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Europe’s Energy Crunch Set to Worsen as Russia Refrains From Boosting Gas Exports

A week ago, President Vladimir Putin said Russia would be prepared to increase natural gas exports to help Europe with an energy crunch that has triggered soaring prices. But there are no signs he will make good on promise of relief, say energy experts.

 

This week Russia’s state-owned energy giant Gazprom appeared to have opted not to boost gas exports to Europe and refrained at auctions from reserving additional gas transit capacity on Ukrainian or Polish pipelines, according to Bloomberg data.

 

Last week, in an interview with American broadcaster CNBC, the Russian president dismissed suggestions the Kremlin was using gas as a geopolitical weapon, saying such talk was “politically motivated blather.”   

 

But Gazprom’s decision not to reserve additional capacity for gas exports to Europe has prompted anger from European leaders, who accuse the Kremlin of playing a political game.

 

The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, told reporters in Brussels Monday that soaring gas prices have deep geopolitical roots. “It’s part of a geopolitical battle,” he said. But Borrell also acknowledged Russia has honored all its contracts. “It cannot be said that they are not delivering when they said they would, but it has not increased the quantities,” he said.

 

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was more restrained in her language Wednesday when briefing the European Parliament, saying, “Gas prices are — and have always been — cyclical, and they are set by global markets. So, it is not a regional or local phenomenon, it is a global phenomenon.”

 

But she added she thought the Kremlin could do more to help, saying in previous years Gazprom had responded to higher demand.

 

Russia supplies 43% of the EU’s gas imports. Europe is heavily reliant on natural gas to generate much of its electricity. Gazprom exports actually fell in the first half of October.

Summit

EU national leaders are set to discuss the energy crunch at a two-day summit starting Thursday. In his summit invitation to national leaders, Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, said, “We will address the current hike in energy prices which is challenging the post-pandemic recovery and severely affecting our citizens and businesses.”

 

Some analysts say that while Russia may be seeking to exploit Europe’s energy crunch, the continent’s leaders have partly themselves to blame for their plight as they shifted away years ago from agreeing long-term contracts, preferring instead to opt for a system of market-based pricing, which can offer lower prices when supplies are in abundance but is highly volatile and can see prices skyrocket when there are shortages. Europeans have also done nothing to diversify suppliers.

 

The price jumps in natural gas are due largely to a surge in demand in Asia and low supplies of in Europe, which has seen an astonishing 280% increase in wholesale gas prices. Electricity prices are also soaring because natural gas is used across the continent to generate a substantial percentage of its electricity.

 

The International Energy Agency has called on Russia to boost gas exports. “The IEA believes that Russia could do more to increase gas availability to Europe and ensure storage is filled to adequate levels in preparation for the coming winter heating season,” it said in a statement earlier this month.

Nord Stream 2 and Ukraine  

 

There have long been fears, stretching back to the 1990s, that the Kremlin could use Europe’s dependence on Gazprom against it. A succession of U.S. presidents have urged European leaders to be wary and opposed the development of the just completed Nord Stream 2, NS2, natural gas pipeline, which will deliver energy from Russia to Germany while bypassing an older line running through Ukraine and Poland.

 

Some European politicians suspect the Kremlin is deliberately worsening Europe’s energy crunch as a tactic to pressure the EU into speeding up certification of the just completed NS2 pipeline.

Central European politicians have also opposed NS2 — which runs 1,200 kilometers from Vyborg, Russia, to Lubmin, Germany, snaking under the Baltic Sea — and not only because their countries will lose lucrative transit fees from the older pipeline, but because they feared the Kremlin was building the new pipeline for political reasons and not commercial ones.

 

“Nord Stream 2 is no ordinary business project,” according to Inna Sovsun, a former Ukrainian minister and now a lawmaker and professor at the Kyiv School of Economics. “On the contrary, it is a geopolitical weapon aimed at the heart of Europe that has been conceived since day one as a tool to isolate Ukraine and strengthen Russia’s position in its confrontation with the Western world,” she said earlier this year in a paper for the Atlantic Council, a U.S. think tank.

 

She added, “In recent months, Kremlin-controlled gas giant Gazprom has refused Ukrainian offers of additional pipeline capacity, despite surging European demand for gas due to a range of factors including maintenance on alternative Russian pipelines. Moscow prefers to wait for Nord Stream 2 to be commissioned and wants to send a clear message that it expects Russia’s European customers to facilitate this process without delay.”

