Tue. May 28th, 2024
Ukrainian flag in blue and yellow, wrapped over sky and grain

Plus, what’s happening in Moldova, and why we should be concerned.

Gas: Russia kicks off its blackmail campaign

Moscow told Poland and Bulgaria it would halt gas supplies from Wednesday, following their refusal to pay the Russian energy giant Gazprom in roubles, in an apparent warning shot to the rest of Europe. Gas supplies to Poland through the Yamal pipeline briefly halted early on Wednesday before resuming, EU transmission data showed.

The decision to halt supply followed Poland’s announcement on Tuesday that it was imposing sanctions on 50 entities and individuals – including Russia’s biggest gas company – over Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

Andriy Yermak, the chief of staff to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said Russia was “beginning the gas blackmail of Europe”.

“Russia is trying to shatter the unity of our allies. Russia is also proving that energy resources are a weapon. That is why the EU needs to be united and impose an embargo on energy resources, depriving the Russians of their energy weapons.”

The move will be a grave concern to those countries who are the most heavily dependent on Russian gas, such as Germany, but at a hastily arranged press conference, Polish ministers said they had sufficient supplies to weather an interruption while accusing Gazprom of a breach of contract.

Following Russia’s gas supply threat, Anna Moskwa, Poland’s minister for climate, said: “There are no worries about shortages of gas in our homes. It is worth pointing out that liquified natural gas alone supplies the market sufficiently. LNG deliveries in [terminal] Świnoujście are growing – in 2015 there was one, in 2021 it was already 35. As of today, it provides for about 50 deliveries.” She added: “Appropriate diversification strategies that we have introduced allow us to feel on the safe side in this situation.” Meanwhile, PGNiG, Poland’s largest gas supplier, said it would file a breach of contract lawsuit over Gazprom’s decision.

Russia currently supplies about 55% of Poland’s annual demand of about 21bn cubic metres (bcm) of gas but the country’s government has still been pushing the EU and other western allies to go further in punishing the Kremlin.

On Tuesday, Bulgaria’s energy ministry said it had been told that supplies of Russian gas via the TurkStream pipeline would also cease on Wednesday. Once a close ally of Moscow, Bulgaria has cut many of its ties with Russia, supporting sanctions against Russia and providing humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

Kiril Petkov, the country’s prime minister, and members of his coalition government were due to travel to Kyiv on Wednesday for aid talks with Ukrainian officials.

The Balkan country meets more than 90% of its gas needs with Russian imports, but the government insisted that no restrictions would be imposed on domestic gas consumption would be imposed for.

The NGO Europe Beyond Coal has calculated that the EU has sent more than €41bn (£34.7bn) to Russia in payments for fossil fuels since it invaded Ukraine two months ago. Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, had already said he intended to ban Russian gas and oil imports by the end of the year and there has been a move to diversify to cover for losses.

The key Yamal pipeline carries natural gas from Russia to Poland and Germany, through Belarus. But the Polish government had made a clear move away from dependency by constructing a liquefied natural gas terminal in the Baltic port of Świnoujście, run by Qatari and US companies, which is capable of handling 5 bcm of gas. It is being expanded to 7.5 bcm by 2023.

The extent to which Polish industry will be able to rely on this flow is yet to be seen, however, and other countries will be worried about the development.

Moscow had warned clients in March that they risked having their gas supplies cut unless they paid in roubles. The European Commission had nevertheless said companies should continue to pay Gazprom in the currency agreed in their contracts, about 97% of which are in euros or dollars. The only EU leader who has suggested he would pay Gazprom in roubles was Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, whose right-wing government has pursued a close relationship with Putin’s regime for over a decade.

The move by the Kremlin comes as EU member states are drawing up a sixth wave of sanctions, but there remains a reluctance in Berlin, in particular, to go hard on gas imports given the German economy’s dependence on Russia in that field.

