Russia shuts off gas to Poland and Bulgaria, US diplomats begin the return to Ukraine: Live updates – USA TODAY

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Russia opened a new front in its war over Ukraine on Wednesday, deciding to shut off gas to two European Union nations that staunchly back Kyiv, a dramatic escalation in a conflict that is increasingly becoming a wider battle with the West.

The escalation came in a memo from state-controlled Russian giant Gazprom, which said it had cut natural gas deliveries to Poland and Bulgaria because they refused to pay in Russian rubles, as President Vladimir Putin had demanded. The company said it had not received any payment since the beginning of the month.

European gas prices shot up on the news, which the European Union commission’s president called an attempt at “blackmail.”

Bulgaria’s Energy Minister Alexander Nikolov said Wednesday that Bulgaria can meet the needs of users for at least one month, after the country was given a one-day notice by Gazprom that its gas supplies would be discontinued.

“Alternative supplies are available, and Bulgaria hopes that alternative routes and supplies will also be secured at EU level,” Nikolov said referring to an EU expert meeting due later Wednesday to plan the next steps. He added that Poland and Lithuania are in the same situation as Bulgaria. 

Meanwhile, European Union officials are holding emergency gas talks following Russia’s decision, according to the bloc’s top official.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the announcement by Gazprom “is yet another attempt by Russia to use gas as an instrument of blackmail.”

Von der Leyen lashed out at what she described as an “unjustified and unacceptable” move underlining “the unreliability of Russia as a gas supplier.” Von der Leyen, the head of the EU’s executive branch, said a meeting of the gas coordination group was underway, adding that the region’s 27 countries are prepared to weather Russia’s cutoffs. 

U.S. diplomats are starting to return to Ukraine, the Department of State said, the latest sign pointing toward heightened American diplomacy in the country.

According to the state department, diplomats, beginning Tuesday, are making day trips to temporary offices in the western city of Lviv. The first group crossed from Poland to Lviv on Tuesday morning, returning to Poland later that day.

The return of American diplomats to Ukraine follows Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv. In addition to promising that the United States would provide more than $300 million in foreign military financing and had approved a $165 million sale of ammunition to Ukraine, Blinken said American diplomats who left Ukraine before the war would start returning to the country as soon as this week.

President Joe Biden also announced his nomination of Bridget Brink to serve as the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine this week, a position that’s been empty for three years. Brink is a career member of the Senior Foreign Service and currently serves as the ambassador to Slovakia.

If confirmed by the Senate, she would be the first U.S. ambassador to Ukraine since Donald Trump removed Marie Yovanovitch from the post in 2019.

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Latest developments:

►Germany’s Economy Minister Robert Habeck said his country has reduced the share of its oil supply imported from Russia from 35% before the war to about 12%, making an embargo on deliveries “manageable.” However, Berlin has said it will need longer to do without gas supplies from Russia.

►British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he doesn’t expect Russian President Vladimir Putin to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, the day after a Russian diplomat said the possibility of nuclear war “should not be underestimated.”

►Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., on Tuesday seemed to suggest the reason Russia targeted Ukraine and other countries is because they were “part of Russia,” a remark that sparked criticism he was touting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s talking points.

UN Secretary-General and Putin meet, agree ‘in principle’ UN should help evacuate Mariupol citizens

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres and Russian President Vladimir Putin met one-on-one Tuesday, a UN spokesperson said.

During their one-on-one meeting, Guterres and Putin “discussed the proposals for humanitarian assistance and evacuation of civilians from conflict zones, namely in relation to the situation in Mariupol,” according to UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric.

They agreed “in principle” that the U.N. and the International Committee of the Red Cross should be involved in the evacuation of civilians from a besieged steel plant in Ukraine’s port city of Mariupol.

Ukrainian officials had previously criticized the meeting between Guterres and Putin, with Ukrainian ambassador Igor Zhovkva saying Guterres was “not really” authorized to speak for Ukraine and that “we did not understand his intention to travel to Moscow and to talk to President Putin,” on NBC News.

— Celina Tebor

Contributing: The Associated Press