WARSAW/SOFIA/KYIV — European leaders denounced Russia’s attempt to “blackmail” Ukraine’s allies over gas supplies, as Western sanctions batter the Russian economy already struggling with its worst crisis since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union.
Ukraine said Europe should stop depending on Russia for trade after it halted gas supplies to Bulgaria and Poland for not paying in roubles, as the shutoff exposed the continent’s weaknesses and divisions on Wednesday.
Germany, the biggest buyer of Russian energy, hopes to stop importing Russian oil within days, but warned a Russian energy embargo or blockade would tip Europe’s largest economy into recession.
A Russian economy ministry document indicated that Russia’s economy could shrink by as much as 12.4% this year, further evidence that foreign sanctions were taking a heavy toll.
Foreign sanctions have frozen about $300 billion of the roughly $640 billion that Russia had in its gold and foreign exchange reserves when it invaded Ukraine. Russia is also struggling with soaring inflation and capital flight, while grappling with a possible debt default due to the sanctions.
Gazprom, Russia’s gas export monopoly, suspended gas supplies to Bulgaria and Poland on Wednesday for not paying in roubles, as stipulated in a decree from Russian President Vladimir Putin that aims to soften the impact of sanctions.
“The sooner everyone in Europe recognizes that they cannot depend on Russia for trade, the sooner it will be possible to guarantee stability in European markets,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said late on Wednesday.
While the president of the European Commission said Gazprom’s suspension was “yet another attempt by Russia to use gas as an instrument of blackmail,” EU member state ambassadors asked for clearer guidance on whether sending euros breached sanctions.
France will host a meeting of EU energy ministers on May 2.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Russia remained a reliable energy supplier and denied it was engaging in blackmail.
He declined to say how many countries had agreed to pay for gas in roubles but other European customers said gas supplies were flowing normally.
Canadian lawmakers voted unanimously on Wednesday to call Russia’s attacks in Ukraine a “genocide,” with members of parliament saying there was “ample evidence of systemic and massive war crimes against humanity” being committed by Russia.
The Canadian parliament said in a motion war crimes by Russia include mass atrocities, wilful killing of civilians, the desecration of corpses, forcible transfer of children, torture, physical and mental harm, and rape.
The invasion of Ukraine which started on Feb. 24 has reduced towns and cities to rubble and forced more than 5 million people to flee abroad in a conflict that has prompted fears of wider conflict in the West, unthought-of of for decades.
Russia calls it a “special operation” to disarm Ukraine and it denies targeting civilians. Ukraine and its allies call the war an unprovoked act of aggression.
Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney urged U.N. members to focus on international justice for war crimes in Ukraine so evidence does not sit in storage – as it has done for victims of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Since the Russian invasion force was driven back at the outskirts of Kyiv last month, Moscow has refocused its operation on eastern Ukraine, starting a new offensive to fully capture two provinces known as the Donbas.
Ukraine said Russian forces had used tear gas and stun grenades to disperse a pro-Ukraine rally in Kherson, the first big city it has seized. A series of powerful explosions caused by rockets hit the center of Kherson late on Wednesday, Ria News agency reported.
Blasts were heard earlier on Wednesday in three Russian provinces bordering Ukraine, authorities said, and an ammunition depot in the Belgorod province caught fire.
Kyiv has not confirmed responsibility for these and other incidents but has described them as payback. “Karma is a cruel thing,” presidential adviser Mikhaylo Podolyak wrote on social media.
An aide to the mayor of the ruined port city of Mariupol said Russian forces had renewed their attacks on the Azovstal steel plant, where fighters and some civilians remain holed up.
Concern has increased over the prospect of the conflict widening to neighboring Moldova, where pro-Russian separatists have blamed Ukraine for reported attacks this week in their region, occupied since the 1990s by Russian troops.
(Additional reporting by Reuters journalists; Writing by Michael Perry; Editing by Robert Birsel)