In early April, Germany’s chancellor, Olaf Scholz, told the Bundestag that the country’s energy reliance had “grown over decades and cannot be ended from one day to the next”, given that it would lead to the rationing of energy to industry and the potential closure of its largest factories. On Tuesday, Gazprom denied that gas flows to Poland had been stopped. Spokesperson Sergei Kupriyanov said: “Today Poland has to pay for gas supplies according to the new payment procedure.”

Meanwhile, Russia’s threats to cut off European gas supply could worsen UK cost-of-living crisis, experts warn

Michael Grubb, Professor of Energy and Climate Change at University College London (UCL), said the UK could be facing an energy crisis if Russia cuts gas supplies. European gas prices rose by as much as 28 per cent on Wednesday after Russia’s Gazprom halted supplies to Poland and Bulgaria, saying the countries had failed to meet a deadline for rouble payments.

It marked the first time Russia has cut off gas to European customers since its invasion of Ukraine, with fears of a ripple effect across the continent and in Britain. Although Russia only supplies four per cent of the UK’s liquefied natural gas (LNG), Britain’s gas market is tightly connected to Europe by pipelines and prices are closely correlated. A new pipeline delivering gas from Norway, known as the “Baltic Pipe”, comes online in October. It should reach full capacity by the end of the year and could replace all Russian deliveries.

About half of the UK’s gas comes from the North Sea, while a third is sourced from Norway. But because the UK does not buy its gas supply from Norway through a contract, but rather through “spot” purchases, greater international demand for Norwegian gas could mean Britain is more vulnerable to higher gas prices from October. The rise would come in the same month that experts have forecast that the energy price cap could shoot up by another £629, as they warn of a potentially “horrific” rise in the cost of living.

Professor Grubb, said it was a “dereliction of duty” for the Government not to warn the public that Britain’s gas supply is vulnerable to the situation in Russia.

“How much of the UK’s supply comes directly from Russia is actually not very relevant if you’re buying from an international market for which Russia is a contributing factor. You go back only a couple of years and the standard tariff customers were paying for energy was about £1,000 a year. That [price cap] is already set to go up to £2,000 this year, and this kind of price rise we’re seeing would tip it to £3,000 a year,” he said.

The Government has insisted it is “confident” UK gas supply will not be disrupted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and that “the energy price cap has insulated millions of customers from volatile global gas prices”.

However, Professor Grubb warned that greater competition for gas in Europe as a result of Russia’s threats could drive up UK prices and create a “serious crisis”. British households have already suffered a record increase in energy bills to almost £2,000 a year for a typical home because of soaring wholesale prices over the past winter. Analysts have predicted a further rise to as high as £2,600 in October if prices do not moderate, not quite as much as Grubb’s prediction, but still too much.

“This is going to be a really serious crisis,” said Professor Grubb. “This is not peanuts. This is not tinkering around the margins of people’s wallets. This is quite a fundamental hit to a lot of very poor people. Basically it’s going to be a horrible mess. There is a lot of burying heads in the sand about what this will do to people who are living on the margins. By the time you’ve paid for rent and food, and you’ve just lost another few thousand on your energy bill? Yeah, this is gonna be a really serious crisis.”

“Our saving grace at the moment is that we’re entering summer, so there’s not this massive need for gas at the moment,” he added. “But just how bad it will get will depend on what happens in Russia and what happens internationally to demand.”

Jack Sharples, research fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies (OIES), said that while it is extremely unlikely the UK will see gas rationing later this year, a spike in energy prices could mean the poorest families will not be able to afford to heat their homes.

“In terms of physical gas supply, we’ll probably be ok — touch wood. But what you can’t guarantee is that gas isn’t going to be incredibly expensive. And let’s face it, if you’re a household consumer and you can’t afford gas, then it’s not available to you. There’s not a global shortage of diamonds that prevents me from buying a diamond necklace for my wife, but they are fundamentally unavailable to me because of their price.”

