US finalizing plans to divert gas to Europe if Russia cuts off supply

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<span>Photograph: Tatyana Makeyeva/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Tatyana Makeyeva/AFP/Getty Images

The US has helped prepare for the diversion of natural gas supplies from around the world to Europe in the event that the flow from Russia is cut, in an effort to blunt Vladimir Putin’s most powerful economic weapon.

As fears of an invasion of Ukraine have grown, US officials said on Tuesday that they had been negotiating with global suppliers, and they were now confident that Europe would not suffer from a sudden loss of energy for heating in the middle of winter.

“To ensure Europe is able to make it through the winter and spring we expect to be prepared to ensure alternative supplies covering a significant majority of the potential shortfall,” a senior official said.

The preparation for bulk gas supplies deliveries is part of a campaign by the US and its European allies to show a united and coherent front to Putin in the hope of deterring him from invading Ukraine. Joe Biden said on Tuesday he would consider imposing personal sanctions on the Russian president himself.

If Russia attacked, Biden said, it would be the “largest invasion since World War Two” and would “change the world”.

Boris Johnson hinted that Germany was concerned about the imposition of sanctions against Russia because of its dependence on Russian gas and told MPs diplomatic efforts were being made to persuade Berlin and others to go further.

The British prime minister said that “European friends” had concerns about imposing the toughest possible sanctions on Moscow because of their “heavy dependence” on Russian gas – and also declared the UK would be willing to deploy more troops to eastern Europe if Ukraine was attacked.

His comments came as the French president, Emmanuel Macron, and Olaf Scholz, the new German chancellor, met in Berlin on Tuesday to coordinate their stances, after reports of rifts among the allies.

Macron said he was due to speak by phone to Putin on Friday, to “clarify” the Russian position. He said France and Germany would never abandon dialogue with Russia, but added: “If there is aggression, there will be retaliation and the cost will be very high.”

The Kremlin’s deputy chief of staff, Dmitry Kozak, is due in Paris on Tuesday for talks with political advisers from Ukraine, France and Germany, in a continued effort to keep talks going, with an estimated 130,000 Russian troops now massed around Ukrainian borders.

The Russian military announced it would carry out a new set of military exercises involving 6,000 troops near the Ukrainian border, and within Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula Moscow annexed in 2014. The drills will include exercises with live ammunition and feature fighter jets, bombers, anti-aircraft systems and vessels from Russia’s Black Sea and Caspian fleets, according to the defence ministry.

Ukrainian leaders called for calm, with the defence minister, Oleksii Reznikov, telling parliament that an invasion was not imminent. He said the Russians had yet to form a combat battle group of the sort it would need to spearhead “as of today, there are no grounds to believe” Russia will invade imminently.

“Don’t worry, sleep well,” he said. “No need to have your bags packed.”

With the likelihood of war constantly rising, a senior US administration official claimed the convergence between the US and the EU on financial sanctions was “remarkable”, and the impact on Russia of the combined punitive measures would be far greater than the response to the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea.

“The gradualism of the past is out, and this time we’ll start at the top of the escalation ladder and stay there,” the official said.

Related: How vulnerable is UK energy system as tensions rise between Russia and Ukraine?

Russia has already restricted the flow of natural gas through the pipeline running through Ukraine from about about 100m cubic metres a day to 50 MCM, US officials said. Washington now estimates that almost all of that can be replaced quickly if the pipeline is cut deliberately or as a result of conflict.

Fears that Putin would cut off gas supplies have made some European countries, such as Germany, wary of imposing sanctions on Putin if he proceeds with an invasion. The Biden administration also insists that US and European financial sanctions plans are converging, and that the US is preparing export controls on western technology which would cripple Putin’s efforts to diversify his economy.

One of the main alternative gas suppliers is Qatar, and it was announced on Tuesday that the emir, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani would visit the White House at the end of the month with the “stability of global energy supplies” on the agenda. But the administration said its outreach was global.

“The conversation is really broad, with a lot of companies and countries around the world. It’s not centered on one or two suppliers,” an official said. “And by doing that you don’t need to ask any one individual company or country to surge exports by significant volumes, but rather smaller volumes from a multitude of sources.”

If gas were to be diverted to Europe it would largely have to be in the form of liquified natural gas (LNG), but at present the entire global market in LNG would not be sufficient to make up the shortfall if Russia cut off the gas supply through Ukraine to Europe.

The US also said it was preparing restrictions on exports to Russia of hi-tech software and hardware made by the US and its allies. Officials said the measures would affect Russian ambitions in the fields of aerospace, defence, lasers and sensitive, maritime technology, artificial intelligence and quantum computers.

“When we pick these sectors, it’s quite deliberate,” an official said. “These are sectors that Putin himself has, has championed, as the way forward for Russia to diversify its economy beyond oil and gas. And so that would lead to an atrophying of Russia’s productive capacity over time.”

Meanwhile, the flow of arms to Ukraine has accelerated. US officials confirmed that a plane carrying hundreds of anti-tank Javelin missiles had arrived in Kyiv, and a shipment of more Javelins is ready to go from Estonia.

“On the Javelins, this is decided and we have the endorsement from the US, so it’s just a matter of time when we’re going to send them out,” an Estonian official said, adding they would be sent “as soon as possible”.

The Estonian government also intends to sent Ukraine howitzer guns but is still waiting on approval from Germany, where the guns originated and Finland which supplied some of the guns to Estonia.

“With the howitzers, we don’t have an official answer from the Germans nor the Finns. So as far as we don’t have these, we cannot say if it’s going to be a yes or no. We are going to wait for it,” the official said. A joint German-Estonia delivery of field hospitals, planned last summer, is due to go ahead in the next few weeks.

Latvia and Lithuania are supplying Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine. The UK has sent 2,000 anti-tank missiles and Saxon armoured cars, and Turkey has supplied Bayraktar drones.

The US has put 8,500 troops on heightened alert for deployment to eastern Europe in a move intended to reassure Nato members in the region that Washington is committed to their defence. US officials indicated to Fox News that elite troops from the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions were among the troops on standby.

Ukraine is not a Nato member, and the alliance’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, made clear in a CNN interview on Tuesday that no combat troops from the alliance would be sent to Ukraine. There are currently a few hundred advisers in the country from the US, UK and other allies.

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