Russian state-owned energy exporter Gazprom PJSC said it would shut down the Nord Stream natural-gas pipeline to Germany for three days of maintenance later this month, ratcheting up the pressure on energy-starved Europe.
The unexpected move could complicate efforts by Germany and much of Europe to fill gas reserves and stave off widespread rationing to keep its population warm through the long continental winter—and avert factory shutdowns.
Moscow has already throttled back deliveries over the pipeline—its main gas link to Europe—to 20% of its maximum capacity, citing technical issues with its turbines. German and European officials have dismissed these explanations and have called the gas cuts an economic attack in retaliation for supporting Ukraine in its war with Russia.
Russia, and the Soviet Union before it, spent more than a generation building deep energy links into the heart of Europe. Cheap Siberian gas coursed reliably through pipelines for decades into power plants and home furnaces, with billions of dollars returning to Russia.
But since the months leading up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin has used Russia’s stranglehold on European energy to try to divide the West. His hope, analysts say, is to counter the economic blockade of Russia by forcing financial pain in the other direction, undermining the willingness of European capitals to funnel arms and money to Kyiv.
European leaders expect Russia will keep gas flowing at a low level to play with the region and create uncertainty. A full cutoff is also possible but would exact a cost on the energy export-dependent Russian economy, which is under strain from Western sanctions. Shutting the flow completely would leave Moscow with no more salvos to potentially fire.
Russia will continue to intermittently interrupt gas supply to Europe in the coming months to keep pressure elevated and send gas prices higher before a full interruption, said Simone Tagliapietra, a senior fellow at Bruegel, a think tank.
“European Union countries should increase action to save gas and prepare for difficult times ahead,” he said. “Winter is coming, and we cannot be unprepared.”
EU gas storages are now around 76% full, broadly in line with their historical average for this time of the year. Germany, at around 78%, has recently been filling up its storage faster than anticipated. However, even full storage might not be enough to see the region through the winter if Russian flows stop completely.
Gazprom said Friday that the maintenance would take place between Aug. 31 and Sept. 2 and if no faults are discovered, it would restore the flows at the current rate.
Gas prices in Europe, trading at record highs, rose even further on the news, with futures for gas at a trading hub in the Netherlands, the benchmark in northwest Europe, jumping more than 5%.
The energy source is used to fire electricity plants, heat homes and run factories, smelters and fertilizer plants. If Russia stops the gas over winter, Europe’s fragile economy will likely plunge into recession, analysts and officials have warned. Soaring prices for electricity forced some industrial operations in Europe to announce shutdowns this week, including energy-intensive metal forging operations.
The temporary closure wasn’t previously announced and comes just weeks after the 760-mile-long Nord Stream pipeline—which connects Russia’s prolific Siberian gas fields with Germany under the Baltic Sea—was shut for 10 days of annual maintenance in July.
After the work ended, Gazprom restored the flow, but only to 40% of the pipeline’s capacity. It later cut that to 20%, saying it couldn’t maintain normal flow without a turbine that had been undergoing maintenance in Canada. Other turbines also needed maintenance, it said.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has rejected that explanation, saying Russia refused to take delivery of the turbine. He has said there were no technical or legal reasons for reducing the gas supply.
The Kremlin has said that Russia needed to be certain the turbine wasn’t sanctioned and wouldn’t be turned off remotely under the pretext of sanctions. It has repeatedly dismissed accusations that Gazprom has meddled with gas supplies to gain political leverage.
Supply cuts via Nord Stream affect other European customers because Germany exports some of the gas abroad. It also creates global ripple effects, including in the US where natural gas prices this week hit their highest since 2008. The US has become a major exporter of super chilled liquefied natural gas to Europe.
On Friday, Gazprom said that the only remaining turbine at the pipeline’s compressor station had to undergo maintenance, calling it a routine procedure that is supposed to take place every 1,000 hours of operation of the turbine.
Germany’s Federal Network Agency, the country’s energy regulator, said Friday that it had taken note of Gazprom’s announcement and was monitoring the situation.
For Russia, cutting gas supply to Europe is a gamble. With Russian domestic storage filling up fast, more gas wells might need to be closed. Once closed, some wells lose pressure and are costly or impossible to reopen in the frigid Siberian terrain.
Russia’s options to reroute the flows to Asia or other markets are limited by its mostly European-facing infrastructure. A gas pipeline to China opened in 2019 but has limited capacity. A second one is now the subject of negotiations with Beijing but won’t be ready for years.
First opened in 2011, Nord Stream has a capacity of 55 billion cubic meters a year, enough to cover around 10% of the European Union’s annual consumption.
There are other pipelines from Russia to Europe, but flows through these have declined. Ukraine halted one gas-transit route in May, blaming interference by Russian forces. Deliveries through another called Yamal, which traditionally transported gas from Russia to Europe, have halted this year due to sanctions imposed by Russia on the Polish part-owner.
Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the European Union imported about 40% of its gas from Russia. Governments across Europe are trying to secure gas from other suppliers, including Norway, Algeria, the US and Qatar, which often comes in the form of liquefied natural gas transported by ship.
Germany is building several LNG terminals on its coast to receive shipments and has chartered five floating terminals that can handle those inflows in the short term.
The country has made other moves to get through the winter. In addition to conservation efforts, Germany plans to postpone the closure of the country’s last three nuclear power plants as it braces for a possible shortage of energy, The Wall Street Journal has reported.
Write to Georgi Kantchev at email@example.com
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