Putin’s counterproductive gas ‘blackmail’ hits Europe

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European leaders are showing a resolve to end their energy dependence on Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin turned up the economic pain dial for Europe Wednesday, cutting off natural-gas shipments to Poland and Bulgaria and suggesting other nations siding against his new war in Ukraine could be next. A couple of things in the reporting stood out.

No, not the European Union bluntly calling Putin’s maneuver “blackmail,” though that certainly put an exclamation point on what my colleagues correctly judged to be a “major escalation in the standoff between Russia and Europe over the war in Ukraine.”

  • What stood out to me in European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s statement denouncing the decision as “yet another attempt by Russia to use gas as an instrument of blackmail” was the obvious frustration behind the phrase “yet another attempt.”

And sure enough, Putin turning off the spigots and warning he might not be done using his country’s energy exports as leverage quickly drew another kind of reaction from European leaders: Fresh expressions of resolve to end their dependence on Russia.

Two months ago, Putin’s new war suddenly welded NATO in the kind of unity the alliance has sometimes struggled to muster since the end of the Cold War, and added prospects for new members like Sweden and Finland, an outcome he surely would hate.

Now his energy gambit also seems counterproductive over the longer term, as Europe seems suddenly willing to act on long-standing concerns its dependence on Russia means it must mute its objections to Kremlin policies or face economic pain at home.

In the Financial Times, Nastassia Astrasheuskaya, Sam Fleming, Neil Hume, Robert Wright zeroed in on Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who denounced Moscow’s “gas imperialism” but insisted “we have been preparing for this moment for years.”

“From the autumn, Poland will not need Russian gas at all. We will cope with this blackmail, with this gun to our head, in such a way that Poles will not feel it,” the FT reporters quoted him as saying.

“Poland imported 45 per cent of its gas from Russia in 2020 under a long-term contract with Gazprom. But the contract expires at the end of this year, and Poland has spent the past few years investing in infrastructure that will allow it to cope without Russian gas,” they reported.

My colleagues Emily Rauhala, Loveday Morris, Jeff Stein, Bryan Pietsch and Reis Thebault reported the cutoff and French President Emmanuel Macron’s reelection have accelerated conversations among the Western allies about how to reduce oil revenue flowing to Russia.

One idea, they reported: Payments to Russia go into a special escrow account, which Moscow could only use for purchases of things like food and medicine.

  • Another option: Collective action to try to reduce how much Europe pays for Russian oil “effectively gambling that if the Europeans insist on paying less, Russia would be forced to collect the lower revenue.”

A third thing under discussion: “If any of the measures were implemented, the United States may also threaten ‘secondary sanctions’ — sanctions on third-party countries, like China or India, that undermine Europe’s coordinated attempts to reduce Russian oil revenue.”

“Russia’s latest moves will only speed up the E.U.’s goal to ‘phase out’ Russian energy, Eduard Heger, prime minister of Slovakia, tweeted Wednesday. Norbert Röttgen, a lawmaker from Germany’s center-right Christian Democratic Union, said an oil and gas embargo is now a matter of ‘E.U. solidarity,’” my colleagues reported.

At the Associated Press, Vanessa Gera and Veselin Toshkov also noted Europe isn’t helpless “since it pays Russia $400 million a day for gas, money Putin would lose with a complete cutoff.”

And, they wrote, “Russian gas supplies to both Poland and Bulgaria already were expected to end later this year anyway.” Both countries also promised their people the lights will stay on for now, thanks to stockpiles and alternative sources of energy imports.

At the New York Times, Andrew Higgins and Matthew Rosenberg underlined that “unheated homes and cold meals” aren’t that scary for Poland and Bulgaria in the late April sunshine, and highlighted von der Leyen’s comments about new European sanctions.

“With Russian coal already covered by sanctions, Russian oil is next, she said.”

That gets me to the other thing that stood out in my colleagues’ reporting, which makes clear the outcome of this economic arm wrestling on energy is far from certain.

“Despite a U.S. embargo on oil, gas and coal, and the European coal embargo, Russia is still making about as much money from fossil fuel sales as it was making before the invasion, according to estimates by the Wednesday Group, a team of experts tracking Russian energy sales. That amounts to about $1 billion a day, and possibly $1.5 billion a day, in revenue.”

