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Russia is starting to cut natural gas supplies off

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Now let's turn to what Russia is doing and might do in the days and weeks ahead. The Kremlin has been telling the U.S. and NATO that they are escalating the war by sending arms to Ukraine and has suggested it would retaliate. And last week, we got an idea of Russia's economic power when it cut off gas supplies to Poland and Bulgaria. Agnia Grigas is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council and author of the book "The New Geopolitics Of Natural Gas." She joins us now.

Welcome to WEEKEND EDITION.

AGNIA GRIGAS: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

RASCOE: Russia said that it cut off those natural gas shipments to Poland and Bulgaria because they refused to pay for energy in rubles. Was this actually retaliation for NATO's sending all of these sophisticated weapons to Ukraine?

GRIGAS: This, you could say, is more retaliation for Western sanctions on the Russian banking system, on trade and on Russian energy trade because already, Poland had said that it will phase out the use of Russian gas and Russian oil. The United States, the United Kingdom have already stopped the use of Russian oil. So I think this message from Vladimir Putin was particularly to try to force countries to go back on the European and the Western sanctions agreements. At the same time, it's an effort for Putin to look strong for his domestic audience and to say, look, we're going to shut off the tap to these unfriendly countries. They're not going to get our gas.

RASCOE: Is it likely that Russia is going to move on to more countries that are even bigger, you know, buyers or purchasers of natural gas from Russia?

GRIGAS: Absolutely. You know, this is a complex situation because the European Union countries have been dependent on decades for Russia as their primary gas supplier. So some of them will be tigher-pinched than others. And Germany is one that comes particularly to mind because Germany is today the largest Russian gas importer within the European Union. At the same time, their policies - well, they really, I would say, made some mistakes in their diversification policies. They don't have LNG import terminals. They don't have alternative pipelines bringing gas from other regions. At the same time, they pursued a very, very aggressive policy in terms of phasing out all of their nuclear power plants, and they've stopped the use of coal. And they've done this before they really got their renewable strategies fully up and running.

RASCOE: Are there other steps that Russia could take to retaliate against countries that are sending arms to Ukraine?

GRIGAS: Today, there are a number of concerns. One, I would say primarily Victory Day coming up, which is a very important celebration, celebrating Soviet victory in World War II and Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, which holds special importance to Vladimir Putin. So on this holiday, he would like to present some sort of win for the Russian public, some sort of win for the parades that are going to be held in Moscow. Now, there has been no military victory for Russia in Ukraine. There are concerns that the Russian attack on eastern Ukraine in the Donbas could escalate dramatically. There could be bombings on Kyiv, bombings on Odesa. There are fears that Russia could use small-scale tactical nuclear or chemical weapons either against Ukraine or - I mean, even potentially, this could spread to neighboring NATO countries such as Poland, whose border is being used to transport weapons into Ukraine. So there are a number of concerns, particularly because the stakes are so high for Vladimir Putin's regime.

RASCOE: So President Biden doesn't seem to be reacting to these threats the way that Vladimir Putin seems to want him to, you know, as far as pulling back on giving funds and weapons to Ukraine. Here's Biden on Thursday proposing another $33 billion in aid to Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Russia is the aggressor. No ifs, ands or buts about it. Russia is the aggressor, and the world must and will hold Russia accountable.

RASCOE: Also last week, you had Biden's defense secretary saying the U.S. wanted to significantly weaken the Russian military. Like, what are the stakes here with the U.S. continuing with, you know, very strong rhetoric and continuing with significant assistance? Is this a tactic to show that the U.S. is not backing down? Or does the U.S. not have any other kind of choice here?

GRIGAS: The U.S. and its allies have correctly pursued a policy of strength and unity. In the past, Vladimir Putin has seen the West back down when they started the war in Georgia, when they first attacked and annexed Crimea in 2014 and started the conflict on the Donbas. They didn't get a full-scale response from the West. And I think the decision that Vladimir Putin had come to that, you know, the West does not - and the United States - is not prepared to face conflict with Russia or to up the stakes. And this is a type of government that does respond to strength rather than weakness. So the unity on the part of the West, on NATO has been incredibly important. And I think this has the potential to shift the tide.

RASCOE: Political scientist and risk analyst Agnia Grigas. Thank you so much for joining us.

GRIGAS: Thank you. It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.