The Russian operator of a pipeline supplying natural gas to Turkey and the Balkans said it would suspend some maintenance and repair work, citing European Union sanctions, a move that threatens to deepen Europe’s energy crisis.
Oleg Aksyutin, the director of South Stream Transport BV, earlier this month sent a note to department heads informing them that the Dutch Import and Export Authority would revoke their export license as of September 17.
South Stream Transport is the Dutch unit of Kremlin-controlled natural gas giant Gazprom, which manages the TurkStream pipeline, which runs under the Black Sea from Russia to Turkey and on to the Balkans and central Europe.
In the letter, of which RFE/RL received a copy, Aksyutin ordered them “to suspend the execution of all contracts related to technical support of the gas pipeline, including 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, head of the contracts department, told employees in a letter also received by RFE/RL that Western suppliers of goods and services – such as control valves, technical support, telecommunications for pipeline maintenance and repairs – about this purchase to inform agreements should be suspended from September 16th.
South Stream Transport has applied for a new license but doesn’t know 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 lies three kilometers under the sea in waters with high seismic activity. Special ships regularly check the pipeline for damage so that it can be repaired quickly. Most of the equipment needed to monitor and repair the pipeline is imported from the west.
South Stream Transport’s suspension of contracts means that “if a pipe is damaged, gas leaks or part of the pipeline breaks apart due to an earthquake, no one can make repairs. In fact, the company lost operational control of the pipeline, the Russian branch lost contact with the corporate center,” a company source told RFE/RL.
Russia earlier this year slashed exports through Nord Stream 1, its main natural gas export pipeline to Europe, claiming Western sanctions on equipment and services have hampered its ability to maintain the subsea pipeline in the Baltic Sea.
The move pushed EU gas prices to record highs. Last month, Russia completely curbed exports along Nord Stream 1, citing ongoing maintenance issues.
Western leaders accused Russia of using the sanctions as an excuse to cut natural gas exports to Europe to inflict severe economic pain on the bloc, weaken EU support for Ukraine and reverse the sanctions.
The EU got 40 percent of its natural gas needs from Russia last year, giving the Kremlin massive leverage over the bloc’s energy industry, including the ability to manipulate prices.
With the imposition of sanctions on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, the EU has outsourced gas industry operations to ensure continued supplies.
Benjamin Schmitt, a research associate at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, said Europe must prepare for Russia to repeat in the Black Sea the strategy it used to halt exports along the Baltic Sea.
“For months, Gazprom has used false technical and sanctions claims to justify its significant gas cuts and resulting energy armament along the Nord Stream pipeline routes against the EU,” said Schmitt, a former European energy security adviser at the State Department.
“Continuing the same playbook along the TurkStream pipeline route is something the European Union needs to be prepared for, and the arguments Gazprom is making for possible cuts along this Black Sea pipeline are consistent with precisely this approach being advocated by the Kremlin been haunted for months,” he said.
Earlier this week, the Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 pipelines were damaged by explosions, 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 has denied any involvement and pointed the finger at the United States, an accusation Washington promptly denied.
Russia now has only two of five natural gas export pipelines operating to Europe, including TurkStream and one that goes through Ukraine.
A power cut or 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 on Russia, undermining the bloc’s united front against the Kremlin.
His government earlier this month called for a non-binding referendum to determine whether Hungarians want the EU to end sanctions on Russia.
Russia’s halt to maintenance and repairs on TurkStream comes just as Europe rushes to fill up its natural gas storage facilities ahead of the winter heating season.
Natural gas is used to heat homes and buildings across Europe, with demand increasing sharply in winter. It is also used to fuel power plants to generate electricity.
Europe could suffer from rolling blackouts this winter if it’s unable to secure enough gas, experts say.