 

European energy executives have warned of a difficult northern hemisphere winter ahead. Energy-intensive industries may have to slow down production, which could lead to shortages of fertilizers, steel, and food, they warn. Some energy companies have been trying all year to boost their gas stocks, which were depleted by last year’s exceptionally cold winter. Alfred Stern, CEO of Austria’s energy company OMV, says, “Everything will depend on how cold this winter is.”

 

On that score, the omens are not good. Meteorologists are forecasting a high risk of colder than normal winter weather this year. If those predictions play out, there will be even greater demand for natural gas and even higher energy prices, boosting overall European inflation which is running currently at 3.4%, the highest level since 2008.

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NATO Defense Ministers to Discuss Afghanistan, Russia Tensions

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is in Brussels for a meeting of NATO defense ministers Thursday and Friday to talk about security issues in Afghanistan, tensions with Russia and technology policy.

“I’m here to help advance NATO’s military adaptation, and ensure the alliance is prepared for the challenges of the future,” Austin tweeted after arriving Wednesday.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the defense ministers would discuss preventing Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorists, and making sure Afghans evacuated during a massive airlift operation are able to resettle in NATO member states and not remain at transit centers.

“The most urgent role NATO has, and the most immediate task we are faced with, is to resettle Afghans who worked with us,” Stoltenberg told reporters ahead of the ministerial. “And NATO Allies and the NATO partners were able to get more than 120,000 people, many of them Afghans, out of Afghanistan. And we still, Allies and partners, are still working on how to get more people out.”

Austin traveled to Belgium from Romania, where he said Wednesday the Biden administration is committed to strengthening its Euro-Atlantic bonds while securing NATO’s eastern flank.

Speaking in Bucharest, Austin praised Romania for setting “an important example for allied commitment on sharing responsibility” and defense modernization.

Romania is one of the few NATO nations that spends more than 2% of its Gross Domestic Product on defense, with 20% of that spending going toward modernization — two key NATO spending goals.

The country also hosts about 1,000 rotational U.S. forces who help maintain security of the Black Sea region.

Austin’s visit to Romania followed stops in Ukraine and Georgia, two countries that aspire to join NATO and that are partially occupied by Russian and Russian-backed forces.

Tensions have risen between Russia and the longstanding alliance, with Russia announcing on Monday it was suspending its permanent mission to NATO in response to the alliance’s expulsion of eight Russians earlier this month.

Speaking in Kyiv Tuesday, Austin called Russia an “obstacle” to any peaceful resolution to the war raging in Ukraine’s east.

“We again call on Russia to end its occupation of Crimea, to stop perpetuating the war in Eastern Ukraine, to end its destabilizing activities in the Black Sea and along Ukraine’s borders,” Austin said.

Earlier this year, the largest number of Russian troops amassed near the Ukrainian border since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea from Kyiv. Russia soon pulled back its troops, however, after taking part in exercises near the Ukraine border.

Russia still occupies about a fifth of Georgia.

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Germany Detains Ex-soldiers for Allegedly Trying to Form Mercenary Group

German authorities on Wednesday detained two former soldiers who are alleged to have tried to form a mercenary group that would have intervened in the military conflict in Yemen.

Federal prosecutors said the men, identified only as Arend-Adolf G. and Achim A. in keeping with Germany privacy laws, were detained in southern Germany. Both are German citizens and former members of the Bundeswehr.

The men are accused of being ringleaders in the formation of a terror organization, prosecutors said in a statement.

Together, they allegedly decided in early 2021 to create their own mercenary group of between 100 and 150 former soldiers or members of the police.

The men’s primary motivation was to earn about 40,000 euros ($47,000) each per month by offering the group’s services to third parties, specifically Saudi Arabia, prosecutors said. The oil-rich kingdom has intervened in the conflict in neighboring Yemen against the Houthi rebel group.

Prosecutors said the men’s attempts to contact Saudi officials were unsuccessful.

The men were aware that their plans for military intervention in Yemen would inevitably require them to kill people, and they were aware that civilians might be injured and killed too, prosecutors said. 

Arend-Adolf G. is alleged to have won over at least seven people for the plan, they added.

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Regional Powers Back Aid for Afghanistan, Press Taliban on Inclusivity

An international Russia-hosted meeting Wednesday pressed the Taliban to form a “truly inclusive” government in Afghanistan and called for the United Nations to convene a donor conference as soon as possible to help avert a humanitarian catastrophe facing the war-torn country.

The huddle, known as the Moscow format consultations on Afghanistan, was held with the participation of leaders of the interim Taliban government and senior officials from Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan, India, as well as five formerly Soviet Central Asian states.

“Participating countries call on the current Afghan leadership to take further steps to improve governance and to form a truly inclusive government that adequately reflects the interests of all major ethno-political forces in the country,” said a post-meeting joint statement.

