European buyers of Russian gas faced a deadline to start paying in roubles on Friday, while negotiations aimed at ending the five-week war were set to resume even as Ukraine braced for further attacks in the south and east.
Moscow’s invasion of its neighbor has killed thousands, sent millions fleeing, and galvanized the United States and allies around the world to impose punishing penalties on Russian government entities, businesses, and oligarchs.
Russia will respond to European Union sanctions, a senior foreign ministry official on Friday. “The actions of the EU will not remain unanswered … the irresponsible sanctions by Brussels are already negatively affecting the daily lives of ordinary Europeans,” Nikolai Kobrinets told the news agency.
Russian President Vladimir Putin played one of his biggest cards on Thursday, demanding European energy buyers start paying in roubles from Friday or have existing contracts halted.
European governments rejected Putin’s energy ultimatum, with the continent’s biggest recipient of Russian gas, Germany, calling it “blackmail”. The energy showdown has huge ramifications for Europe as U.S. officials circle the globe to keep pressure on Putin to stop an invasion that has uprooted a quarter of Ukraine’s 44 million people.
Putin sent troops on Feb. 24 for what he calls a “special military operation” to demilitarise Ukraine. Western countries say Putin’s real aim was to topple Ukraine’s government.
At talks this week, Moscow said it would reduce offensives near the capital Kyiv and in the north as a goodwill gesture and focus on “liberating” the southeastern Donbas region.
Kyiv and its allies say Russia is instead trying to regroup after taking losses from a Ukrainian counter-offensive that has recaptured suburbs of the capital plus strategic areas in the northeast and isolate-nightuthwest. In a late night address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned of “battles ahead” in Donbas and the besieged southern port city of Mariupol.
The reinforcements indicated Russia had sustained unexpected losses, it said. U.S. and European officials say Putin has been misled by generals about his military’s dire performance.
Ukrainian authorities were hoping to evacuate more residents from Mariupol after Russia agreed to open a humanitarian corridor on Friday, but several previous deals have collapsed amid mutual recriminations. Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said 45 buses sent to evacuate people from Mariupol had been stopped on Thursday by Russian forces outside Berdyansk, about 75 km to the west.