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There was an interesting development in the war in Ukraine today that I’ll admit I didn’t see coming. The Ukrainians are shutting down a major natural gas line that Russia uses to ship fuel to Europe, forcing Moscow to look to use other lines (nearly all of which run through Ukraine at some point) to deliver gas to its customers. The Associated Press has confirmed that the gas lines running through Novopskov in the eastern Luhansk Oblast were being closed down, while gas flow through alternate lines showed increased flow rates. Novopskov is one of the areas that’s been under the control of Moscow-back separatists since the previous Russian incursion in 2014, so this move suggests that Zelenski’s forces are actually on the offense in eastern Ukraine, rather than simply trying to hold back the Russian offensive. But while this could potentially cause some economic pain to Russia, it’s also going to impact people in the European nations that are trying to help Ukraine.
Ukraine’s natural gas pipeline operator on Wednesday stopped Russian shipments through a key hub in the east of the country, while its president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said Kyiv’s military had made small gains, pushing Russian forces out of four villages near Kharkiv.
The pipeline operator said Russian shipments through its Novopskov hub, in an area controlled by Moscow-backed separatists, would be cut beginning Wednesday. It said the hub handles about a third of Russian gas passing through Ukraine to Western Europe. Russia’s state-owned natural gas giant Gazprom put the figure at about a quarter.
The move marks the first time natural gas supply has been affected by the war that began in February. It may force Russia to shift flows of its gas through territory controlled by Ukraine to reach its clients in Europe.
The timing of this appears to be problematic. Most of Europe is already moving to free itself of dependence on Russian oil and natural gas, but that process will take time. Even if they cut themselves off from Russian energy supplies entirely, it likely won’t be prior to the end of the year. Some parts of Europe are already undergoing blackouts due to disruptions in the Russian energy lines. It would be illogical for Ukraine to cut off gas supplies to the countries that are responsible for keeping aid flowing to them.
The stated reason for the decision to shut down the gas pipeline was “interference from occupying forces,” with suggestions that there has been some siphoning of gas going on. But siphoning natural gas isn’t as simple as siphoning gasoline or oil. If this restriction on gas exports is being done to hurt Russia economically, it’s also a questionable tactic. Russia has already lost a lot of its global energy market and is under staggering sanctions. The impact of cutting off this gas line would likely be minimal by comparison.
As I said, however, it’s an aggressive move, suggesting that Ukraine is going on the offensive rather than simply trying to hold off the Russian military. Last night, the Ukrainian government claimed that their military had pushed back the Russian forces occupying four villages that they previously controlled.
Zelenskyy said Tuesday that the military was gradually pushing Russian troops away from Kharkiv, while Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba voiced what appeared to be increasing confidence — and expanded goals, suggesting Ukraine could go beyond just forcing Russia back to areas it held before the invasion began 11 weeks ago…
“Now if we are strong enough on the military front, and we win the battle for Donbas, which will be crucial for the following dynamics of the war, of course the victory for us in this war will be the liberation of the rest of our territories,” Kuleba said.
Analysts remain skeptical as to whether or not Ukraine’s military can completely eject all Russian forces out of the country, including the areas that Moscow has largely controlled for several years now. The Russians are continuing to make advances in other parts of the Donbas region, albeit slowly. But if Zelenski can eventually retake all of his territory in the east and send the Russian troops back to their own country empty-handed, this will turn out to be a shocking defeat for Vladimir Putin. A total loss would be something that even he wouldn’t be able to put a positive spin on for his people. And Zelenski would take one more step in his transition from obscure standup comedian to legendary status.