Mr Sharples also warned that a rise in gas prices because of the Ukraine war could hit the UK at the same time that British households are likely to face a further rise to the energy price cap.

However, as Johnson attempts to deal with the cost of living crisis before the council elections in May, Sunak hints at U-turn on windfall tax for oil and gas industry.

Rishi Sunak has hinted that he could perform a U-turn and introduce a windfall tax on UK oil and gas companies, unless they ramp up investment in new energy projects. The chancellor has long argued against such a levy, which is backed by Labour, on the grounds that it would deter investment in the North Sea and in green-energy projects.

But he is under growing pressure to offer more help to families struggling with the cost-of-living crisis and on Wednesday suggested that he might reconsider his position. Speaking to the online parents’ forum Mumsnet, the chancellor said he had not introduced a windfall tax in last month’s Spring Statement, in spite of rocketing profits in the oil and gas sector, because he wanted companies to invest.

He highlighted the announcement by Shell this month that it planned to invest £20bn-£25bn in the UK energy system over the next decade and had earmarked more than 75 per cent for low- and zero-carbon projects, including offshore wind, hydrogen and electric-vehicle infrastructure.

But he added: “What I would say is that if we don’t see that type of investment coming forward, and companies are not going to make those investments in our country and energy security, then of course that’s something I would look at and nothing is ever off the table in these things.”

Sunak’s refusal to contemplate a windfall tax on the North Sea oil and gas companies, at least so far, has left him exposed to Labour criticism that he is not doing enough to help households facing higher energy and food bills. This week, Boris Johnson told his ministers to come up with ideas to cut the cost of living that would not incur extra costs for the Treasury.

A cabinet meeting on Tuesday spawned a series of ideas including the removal of the need for an annual MoT test for cars, cuts to health and safety laws and a unilateral cut in tariffs on food imports, a policy opposed by Anne-Marie Trevelyan, trade secretary.

Sir Keir Starmer, Labour leader, said Johnson was the “Comical Ali of the cost-of-living crisis”, because he was failing to come up with significant measures to help households. Starmer told MPs in the Commons: “North Sea oil producers are making so much unexpected profit that they call themselves a ‘cash machine’. That cash could be used to keep energy bills down.”

Other senior government figures were, however, sticking to the official government line that a windfall tax on the oil and gas sector would be a bad idea. Dominic Raab, justice secretary, on Wednesday called the idea “disastrous”, while Boris Johnson rejected it at Wednesday’s prime minister’s questions as a “tax on business”.

Northern Ireland and the EU: more gas!       

Boris Johnson’s tough new stance on the post-Brexit status of Northern Ireland has set off alarm bells in the Treasury, where officials fear it could provoke the EU into starting a trade war, which would worsen the cost of living crisis. Johnson has been secretly drawing up legislation that would give ministers sweeping powers to tear up the post-Brexit deal governing trade in Northern Ireland, the NI protocol. But senior officials have told the FT that the move has worried the Treasury, which fears that if Johnson used the powers it could lead to a damaging retaliation from Brussels.

“If you have a trade war that will have an impact on the economy, especially when you have an actual war going on in Europe,” said one. Another confirmed the policy was causing concern at the Treasury.

Johnson told ministers this week to come up with ways to cut the cost of living, but Treasury officials fear a trade war would push up prices further. So far Rishi Sunak, chancellor, has not been involved in the detail of the policy, drawn up in conditions of secrecy by Johnson with Liz Truss, foreign secretary, and Brandon Lewis, Northern Ireland secretary. Johnson has confirmed he is prepared to legislate to allow ministers to revoke parts of the protocol, which keeps Northern Ireland in the EU single market for goods, thereby creating a trade border in the Irish Sea.

