July 21 (Reuters) – Russia is resuming gas supplies via a major gas pipeline to Europe on Thursday, the pipeline operator said, amid fears Moscow could use its vast energy exports to fend off Western pressure on his invasion of Ukraine.
The resumption of the reduced-capacity Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline after a 10-day maintenance hiatus comes after comments from Russia’s foreign minister showed the Kremlin’s targets had widened during the five-month war.
Sergey Lavrov told the official RIA Novosti news agency on Wednesday that Russian military “tasks” in Ukraine now go beyond the eastern region of Donbass.
Lavrov also said Moscow’s goals would expand further if the West continued to supply Kyiv with long-range weapons such as US-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS).
“This means that the geographical tasks will stretch even further from the current line,” he said, adding that the peace talks were meaningless at the moment.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov later told RIA that Moscow was not closing the door on talks with Kyiv despite Lavrov’s comments.
Fears that Russian gas supplies through Europe’s largest gas pipeline could be cut off by Moscow prompted the European Union to ask member states on Wednesday to cut gas consumption by 15% until March as as an emergency measure.
“Russia is blackmailing us. Russia uses energy as a weapon,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said, describing a complete cutoff of Russian gas flows as “a likely scenario” for which “Europe must be ready.” .
Putin had previously warned that the gas supply via Nord Stream was likely to be further reduced.
Russia, the world’s biggest gas exporter, has denied Western accusations of using its energy supplies as a tool of coercion, saying it is a reliable energy supplier.
As for its oil, Russia will not send supplies to the world market if a price cap is imposed below the cost of production, the Interfax news agency said on Wednesday quoting Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak.
FIGHT AGAINST TOLL MOUNTS
On the battlefront, the Ukrainian military reported heavy and sometimes deadly Russian shelling amid what they said were largely unsuccessful attempts by Russian ground forces to advance.
In the past 24 hours, Ukrainian forces said they destroyed 17 vehicles, some of them armored, and killed more than 100 Russian soldiers in the south and east.
The Russian-installed administration in the partially occupied Ukrainian region of Zaporizhzhia said Ukraine carried out a drone strike on a nuclear power plant there, but the reactor was not damaged.
Multiple explosions were also heard in the Russian-held southern Kherson region overnight and on Thursday, Russian news agency TASS reported.
Reuters could not independently verify the information.
The Russian invasion has killed thousands, displaced millions, and destroyed cities, especially in the Russian-speaking regions of eastern and southeastern Ukraine. It has also raised global energy and food prices and heightened fears of famine in poorer countries, with Ukraine and Russia both major grain producers.
The United States estimates that Russian casualties in Ukraine so far have reached around 15,000 killed and possibly 45,000 wounded, CIA Director William Burns said on Wednesday.
Russia classifies military deaths as state secrets even in peacetime and has not frequently updated its official casualty figures during the war.
THE UNITED STATES OPPOSES THE ANNEXES
The United States, which on Tuesday said it saw signs Russia was preparing to formally annex territory it seized in Ukraine, vowed it would oppose annexation.
“Once again, we have been clear that annexation by force would be a flagrant violation of the UN Charter, and we would not allow it to go unchallenged. We would not allow this to go unpunished,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said Wednesday during a daily briefing.
Russia annexed Crimea to Ukraine in 2014 and supports the breakaway Russian-speaking entities – the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DPR and LPR) – in those provinces, collectively known as Donbass.
Lavrov is the most prominent figure to speak openly about Russia’s war aims in territorial terms, nearly five months after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the Feb. 24 invasion while denying that Russia intended to occupy his neighbour.
Next, Putin declared that his goal was to demilitarize and “denazify” Ukraine – a statement rejected by Kyiv and the West as a pretext for an imperial-style war of expansion.
Lavrov told RIA Novosti that geographical realities have changed since Russian and Ukrainian negotiators held peace talks in Turkey in late March that yielded no breakthrough.
“Now the geography is different, it’s far from just DPR and LPR, it’s also Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions and a number of other territories,” he said, referring to territories far beyond the Donbass that Russian forces have fully or partially seized.