MOSCOW – Natural gas, which is already in short supply in Europe in the autumn, started moving away from Germany and back to the east on Saturday in an unusual plant in a large Russian gas pipeline, Russian media report.
In itself, the Russian reports were not a cause for alarm, and the giant Russian energy company Gazprom announced on Saturday that it was fulfilling all European orders. A Russian media report even suggested that the turnaround was a short-term problem caused by mild weather in Germany over the weekend.
But the turnaround comes amid a political explosion in gas prices in Europe and accusations that the Kremlin is restricting gas supplies for political purposes. One such intention is to encourage the EU to approve a new Nordstream 2 gas pipeline that would bring gas from Russia directly to Germany, past Eastern Europe.
Overall, analysts say, the Kremlin may be sending a message about renewable energy, illustrating that moving too far away from natural gas will leave the continent vulnerable to volatile wind and solar supplies.
Analysts say Russia has been slowly supplying fuel for weeks to make up for deficits, often by limiting supplies to its own warehouses. The reversal of the flow direction on the main Yamal-Europe gas pipeline was seen as a potential new crease.
The pipeline connects Russia with Germany and crosses Belarus and Poland. It accounts for about 20 percent of Russia’s land supply capacity for the European Union, indicating a significant deficit if its operation were to stop.
A report by the state-run Tass news agency offered no explanation for the change of direction. He cites a German energy company Gascade, which says that the currents in the Yamal-Europe pipe stopped and even turned slightly, causing gas to be sent east from Germany to Poland.
Gascade did not respond to a request for comment.
The Kremlin has experience with the political use of gas. In the 2000s, Russia halved supplies to a Western-leaning government in Ukraine, resulting in widespread shortages across Eastern Europe, and in mid-January, people shivered in unheated homes.
To avoid Russian energy embargoes, many Eastern European countries that are politically at odds with the Kremlin bought gas through contracts with other European countries rather than directly from Russia. This practice became commonplace after the Ukrainian Revolution in 2014, when relations between Russia and the West deteriorated.
Ukraine, for example, has switched entirely to such “reverse contracts,” so-called because they hint that Russian gas is bought by Western European companies and then “reversed” or sent back to the east.
A report by Russia’s Interfax news agency blamed the gas turnaround on Saturday for this reverse contract, saying customers in Poland continued to pump from pipes, even though demand in Germany fell due to warm weather, causing a change in flow direction.
In any case, these deals only work when Russian natural gas flows through Eastern European gas pipelines in transit to the West. In recent years, however, Russia has sought to divert gas supplies to its submarine pipelines, which connect directly to Western Europe, bypass Eastern Europe and eliminate the possibility of reverse business.
This is where the Nordstream 2 pipeline comes into play. Critics say the pipeline running under the Baltic Sea to Germany was not really needed, but was built by Russia to bolster the Kremlin’s energy leverage in Eastern Europe.
As the pipeline is almost completed, Russia is now seeking approval from German and European regulators to start operations. President Vladimir V. blamed the gas spasm in Europe for the failure of regulators to approve Nord Stream in time 2.
As the gas market crisis in Europe deepened in the fall, Putin argued that Russia could help, but only if European companies and governments agreed to enter into long-term supply contracts from Russian submarine pipelines. This, according to critics, would provide a market for Russian gas in the coming years despite the transition to renewable energy.