The proposed Northern Ireland bill, whose existence was disclosed by the FT this month, has yet to be approved by the cabinet. Last year Sunak warned about the economic risks of unilaterally scrapping parts of the protocol. On Wednesday Johnson told MPs: “There is clearly an economic cost to the protocol. That is also now turning into a political problem.” The pro-UK Democratic Unionist party opposes the protocol and the border in the Irish Sea. The region is holding elections on May 5th.

Last autumn the EU discussed possible retaliatory measures as Johnson flirted with the idea of suspending parts of the protocol. Since then Emmanuel Macron, who takes the hardest line on the issue, has been re-elected as president of France. Many diplomats are furious with Johnson for raising the dispute when the west is struggling to maintain unity on sanctions on Moscow. “We are sick of hearing of Boris’ emotional difficulties [with the EU],” said one diplomat. “There are bigger things to worry about.” However European diplomats insisted this week the EU will not be provoked into a trade war with the UK, and that the bloc would be patient. They did not want a fight with Johnson that would boost his popularity with pro-Brexit Tory MPs.

“We don’t want to become part of a Tory leadership contest,” said one diplomat, referring to the possibility that Johnson could be challenged by his own MPs. The diplomat noted that any legislation would be opposed in the House of Lords and it could be months before the UK could use it. “We don’t want to make life impossible for a future Tory leader,” he added.

“Why should we react?” said one official, adding that the plan was to hope Johnson was ousted and the bloc could build a more pragmatic relationship with his successor. Another senior official said the Ukraine crisis was absorbing all the EU’s time and attention. “Those conversations [about retaliation] have not happened. Nobody is focused on the UK. Since February 24 the only big thing on our plate has been Ukraine and Russia.”

EU countries are wary of inflicting further pain on their own companies and consumers already struggling with rising prices partly caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. They are also relying on the US to restrain Johnson. Washington reacted to the FT’s report on the UK’s plans to legislate by reiterating the importance of the Northern Ireland protocol to peace on the island.

Lord David Frost, former Brexit secretary who negotiated the protocol, said on Wednesday it would be “entirely reasonable” for the government to act unilaterally to override elements of the deal in domestic law. He said the protocol was not intended to be “a permanent feature” of Britain’s relationship with the EU. “It would be entirely wrong and unwarranted to draw any conclusions about our wider attitude to international law,” he said, in a speech at the Policy Exchange think-tank.

So the Deputy Prime Minister doesn’t like Sunak’s ideas for a windfall tax. And Sunak isn’t being included in certain talks. Does this mean there’s trouble in paradise?

What’s the EU’s response to the gas issue?

France will host a meeting of EU energy ministers on May 2 to discuss how to deal with Russia’s decision to halt gas supplies to Poland and Bulgaria, said French energy and environment minister Barbara Pompili on Wednesday.

“In light of the halt to deliveries of Russian gas to Poland and Bulgaria, Europeans need to remain united and show solidarity with one another. I will organise a meeting on Monday afternoon with my counterparts for a special meeting of the EU ministers in charge of energy,” added Pompili on her Twitter feed.

Ukraine developments

  • A series of blasts were heard in the Russian city of Belgorod near the Ukrainian border amid reports an ammunition depot caught fire, local officials said. Regional governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said he woke “to a loud sound like an explosion” at about 3.35am in an update posted to Telegram. The explosions were said to have come from near the village of Staraya Nelidovka which lies about 40km away from the border.
  • Russia’s security council secretary has warned that Ukraine will “break up into several states” if the west does not end its support for Kyiv’s resistance to President Vladimir Putin’s invasion. Nikolai Patrushev, one of Putin’s closest confidants, said on Tuesday that Ukraine would collapse “as a result of the policy of the west and the Kyiv regime it controls”. Patrushev told the state-run newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta that the US “had decided to create an antipode to our country and cynically chose Ukraine in an attempt to split up an essentially united people”. He said the US had spent years teaching Ukrainians “exceptionality” and “hatred of everything Russian”. He added: “If anything does unite the peoples living in Ukraine, it is only fear of the atrocities of nationalist battalions,” referring to marginal defence forces that Moscow claims have hijacked the levers of power in Kyiv at the west’s behest.
  • The US pledged a further $322mn in military funding to Ukraine, after Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, and Lloyd Austin, defence secretary, made a trip to Kyiv last Sunday. A senior state department official said the US will move embassy staff back to Kyiv as soon as possible. Ukraine’s defence minister predicted the country’s fight with Russia will fundamentally change because of Ukraine’s successful effort to obtain more modern and longer-range western weaponry. The US facilitated the supply of spare parts to Kyiv to get 20 warplanes back in the air and vastly expanded the range of heavy weaponry it is delivering to the war-torn country.

