Zelensky urges energy-rich countries to call time on Putin’s ‘blackmail’

Volodymyr Zelensky has called on energy producing countries to step up their output in order to prevent Russia from using its oil and gas to “blackmail” European nations. 

His appeal came a day after EU leaders pledged to buy natural gas jointly and Germany unveiled targets to rapidly cut its dependence on Russian energy. Berlin vowed to all but wean itself off Russian gas by mid-2024 and said it aimed to become “virtually independent” of Russian oil by the end of this year. 

Speaking to a conference attended by many Gulf officials in Doha, Qatar, by video link on Saturday, the Ukrainian president called on “the responsible states, in particular Qatar” as “reliable and reputable suppliers of energy resources that can contribute to stabilise the situation in Europe”.

“They can do much more to restore justice. Europe’s future depends on your efforts,” he said. “I urge you to increase energy production so that Russia understands that no state can use energy as a weapon and to blackmail the world.”

Qatar, the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG), has previously said it would help, but cautioned that it could only divert about 10-15 per cent of its volumes to Europe. The Gulf nation sells most of its LNG to Asian clients who are locked into long-term fixed contracts. 

Saad al-Kaabi, Qatar’s energy minister, told CNN this week that Doha was not going to divert LNG away from Europe “even if there is financial gain for us to divert away, we would not do that”.

“That’s in solidarity with what’s going on in Europe,” Kaabi, who is also chief executive of QatarEnergy, said. 

This week the US set out plans to redirect gas to Europe as western allies step up efforts to reshape global energy markets and punish Moscow.

Washington said on Friday that it would aim to deliver at least 15bn cubic metres (bcm) of additional LNG to the EU this year along with other producers.

Washington has been pressuring Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to increase crude production to help dampen oil prices. But Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, which co-ordinate oil production levels through Opec+, which includes Russia, have so far resisted.

Saudi officials argue that the rise in oil prices is not caused by a lack of supply and increasing output would have little impact on prices. They also caution that there is a shortage of production capacity globally. 

Zelensky said on Saturday that it was “a matter of time” before European countries refused to buy Russian oil and gas, adding that sanctions against Russia are “aimed at only one thing — to start Russia seeking peace, so that it does not pose a common threat”.

The Ukrainian army said on Saturday that its forces continued “to repel the enemy’s offensive, inflict fire damage on it and maintain the previously defined defensive lines” while Russia “continues to regroup and build up forces to resume offensive operations” and “attempts to carry out assault operations, makes air raids and tries to inflict fire damage” on Ukrainian forces.

Russia has deployed “almost all” its units stationed in Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014, and in some districts of Kherson, Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk, in order “to suppress resistance from residents” of Kherson, Henichesk, Berdyansk and parts of the besieged city of Mariupol, Ukrainian forces said. Kharkiv officials said the city was shelled overnight.

A UK intelligence update on Saturday said Russia continued to pound Kharkiv, Chernihiv and Mariupol, adding that its forces were “proving reluctant” to engage in large urban infantry operations.

“It is likely that Russia will continue to use its heavy firepower on urban areas as it looks to limit its own already considerable losses, at the cost of further civilian casualties,” Britain’s ministry of defence said. 

On Friday Moscow said it was refocusing its month-long military offensive on the country’s eastern Donbas region in an apparent attempt to scale back from Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric when the invasion first began. But Ukrainian authorities and western officials reacted cautiously to the claim of a change of military strategy.

In an address on Friday evening, Zelensky said Ukraine’s armed forces had inflicted “significant” losses on Russia’s army over the past week.

Late on Friday, France, Turkey and Greece announced that they were planning an “emergency humanitarian operation” to evacuate civilians from Mariupol.

France’s president Emmanuel Macron told a news conference after an EU summit in Brussels that he was discussing the plan with the mayor of Mariupol and the Ukrainian government and hoped to speak to Putin in the next couple of days. “The quicker the better,” he said.