The delegates expressed “deep concern” over the deteriorating economic and humanitarian situation in Afghanistan, stressing the need for the international community to mobilize efforts to provide assistance to the Afghan people.

Participants proposed to convene the U.N.-led donor conference “certainly with the understanding that the core burden of post-conflict economic and financial reconstruction and development of Afghanistan must be shouldered by troop-based actors which were in the country for the past 20 years.”

The statement pointedly referred to the United States and Western allied troops, whose abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years paved the way for the Taliban to regain control of the country in August. 

Washington also was invited to the Moscow talks, but U.S. officials cited technical reasons for not attending, though they promised to join future rounds.

While the West and world in general have refused to give official recognition to the Taliban government, Wednesday’s joint statement recognized the “new reality” of the fundamentalist group’s return to power in Kabul.

Earlier, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov while opening the meeting lauded the Taliban government’s efforts to improve the security and political situation. 

“[However], we see the formula for its successful solution mainly in the formation of a truly inclusive government, which should fully reflect the interests of all, not only ethnic, but also political forces of the country,” Lavrov said.

The head of the Taliban delegation, Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Salam Hanafi, while addressing the meeting, renewed a call for the global community to recognize the new government in Kabul and again demanded the United States unfreeze about $10 billon in Afghan central bank in foreign reserves.

Hanafi defended his interim government as “already inclusive” and said they would not accept any deal under pressure and cautioned against “isolating” Afghanistan.

The Taliban’s return to power has raised concerns whether they will protect human rights of Afghans and whether they will prevent the country from becoming a terror sanctuary. The worries stem from the Islamist movement’s rule in the 1990s, when it hosted leaders of the al-Qaida network and barred women from public life and girls from receiving an education. 

The Taliban have dismissed those fears, saying they have opened government offices for both male and female staff to return to work and girls are gradually being allowed to resume education activities. 

But the hardline group is already under fire for reneging on some of its pledges to protect human rights and is being accused of persecuting members of the ousted Afghan government.

“I would like to remind you all that the people of Afghanistan have no intention of harming any country or nation in the world,” Hanafi assured Wednesday’s meeting. He said the Taliban government “stands ready to address all the concerns of the international community with complete clarity, transparency and openness.”

Hanafi’s speech to the meeting in the Russian capital came a day after Deputy U.S. Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo said he sees no situation where the Taliban would be allowed access to its funds in the U.S. reserves.

“We believe that it’s essential that we maintain our sanctions against the Taliban but at the same time find ways for legitimate humanitarian assistance to get to the Afghan people. That’s exactly what we’re doing,” Adeyemo told the Senate Banking Committee.

The U.S. and other Western countries are working out how to engage with the Taliban without giving them the legitimacy they seek, while facilitating the flow of humanitarian aid to Afghans.

Adeyemo said the Treasury was taking every step it could within its sanctions program to make clear to humanitarian groups that Washington wants to facilitate the flow of aid into Afghanistan.

Russia says its diplomatic offensive to garner support for Kabul stems from concerns that continued instability would encourage terrorist groups to threaten the security of Afghanistan’s neighbors and the wider region. 

Lavrov highlighted those fears while opening Wednesday’s meeting and urged the Taliban to deliver on their pledge to prevent terrorist groups from threatening Russia’s “friends and allies.”

The Afghan branch of Islamist State, known as IS-Khorasan, has in recent weeks carried out dozens of bomb attacks, killing and injuring hundreds of people across Afghanistan, most of them civilians.

The violence is of major concern to neighboring countries and is raising questions about the Taliban’s ability to counter the growing terror threat.

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‘Rivers of Lava’ Still Flowing From La Palma Volcano

Spanish government geologists on Wednesday said the Cumbre Vieja on the Spanish island of La Palma is continuing to violently erupt with no signs of stopping or even slowing down. 

The geologist took video of huge pyroclastic blocks floating along a river of lava flowing from the volcano’s northern zone. Meanwhile, video filmed by the Volcanology Institute of the Canaries (INVOLCAN) showed the lava flows moving into the town of La Laguna approaching a gas station.

Officials say the station had been emptied of fuel and water in recent days in advance of the approaching flow.

Streams of red-hot lava have engulfed almost 800 hectares of land, destroying about 2,000 buildings and many banana plantations.

The volcano on one of the Canary Islands off northwest Africa has so far destroyed more than 1,800 buildings, mostly homes. Some 7,000 people have had to leave their homes.

The prompt evacuations have helped avoid casualties on the island of some 85,000 people. Scientists have seen no indication that the eruption is slowing, as rivers of lava continue flowing toward the sea.