NATO meeting in Germany

Western countries will “keep moving heaven and earth” to supply Ukraine with weapons to defend itself against Russia’s invasion, US defence secretary Lloyd Austin has pledged. Austin was speaking on Tuesday at a conference at the US air base in Ramstein, Germany, aimed at shoring up continued support for Ukraine and co-ordinating weapons supplies. NATO countries and other allies would meet Kyiv’s “changing requirements” for weapons, he said.

“I would like this whole group today to leave with a common and transparent understanding of Ukraine’s near-term security requirements because we are going to keep moving heaven and earth so that we can meet them,” Austin told a group of defence ministers from more than 40 countries. Ukraine needed help to win the war “today”, he added.

Addressing Ukraine’s minister of defence Oleksiy Reznikov, he added: “You should know that all of us have your back . . . to strengthen the arsenal of Ukrainian democracy.” Ukraine has called for more heavy and long-range weapons from western partners as Russia’s invasion shifts focus to the east and south of the country, suggesting a more brutal and attritional war lies ahead.

“This gathering reflects the galvanised world,” Austin said at the conference, which follows his visit to Ukraine this weekend. “I know that we are all determined to keep meeting Ukraine’s needs as the conflict evolves. We have much more to do.”

Germany to reverse Ukraine arms stance with armoured vehicle delivery

Germany announced it will deliver “Gepard” armoured vehicles to Ukraine, after weeks of refusing to send heavy weaponry directly to the authorities in Kyiv. The Gepards will not be supplied by the German government but by the vehicles’ manufacturer, KraussMaffei Wegmann (KMW). KMW announced in February that it had about 50 of the vehicles which could be quickly overhauled and sent to Ukraine. The Gepard is principally used to attack airborne targets.

Defence minister Christine Lambrecht announced the decision at the Ukraine conference being held at Ramstein, a US air base in western Germany, a German official indicated. US defence secretary Lloyd Austin, the Ukrainian defence minister and NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg also attended the event, on Tuesday morning.

The Gepard, “cheetah”, is a self-propelled anti-aircraft weapon. Lambrecht also said that Germany will train Ukrainian soldiers to use the tank howitzer 2000, which the Netherlands is supplying to Ukraine. The announcement will go some way to assuaging the strong international criticism that has been heaped on Germany in recent days over its stance on weapons shipments to Ukraine.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz has said repeatedly that sending tanks to Ukraine risked escalating the war into a nuclear conflict between NATO and Russia, and Berlin has been accused of hesitancy and a reluctance to help the government in Kyiv as it girds itself for a large-scale Russian offensive in the eastern border region of Donbas.

UK warns of three-pronged Donbas assault by Russia

The UK has warned that Moscow is preparing a multipronged assault in eastern Ukraine, saying Russian forces are trying to encircle Ukrainian fighters and could attack from their south-east strongholds. Russia attacked Ukraine along multiple axes when it invaded on February 24 but has recently switched to trying to seize territory in the Donbas region in the east. Its troops have initiated an artillery bombardment of Ukrainian forces in the area, where there has been fighting since 2014.

