Russia says EU sanctions prevent maintenance of TurkStream pipeline

The Russian operator of a pipeline that supplies Turkey and the Balkans with natural gas has said it will suspend some maintenance and repair work, citing European Union sanctions, a move that threatens to worsen the energy crisis in Europe.

Oleg Aksyutin, the director of South Stream Transport BV, sent a note earlier this month to division managers informing them that the Dutch Import and Export Authority would revoke his export license effective September 17. .

South Stream Transport is the Dutch unit of Kremlin-controlled natural gas giant Gazprom, which runs the TurkStream gas pipeline running under the Black Sea from Russia to Turkey and on to the Balkans and central Europe.

In the letter, a copy of which was obtained by RFE/RL, Aksyutin ordered them to “suspend the execution of all contracts related to the technical support of the pipeline, including the design, manufacture, assembly, testing , repair, maintenance and training”. .”

He said gas exports should continue, but only with emergency support to avoid environmental damage.

Deyan Kalaydzhiyev, the contracts manager, told employees in a letter also obtained by RFE/RL to inform Western suppliers of goods and services – such as control valves, technical support, telecommunications for maintenance pipelines and pipeline repair – this purchase agreements were to be suspended effective September 16.

South Stream Transport has applied for a new license but is unsure if it will receive it, a company source told RFE/RL.

Dutch and Turkish officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

TurkStream has the capacity to deliver 31.5 billion cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas per year, half of which is destined for Turkey and the other half for the Balkans and Central Europe.

Serbia and Hungary are the main European consumers.

TurkStream sits three kilometers under the sea in seismically active waters. Specialized vessels regularly monitor the pipeline for damage in order to quickly carry out repairs. The equipment needed to monitor and repair the pipeline is largely imported from the West.

The suspension of South Stream Transport’s contracts means that “no one will be able to carry out repairs if a pipe is damaged, gas leaks or if part of the pipe falls apart due to an earthquake.” In fact, the company has lost operational control of the pipeline, the Russian subsidiary has lost contact with the center of the company,” a company source told RFE/RL.

Earlier this year, Russia cut exports through Nord Stream 1, its main natural gas export pipeline to Europe, saying Western sanctions on equipment and services had hurt its ability to service the pipeline. submarine in the Baltic Sea.

This decision drove gas prices in the EU to record highs. Last month, Russia completely reduced its exports along Nord Stream 1, citing ongoing maintenance issues.

Western leaders have accused Russia of using sanctions as an excuse to cut natural gas exports to Europe in a bid to inflict severe economic hardship on the bloc, weaken EU support for the Ukraine and to rescind the sanctions.

Last year, the EU received 40% of its natural gas needs from Russia, giving the Kremlin massive influence over the bloc’s energy industry, including the ability to manipulate prices.

By imposing sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, the EU made exceptions for the gas industry to ensure continued deliveries.

Benjamin Schmitt, associate fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, said Europe must be prepared for Russia to replicate in the Black Sea the strategy it used to stop the exports along the Baltic Sea.

“For months, Gazprom has cited false technical and sanctions allegations to justify its extensive gas cuts and resulting energy weaponization along the Nord Stream pipeline routes against the EU,” said Schmitt, a former adviser. European in Energy Security at the Department of State.

The European Union must be prepared to continue this same playbook along the route of the TurkStream gas pipeline, and the arguments put forward by Gazprom for potential reductions along this line of the Black Sea are consistent with this same approach taken by the Kremlin for months,” he said.

Earlier this week, explosions damaged the Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 pipelines, meaning they will be out of service indefinitely.

The EU and NATO called it “sabotage”, with some EU officials accusing Russia of being behind the attack. The Kremlin denied any involvement and pointed the finger at the United States, a charge Washington immediately dismissed.

Russia currently only has two out of five natural gas export pipelines to Europe in operation, including TurkStream and one that crosses Ukraine.

A reduction in flows or a complete shutdown of TurkStream would particularly hurt Hungary, one of the EU countries most dependent on Russian gas imports.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been the most vocal opponent of EU sanctions against Russia, undermining the bloc’s united front against the Kremlin.

Earlier this month, his government called for a non-binding popular vote to determine whether Hungarians want the EU to end sanctions against Russia.

Russia’s halt to maintenance and repairs on TurkStream comes just as Europe is rushing to fill its natural gas storage ahead of the winter heating season.

Natural gas is used to heat homes and buildings across Europe, with demand increasing during the winter. It is also used to power power plants to generate electricity.

Europe could suffer power outages this winter if it is unable to get enough gas, experts say.

By RFE/RL

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Edward N. Arrington