Over the past months, EU-based energy companies have scrambled to make sense of vague and at times conflicting statements from Brussels as to whether paying for Russian gas in rubles constitutes a breach of EU sanctions.
So far, three EU countries have seen supplies of Russian gas stop over their energy companies’ refusal to comply with a Russian decree issued March 31 requiring gas payments from “unfriendly countries” to be made via two accounts at Russia’s Gazprombank — one in euros or dollars, and one in rubles for a final currency conversion.
But many more energy companies are voluntarily making payments via Russian bank accounts. All insist those payments are in line with EU sanctions.
Guidance from the European Commission has been less than clear.
In preliminary written legal guidance sent privately to countries, the Commission warned the gas payment method “would lead to a breach” of EU sanctions.
But in April, published Commission guidance told companies that EU sanctions “do not prohibit opening an account with Gazprombank.” It nonetheless suggested buyers could ask the Russian side to “to fulfil their contractual obligations in the same manner as before the adoption of the Decree.”
And despite clamors for more precise information, updated written guidance from the Commission later in April made no mention of whether ruble accounts would breach EU sanctions.
At a meeting of EU diplomats in mid-May, Commission Director General for Energy Ditte Juul-Jørgensen told ambassadors the Commission advised companies not to open a ruble account — but stopped short of calling doing so a sanctions breach, according to three people familiar with the discussion. She added that should Gazprombank convert euros or dollars into rubles without the EU company explicitly asking for it, the action could fall outside the Commission’s enforcement jurisdiction, the people in the meeting said.
A Commission spokesperson said Tuesday they would not “comment on the details of discussions with members states.”
The Russian government has said it will release a full list of foreign companies having opened ruble accounts at Gazprombank as soon as this week.
A Russian ruble coin is pictured in front of the Kremlin | Alexander NemenovV/AFP via Getty Images
In the meantime, here’s a rundown of what we know so far.
Refused to comply with Russian decree
Bulgaria’s Bulgargaz: Payment as usual refused. Supplies halted April 27.
Still on the fence
The Netherlands’ GasTerra: The partially state-owned company declined to comment on the details of its Gazprom contract, but said on May 20 that the lack of clarity on sanctions was “very annoying” and forcing the company “to constantly take all sorts of scenarios into account.” GasTerra told POLITICO on Tuesday the situation was still unclear. The government also said it couldn’t punish any move to open a ruble account without a clear message from Brussels that doing so breaches sanctions. “The Netherlands asked the Commission to clarify the guidance on the part of ruble accounts,” a spokesperson for the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs said Tuesday via email. “More clarity is needed before enforcement of that specific part can take place.”
Continued payments via Russia’s Gazprombank
These companies have continued to pay for and receive Russian gas, but the details of their agreement with supplier Gazprom — and whether they’ve opened a ruble-denominated account — may not be public.
Hungary’s MVM: “We pay in euros, Gazprombank converts the euro, and this amount is paid to Gazprom Export,” Hungarian Foreign Péter Szijjártó said at a press conference on April 11. He added that a new gas contract between MVM subsidiary CEE Energy and Russia’s Gazprom Export, signed in September, already allows for alternate currency payments.
Germany’s VNG: “We will pay the invoice amount, which will continue to be denominated in euros, into the accounts at Gazprombank in accordance with the planned procedure, so that timely payment to our supplier is ensured on our part,” the company stated May 9. “We also assume that the conversion into roubles will not cause any difficulties … the opening of the account went completely smoothly.”
Germany’s RWE: “We are prepared for payment in euros and have opened a corresponding account. We are therefore acting in accordance with European and German regulation,” a company spokesperson said May 16.
Germany’s Uniper: “Uniper has opened [an] account at Gazprombank and has thus made the arrangements for a contractually compliant payment in euros to this account in accordance with the new payment mechanism,” Chairman Klaus-Dieter Maubach said May 18.
France’s Engie: “Engie has been in talks with Gazprom regarding the Russian request to modify payment scheme for Russian gas supply. The Group has taken the necessary steps to be ready to execute on its payment obligations, as long as it is compliant with European sanctions’ framework,” the company said May 17.
Italy’s Eni: “Eni has begun the process of opening two … accounts at Gazprom Bank, on a precautionary basis (one in euros and the second in rubles),” the company stated May 17.
Austria’s OMV: “We have now implemented a sanctions-compliant payment process that ensures gas deliveries can be paid in a timely manner,” the company stated May 20.
The Czech Republic’s ČEZ: “We made the payment in euros in accordance with the recommendation of the European Commission. We will not comment on the details,” a ČEZ spokesperson said May 20.
Slovakia’s SPP: “Slovakia paid the April invoice in euros according to the valid contract … on the basis of the EU opinion that such payment is not a violation or circumvention of sanctions,” the country’s economy ministry said May 20. The ministry told POLITICO a smaller regional gas company also has a Gazprom contract that has been maintained.
Slovenia’s Geoplin: Geoplin “agreed with the Russian partner on a payment procedure that is in accordance with the contract and at the same time within the measures and recommendations of the EU institutions,” company director Vanja Lombar told Slovenian television May 20.
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