“Russian forces are likely attempting to encircle heavily fortified Ukrainian positions in the east of Ukraine,” the UK Ministry of Defence said on Tuesday.

The city of Kreminna, west of the line of control between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists, had “reportedly fallen”, the department added. The MoD said Russian forces were attacking from the north and east around Izium, a strategic town west of the previous front line.

“Heavy fighting is reported south of Izium, as Russian forces attempt to advance towards the cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk from the north and east,” the MoD said yesterday.

James Heappey, UK armed forces minister, told Sky News the conflict in Donbas would be a “very different type” from the one around Kyiv.

“I think we’ll see a conflict between two forces that are much more evenly balanced, where the Ukrainians have the advantage of defensive positions that have been dug in and prepared over the last eight years,” Heappey said. There was “every chance” the Ukrainians could see the Russians off, he added.

However, the MoD said Ukrainian forces could face an assault in the south-east, where Russian forces made rapid advances since the invasion. Ukraine has been shoring up defences in Zaporizhzhia in preparation for a potential attack from the south, the ministry said.

The latest MOD update as follows:

“Approximately 20 Russian Navy vessels are currently in the Black Sea operational zone, including submarines. The Bosporus Strait remains closed to all non-Turkish warships, rendering Russia unable to replace its lost cruiser Moskva in the Black Sea. Despite the embarrassing losses of the landing ship Saratov and cruiser Moskva, Russia’s Black Sea Fleet retains the ability to strike Ukrainian and coastal targets.”

Turkey’s Erdogan urges Putin to renew Ukraine peace talks

Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has urged Vladimir Putin to return to talks with Ukraine, telling the Russian leader that “everyone would benefit” from a renewed drive for peace. The Turkish leader, who has strived to play a role as a mediator in the conflict, told Putin there was an urgent need for a ceasefire in Ukraine as well as humanitarian corridors to enable evacuations, according to a statement published by his office.

He said that “everyone would benefit from returning to the positive momentum” of talks between Russian and Ukrainian negotiators that took place in Istanbul this month, the statement added.

Putin told Erdogan that Russia was making “constant efforts” to set up humanitarian corridors and told him fighting had ended in Mariupol after it was “liberated” by Russian forces. The Russian president called upon Ukraine to order the remaining 2,000 fighters barricaded into the Azovstal steel works to lay down their weapons.

The Financial Times reported this week that Putin had lost interest in diplomatic efforts to end the war that he launched two months ago, and instead appeared set on seizing as much territory as possible. Erdogan, who has a close relationship with both Putin and Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky, has in recent days pushed to revive the moribund negotiations. He spoke with Zelensky on Sunday, telling him that Ankara stood ready to help in any way, including through mediation.

UN calls for almost $2bn to support Ukraine’s refugees

More than half of Ukraine’s 44mn pre-war population has been uprooted or stranded by the war against Russia, as the UN refugee agency called for nearly $2bn in support. The war has uprooted at least 12.7mn people in the past two months, of whom “more than 5mn have fled as refugees across the borders and 7.7mn remain displaced inside the country”, the UNHCR said on Tuesday.

Almost 13mn more are thought “to be stranded in affected areas or unable to leave due to security risks”, the Geneva-based agency said in its statement. The UNHCR has launched a regional refugee response plan that it said required $1.85bn to support the 8.3mn people it expects to flee Ukraine this year. The money will be used to fund “the protection, food security, health and nutrition, education, basic needs, water, sanitation and hygiene, livelihoods and resilience, energy and environment and logistics”, the agency said.

“Transitional cash assistance, which has already benefited tens of thousands of refugees in neighbouring countries, is a key priority in providing dignified assistance to refugees,” it added.

An update on the grain export situation

Russia launched two missile strikes and damaged a strategic bridge in Ukraine’s Odesa region, state railways and local officials said on Wednesday, an event that could affect Ukrainian plans to expand exports through Danube ports. The bridge links mainland Ukraine with part of the Odessa region near the mouth of Danube.

