Space, gas and food: Russia throws its full weight as it pressures the West and escalates the war

Moscow is trying to unleash its influence on space and global energy markets in a renewed effort to break Western solidarity and punish the United States and Europe for supporting Ukraine militarily for more than five months since the Russian invasion.

In the latest salvo, Russian officials said on Tuesday their country would withdraw from the International Space Station in 2024, ending decades of cooperation with the United States and its allies in space and casting doubt on the future. of the installation.

The decision came a day after Russian energy giant Gazprom said it would cut gas flows to Europe through the critical Nord Stream 1 pipeline to 20% of its capacity. The announcement immediately raised energy prices in Europe and added new urgency to Europe’s efforts to reduce consumption and store fuel.

In response to Gazprom’s decision, the European Union approved an emergency plan calling on countries to reduce their gas consumption by up to 15% in the coming months. Europe has already significantly reduced its dependence on Russian energy since the start of the war in Ukraine, but Russian fuel still accounts for around 15% of the continent’s gas consumption.

European officials say they are preparing for what could be a painful winter.

“I know the decision was not easy, but I think in the end everyone understands that this sacrifice is necessary,” Czech Industry Minister Jozef Sikela said after the emergency meeting. of the EU in Brussels. “We must, and we will, share the pain.”

“Short of Measures”

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As Europe prepared to stockpile gas, Russian warplanes struck targets in Ukraine’s Black Sea region near the strategically vital port city of Odessa. The strikes have raised fears that a landmark deal Moscow and Kyiv reached over the weekend to allow grain shipments to resume from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports could be in jeopardy.

Speculation has swirled that the Kremlin remains willing to hold global food supplies hostage as part of its broader battle plan in Ukraine and that any deal struck with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government cannot be trusted.

The Kremlin seemed to revel in the use of its influence, boasting that there is nothing more the United States and Europe can do about it. As Russia announced it would abandon the ISS, senior Kremlin officials said the West was rapidly running out of resources to hold Russia accountable for the bloody conflict in Ukraine.

“We can see that EU countries and North American nations are literally competing with each other to take hostile action against Russia,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters, according to the agency. of Russian press Tass.

“However, we can also see that they are running out of measures that they hope to pressure us and change our position,” Mr Peskov said.

The United States and its NATO allies have relied on unprecedented financial sanctions to punish Russia for invading Ukraine. The sanctions have undoubtedly weighed on the Russian economy, but they appear to have had relatively little impact on Mr Putin’s broader strategy.

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Russia’s real goal in Ukraine remains a matter of debate.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Sunday the goal was to overthrow the government of President Volodymyr Zelensky. He expressed the Kremlin’s war aims in some of the most direct terms to date as Russian forces continued to hit parts of Ukraine with artillery barrages and airstrikes.

Mr Lavrov’s remarks contrasted with the Kremlin line at the start of the war, when he stressed that Russia was not seeking to overthrow the Zelenskyy government, even as troops from Moscow closed in on Kyiv. Russia then withdrew from the capital and focused on capturing Ukraine’s industrial Donbass region to the east.

Russian troops have made slow but steady progress in the region over the past few months and now control almost all of Luhansk, one of the two Donbass provinces. The other, Donetsk, faces a major Russian ground and artillery assault.

In Washington, President Biden faced fresh criticism for his administration’s handling of the conflict.

Although the United States sent billions of dollars in military aid to Ukrainian troops, Republican critics say the White House could have taken stronger action sooner to prevent a Russian blockade of Ukrainian Black Sea ports. Such a strategy, they say, could have helped avert global food shortages resulting from disruptions in wheat and grain shipments.

“The Biden administration says its decision-making throughout the process has been deliberate and nuanced. History will probably judge otherwise,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, said on the floor of the chamber. He said the United States should have moved much more quickly to give Ukraine long-range rockets, anti-ship missiles and other weapons capable of inflicting substantial damage on Russian forces.

The “months leading up to Putin’s escalation clearly called for boldness and determination, not to mention the months that followed,” McConnell said. “But too often, the first instincts of the administration have been to move slowly and hesitate. The Ukrainians fought bravely to stop the Russian advance despite the lack of manpower and weapons. Think what they could have accomplished” with more American help at the start of the war.

flexing his muscles

Russia’s decision to leave the ISS will surely have important ramifications for global cooperation in space, a feature of the post-Cold War international landscape.

The ISS, jointly managed by Russia, the United States, Europe, Canada and Japan, has been permanently manned for 22 years. The $100 billion complex serves as a key research facility where crews test cutting-edge technology that could be used in future manned missions to the moon or even Mars.

NASA did not immediately comment on the impacts of the Russian announcement.

Moscow has made it clear that it intends to launch its own space project, possibly sparking a 21st century version of the US-Russian space race that helped define the Cold War.

Yuri Borisov, the new head of Russia’s Roscosmos space agency, said his country aims to launch its own facility by 2024. “I think by then we will start forming a Russian orbital station.” , he said during a meeting with Mr. Putin.

It is unclear what, if anything, the United States and its European allies might offer Russia for continued cooperation with the ISS. So far, the United States and NATO have insisted they will maintain economic sanctions against Moscow until all Russian troops withdraw from Ukraine.

Russia says sanctions are the main driver behind its decision to cut gas flows to Europe. Russian officials said this week the Nord Stream 1 pipeline needed repairs, but Western sanctions have made it extremely difficult to get supplies and parts.

European officials reject those explanations and say Mr Putin is determined to use the energy as a weapon.

Mr Putin is “trying to weaken the great support for Ukraine and to drive a wedge into our society”, German Economy Minister Robert Habeck told Deutsche Presse-Agentur. “To do this, it stokes uncertainty and pushes up prices.”

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.