U.S. economy shrinks 1.4 percent in first quarter, raising fears of recession

“The U.S. economy unexpectedly shrank at a 1.4 percent annualized rate in the first three months of 2022 after more than a year of rapid growth, according to a Bureau of Economic Analysis report released Thursday. The new data could fuel growing concerns about a recession amid steady inflationary pressures and uncertainty over the war in Ukraine,” Abha Bhattarai reports.

Biden seeks $33 billion for Ukraine, powers to liquidate Russian assets

“The White House on Thursday announced a proposal to allow U.S. authorities to liquidate the assets of Russian oligarchs and donate the proceeds to Ukraine, seeking what appears to be broad new legal powers to expand America’s financial war on the Kremlin,” Bryan Pietsch and Jeff Stein report.

  • “The White House has not revealed legislative text behind its Russian oligarchs proposal but said the proposal ‘would improve’ the federal government’s ability to send seized funds to Ukraine. Under current law, the United States can typically only freeze — not seize or liquidate — the assets of sanctioned individuals.”

Oklahoma legislature votes to ban abortions after six weeks of pregnancy

“The Oklahoma House voted Thursday for a Republican bill that would ban abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. The measure takes effect immediately, cutting off access for patients from Texas who have flooded into Oklahoma since a similar law passed there last fall,” Caroline Kitchener reports.

In a milestone, FDA proposes ban on menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars

“The Food and Drug Administration on Thursday proposed banning menthol cigarettes, a landmark action applauded by leading health and civil rights groups that say the industry has a history of aggressively marketing to Black communities and causing severe harm, including higher rates of smoking-related illness and death,” Laurie McGinley reports.

U.N. chief speaks in Kyiv

“‘The war is evil,’ U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said Thursday on a trip to Kyiv for talks with Zelensky, days after meeting Putin at the Kremlin. The U.N. chief has tried to broker the evacuation of civilians from a steel plant in the city of Mariupol, where besieged Ukrainian fighters vowed to hold out,” Ellen Francis, Amy Cheng, Andrew Jeong, Bryan Pietsch, Rachel Pannett, Annabelle Timsit and Jennifer Hassan report.

Follow our live coverage of the war here

Lunchtime reads from The Post

Is it time to rebrand nuclear power?

“This violent history has made us like a man who is afraid of dogs because one bit him as a boy. Show him a golden retriever wagging its tail, and he sees a Rottweiler gnashing its teeth. Show us a nuclear power plant, and we see a mushroom cloud. But though they harness the same property of nature — the nuclear chain reaction — nuclear power plants and atomic bombs are separate technologies,” Harry Stevens writes.

It would be hard to dream up a tougher assignment for a public relations pro than rehabilitating nuclear power’s image. Nuclear fear is everywhere. It is in the villainous Mr. Burns’s rat-infested power plant, where Homer Simpson nods off in the control room, and toxic sludge pours into the local river. It is in monster movies such as ‘Godzilla,’ disaster movies such as ‘The China Syndrome’ and horror movies such as ‘Chernobyl Diaries.’ After decades of relentless anti-nuclear messaging, the very idea of radiation — invisible, mysterious, carcinogenic — is terrifying.”

Trump allies breach U.S. voting systems in search of 2020 fraud ‘evidence’

“Chasing proof of vote-rigging conspiracy theories, Republican officials and activists in eight U.S. locales have plotted to gain illegal access to balloting systems, undermining the security of elections they claim to protect,” a Reuters special report found.

“Previously unreported surveillance video captured one such effort in August in the rural Colorado town of Kiowa. Footage obtained by Reuters through a public-records request shows Elbert County Clerk Dallas Schroeder, the county’s top election official, fiddling with cables and typing on his phone as he copied computer drives containing sensitive voting information.”

Fears are mounting that Ukraine war will spill across borders

“The fear in Washington and European capitals is that the conflict may soon escalate into a wider war — spreading to neighboring states, to cyberspace and to NATO countries suddenly facing a Russian cutoff of gas. Over the long term, such an expansion could evolve into a more direct conflict between Washington and Moscow reminiscent of the Cold War, as each seeks to sap the other’s power,” the New York Times‘s David E. Sanger and Steven Erlanger report.