The bridge across the Dniester Estuary is a part of the only fully Ukrainian-controlled railway route to Ukraine’s ports on Danube, which Kyiv regarded as a promising route for exports in a situation where Black Sea ports are blocked.

Ukraine, a major agricultural producer, used to export most of its goods through seaports but since Russia’s invasion in February has been forced to export by train via its western border or via its small Danube river ports.

The first attack was on Tuesday evening, and as a result of a rocket hit, the bridge over the estuary was damaged, however, according to local officials, it could be quickly restored. The second blow was on Wednesday morning and the condition of the bridge has not yet been reported. The state-run Ukrzaliznytsia railways declined to comment.

“The railway branch suffered, of course. Effect is minus 150 or more wagons/containers with metal and grain per day,” Roman Rusakov, the representative of Ukrainian agriculture ministry, told Reuters. He said the share of grain cargoes in Izmail’s overall shipments was not so high and “there will be no significant changes”.

The railways data showed that around 1,000 wagons with various cargoes as of mid-April, including 238 wagons with grain, were at Izmail station, Ukraine’s major Danube port. Ukrainian agriculture and transport officials have said the country is seeking to boost the export capacity of Danube river ports which allow grain to be shipped through the Danube to Romanian Black Sea ports.

European Union member Romania shares borders of the Black Sea with Bulgaria, Turkey, Georgia and Ukraine.

The Romanian Black Sea port of Constanta this week said Ukraine had sent around 80,000 tones of grains to the port so far, with more expected to arrive. The port, which has a storage capacity of around 2 million tonnes handled exports of some 24 million tonnes last year. Ukrainian traders say that in the absence of a direct railway route, grain deliveries can be carried out by already actively used road routes. Grain can also be delivered from the north along the already existing route through Moldova,

There was another rail route to Izmail, passing through the territory of Moldova’s breakaway region of Transdniestria, but in early March a key bridge of the route was also blown up.

Where is Moldova, why is it important, and what is happening there?

See the map! Moldova has a breakaway Russian speaking region (Transnistria, or Transdniestria) sandwiched between Moldova itself (capital Chisinau) and Transnistria (capital Tiraspol).

What has happened there this week?

Explosions have hit a state security building in Transnistria, a breakaway Moldovan republic controlled by pro-Russian separatists that hosts Russian troop bases. On Monday, a rocket-propelled grenade was used against the security service headquarters of Russian-backed separatists in Tiraspol, Transnistria’s administrative centre.

Local authorities said explosions caused by a rocket-propelled grenade attack had struck a state security building in the city of Tiraspol, Transnistria’s capital. Moldovan and Ukrainian officials described the incident as a provocation and potential pretext for further escalation in the conflict.

After failing to capture Ukraine’s capital city Kyiv, Russia has concentrated its invading forces on seizing more territory in Ukraine’s east and southern coastal regions stretching towards the Ukrainian port of Odesa, which is close to Transnistria.

On Tuesday, there were blasts at a regional military unit and telecommunications towers used to broadcast Russian radio.

Moldova’s president Maia Sandu called a meeting of the Supreme Security Council in connection with the incidents, after the explosions on Tuesday destroyed antenna towers broadcasting Russian radio in the region.

And what really happened?

No-one is certain, but Russia has been accused of ‘false flag’ attacks in Transnistria to drag Moldova into war, seeking to capture a strip of Ukraine’s coastline leading to Moldova and the breakaway Transnistria region.

Moscow claims to be concerned about events in the Russia-backed Moldovan breakaway region of Transnistria, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday, but does not plan to contact the Moldovan president about it.

“We are very closely monitoring how the situation is developing,” said Peskov. “The news coming from there certainly causes worry.” Moscow said several days ago the region could be drawn into the war in Ukraine, after claiming there were instances of “oppressing the Russian- speaking population.” While Russia backs Transnistria’s separatist government, the territory is not internationally recognised as independent from Moldova.

