
German Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck, the Green party minister overseeing economic affairs and climate change policy, called it “blackmail.”
“With regard to the threat, demand or consideration – one doesn’t know how to call it any more – to be made to pay in ruble, it is crucial for us that the contracts are respected. It is important for us not to give a signal that we will be blackmailed by Putin,” he said.
It remains uncertain how this showdown will end, but it is likely an agreement will be reached. One solution could be for European nations to open accounts with Gazprombank, a bank affiliated with Russian state gas giant Gazprom but which is not under Western sanctions, and make euro and dollar payments that are then converted to rubles.
Late Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged Ukrainians to steel themselves for more fighting as Russia prepares to launch a ferocious attack on Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine. He said peace negotiations for now are “still just words.”
“Today I have few words, not much time, a lot of emotions and even more tasks,” he said in a video message. “It is that kind of moment. A turning point, when we can and should talk only about the most important thing. Yes, there is an ongoing negotiation process. But these are still just words. So far no specifics.”
He added: “We will not give up anything and will fight for every meter of our land, for every person.”
Recently Russia’s general staff declared the first phase of the war was complete and that the army was going to focus on defeating a large contingent of Ukrainian forces in the plains of the Donbas region.
About 60,000 or more Ukrainian troops are believed to be battling in Donbas, where vicious fighting has been taking place ever since 2014 when Russia-backed ethnic Russian separatists declared independence from Ukraine.
Over the past eight years, bunkers, a warren of trenches, depots and fortifications were constructed along this front-line, making the fighting now that much more intense.
Videos and reports depict a battlefield with the constant sound of mortars and other artillery throughout the day, anti-aircraft gunners lighting up the nights, drones whirring overhead, tanks rumbling across fields and down broken roads, fighter jets appearing on the horizon and launching missiles. Videos show soldiers clad in camouflage and helmets dashing across fields carrying grenades, ducking behind buildings and patrolling deserted villages. The number of casualties keeps mounting on both sides too.