Moderna seeks authorization of coronavirus vaccine for youngest children

“Vaccine maker Moderna requested emergency use authorization Thursday of its coronavirus vaccine for babies, toddlers and young children — a highly anticipated step toward making shots available to the last group in U.S. society lacking access,” Carolyn Y. Johnson reports.

Biden to Visit South Korea, Japan in May

“President Biden will travel to South Korea and Japan in May, the White House said, amid ongoing tension with China and the continued nuclear threat from North Korea. The May 20-24 trip is Mr. Biden’s first to Asia as president, and he is scheduled to meet with South Korea’s President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida,” the Wall Street Journal‘s Alex Leary reports.

Biden will tout ‘small business boom’ in roundtable with small business owners

“The Biden administration will release a report Thursday touting what it’s calling a ‘small business boom’ under its watch, while hitting Republicans for policies it warns would ‘increase taxes on small businesses across the country,’” CNN‘s Donald Judd reports.

Biden welcomes Ukrainian refugees, neglects Afghans, critics say

“President Biden’s aggressive push to admit up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees has generated resentment among those clamoring for his administration to help extract the tens of thousands of Afghan citizens desperate to escape Taliban rule now eight months after the calamitous end of America’s war there,”  Abigail Hauslohner reports.

Biden says Americans should stop targeting teachers, banning books

“Biden said American teachers are being unfairly targeted in ‘the culture wars,’ and warned against book banning in an event at the White House Wednesday,” Reuters‘s Trevor Hunnicutt reports.

Biden will ask Congress for money to combat global hunger

“President Joe Biden’s next supplemental spending request for Ukraine will include money to deal with a spiraling global food crisis, the United States’ No. 1 diplomat said in testimony before a Senate panel Wednesday,” Roll Call’s Rachel Oswald reports.

“Nationally, rents rose a record 11.3 percent last year, according to real estate research firm CoStar Group. That fast pace of growth remained elevated in the first months of 2022, as many parts of the country continued to notch double-digit jumps in rent prices,” our colleagues report. Look up your county in this interactive map.

Build Back Better dies … again

“Guidance obtained by The American Prospect indicates that the White House has decided to ditch all references to Build Back Better, a signal that they believe that continuing to tie the project to the stalled domestic agenda would be counterproductive,Austin Ahlman writes for the American Prospect.

“The guidance instructs administration officials to immediately begin stripping any references to Build Back Better from their communications, beginning with a series of events that were planned for this week. Instead, officials have been directed to refer to the project as ‘the values-driven, high-standard, transparent, and catalytic infrastructure initiative announced by President Biden at the Carbis Bay G-7 Summit last year.’” (That’s a mouthful.)

Shunned by the right, Murkowski bets big on the center in Alaska

“Sitting in a darkened exhibition room at the Anchorage Museum on a recent Tuesday morning, Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska conceded that she might lose her campaign for a fourth full term in Congress, where she is one of a tiny and dwindling group of Republicans still willing to buck her party,” the NYT‘s Emily Cochrane reports.

“In a year when control of Congress is at stake and the Republican Party is dominated by the reactionary right, Ms. Murkowski is attempting something almost unheard-of: running for re-election as a proud G.O.P. moderate willing to defy party orthodoxy.”

  • The gamble: “For Ms. Murkowski, 64, it amounts to a high-stakes bet that voters in the famously independent state of Alaska will reward a Republican centrist at a time of extreme partisanship.”

Biden will meet with small business owners at 2 p.m.

At 5 p.m., the Bidens will host a showing of HBO’s “The Survivor” in honor of Holocaust Remembrance week.

“Early risers on Saturday will be treated to a planetary ‘conjunction’ in the morning skies. NASA says the intermingling of Jupiter and Venus, which will last only two days, will make the planets appear to ‘nearly collide.’ The two celestial bodies are among the brightest objects currently present in the night sky,” Matthew Cappucci reports.

“The conjunction will be ongoing early on the morning of April 30, but, as the planets head their separate directions in the night sky, the duo will have swapped positions.”

Thanks for reading. See you tomorrow.


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