Maia Sandu is the president of Moldova, and widely seen as pro-western. Her office made a statement after the president held the meeting with her security council.

Sandu spoke amid deepening fears that two days of explosions in Transnistria, where Russia has more than 1,000 troops, could pull the region into Moscow’s war against Ukraine.

“What is happening in the last 24 hours in the Transnistrian region is an escalation of tensions,” Sandu said. “The Moldovan authorities are following with caution and vigilance the events taking place in the territory controlled by the Tiraspol regime,” Sandu said.

“This makes the Transnistrian region vulnerable and poses risks to the Republic of Moldova,” she said, adding that she condemned “any challenges and attempts to lure the Republic of Moldova into actions that could jeopardise peace in the country”.

Moldova, which is mainly Romanian-speaking, lost control of Transnistria during a brief war in the early 1990s. The territory’s pro-Russian authorities are supported by the Russian garrison.

Although Sandu’s statement made no connection between the explosions and Russia’s invasion of neighbouring Ukraine, an adviser to Ukraine’s president on Tuesday urged co-operation between the two countries. Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser in the office of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, echoed Sandu’s concerns.

“Russia wants to destabilise the Transnistrian region,” he tweeted, adding that Ukraine and Sandu’s government in Chisinau had common interests. “If Ukraine falls, Russian troops will be at Chisinau’s gates,” he wrote, adding that the countries should work “as a team”.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy said he believed Russia was trying to destabilise Moldova’s Transnistrian region after the series of explosions, adding that Ukrainian armed forces were ready for a possible escalation by Russian troops in the temporarily occupied territory. “The goal is obvious – to destabilise the situation in the region, to threaten Moldova. They show that if Moldova supports Ukraine, there will be certain steps,” Zelenskiy said in his latest national address.

The announcement came hours after authorities in Transnistria, where Russia has more than 1,000 troops based, reported that two explosions had destroyed antenna towers broadcasting Russian radio in the region.

Will Moldova be drawn into the war?

It’s a small country. Russia could overrun it easily. And if the Russian take the whole northern coast of the Black Sea, you can see Moldova’s strategic importance to them.

Will war spread?

There’s a reaction this morning to comments last night by the UK’s Foreign Secretary that Russia should be pushed out of the whole of Ukraine.

The apparent escalation in military goals has been welcomed as “absolutely the right approach” by former NATO deputy Supreme Commander Europe General Sir Richard Shirreff.

“It’s got to be followed through with significant resources, and it’s got to be done right across the alliance, as a whole,” Sir Shirreff tells BBC Radio 4’s Today.

The former military commander cautioned that Putin may respond aggressively, but argued that this escalation was necessary to show that the West was serious. “The worst case is war with Russia. By gearing itself up for the worst case it is most likely to deter Putin, because ultimately Putin respects strength.”

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin (predictably) warned of lightning-fast retaliation if countries interfere in Ukraine, while U.S. President Joe Biden was set to comment on Thursday in support of Ukraine’s fight against “Russia’s brutal war”.

Russia has told the United States to stop sending arms to Ukraine, saying large Western deliveries of weapons were inflaming the conflict. Addressing lawmakers in St Petersburg on Wednesday, Putin said the West wanted to cut Russia up into different pieces and accused it of pushing Ukraine into conflict with Russia.

“If someone intends to intervene in the ongoing events from the outside, and create strategic threats for Russia that are unacceptable to us, they should know that our retaliatory strikes will be lightning-fast,” said Putin, according to video of his address supplied by Russian media. “We have all the tools for this, things no one else can boast of having now. And we will not boast, we will use them if necessary. And I want everyone to know that.”

Big words, I feel, from a little man. I don’t think at the moment that this will escalate to nuclear war. Russia has far too much to lose, and there are too many people invested in it not escalating.

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