Some information for this report was provided by The Associated Press and Reuters.

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French African Mom Works to Boost Numbers of African Bone Marrow Donors

A French woman of African origin is leading a campaign to encourage more members of France’s African diaspora to register as bone marrow donors to potentially save lives. Elhame Lecoeur filed this report for VOA from Paris, narrated by Michael Lipin.

Camera: Elhame Lecoeur Produced by: Marcus Harton

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Moscow Hosts International Talks With Taliban to Discuss Afghan Crisis 

Russia has lauded the efforts of Afghanistan’s Taliban government to improve the national security and political situation but stressed the need for the Islamist group to ensure inclusivity in its governance to achieve a stable peace in the war-torn country. 

 

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made the remarks Wednesday while opening a Moscow-hosted international meeting to discuss the Afghan crisis with Taliban leaders and delegates from 10 countries, including China, Pakistan, Iran and India. 

 

“A new administration is in power [in Kabul]. We note the efforts they take to stabilize the military and political situation and set up work for the state apparatus,” Lavrov said. 

 

“[However], we see the formula for its successful solution mainly in the formation of a truly inclusive government, which should fully reflect the interests of all, not only ethnic, but also political forces of the country,” said the Russian chief diplomat. 

 

Lavrov said Moscow believes it’s time to mobilize global efforts to provide Kabul with effective financial, economic and humanitarian assistance to help prevent a humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan. 

 

Taliban Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Salam Hanafi, while addressing the meeting, renewed a call for the global community to recognize the new government in Kabul and again demanded the United States unfreeze about $10 billon in Afghan central bank in foreign reserves. 

 

The senior Taliban leader defended his interim government as “already inclusive” and said they would not accept any deal under pressure, according to the text of the speech Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid shared with media. 

 

Lavrov had made it clear in the run-up to the Moscow meeting that the discussions would not cover the issue of granting recognition to the Taliban, stressing the need for the group to live up to “expectations” on human rights.  

Hanafi’s speech to the meeting in the Russian capital came a day after Deputy U.S. Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo said he sees no situation where the Taliban would be allowed access to the county’s reserves. 

 

“We believe that it’s essential that we maintain our sanctions against the Taliban but at the same time find ways for legitimate humanitarian assistance to get to the Afghan people. That’s exactly what we’re doing,” Adeyemo told the Senate Banking Committee. 

 

The Taliban regained control of Afghanistan in August after the United States and Western countries withdrew all their troops almost 20 years after the Islamist group was removed from power by the U.S.-led military invasion for harboring al-Qaida planners of terrorist attacks on America. 

 

The U.S. and other Western countries are working out how to engage with the Taliban without giving them the legitimacy they seek, while facilitating the flow of humanitarian aid to Afghans. 

 

Adeyemo said the Treasury was taking every step it could within its sanctions program to make clear to humanitarian groups that Washington wants to facilitate the flow of aid into Afghanistan. 

 

Chinese officials at Wednesday’s meeting renewed their resolve to work with the Taliban to help them deal with the economic and humanitarian challenges facing the country. 

 

Washington also was invited to the talks in Moscow, but U.S. officials cited logistical reasons for not attending them. 

 

The Taliban are under fire at home and internationally for reneging on some of their pledges to protect the rights of women and minorities. 

 

The hardline group is also being accused of persecuting members of the ousted Afghan government, charges Taliban officials reject as unfounded and politically motivated propaganda. 

 

Russia says its diplomatic offensive to garner support for Kabul stems from concerns continued instability would encourage terrorist groups to threaten security of Afghanistan’s neighbors and the wider region. 

 

Lavrov highlighted those fears while addressing Wednesday’s gathering in Moscow and urged the Taliban to deliver on their pledges of preventing terrorist groups from threatening Russia’s “friends and allies.”  

The Afghan branch of Islamist State, known as IS-Khorasan, has in recent weeks carried out dozens of bomb attacks, killing and injuring hundreds of people across Afghanistan, most of them civilians. The violence is of major concern to neighboring countries and is raising questions about the Taliban’s ability to counter the growing terror threat.

 

Reuters contributed some information for this report. 

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Putin Imposes Week-Long Workplace Shutdown to Combat COVID-19

Soaring cases of COVID-19 and related deaths have prompted Russian President Vladimir Putin to approve a Cabinet proposal for a week-long workplace shutdown. 

Russia reported a record high 1,028 coronavirus deaths Wednesday over the past 24 hours, the highest daily death toll since the pandemic began, boosting the country’s death toll to 226,353, by far the highest in Europe. 

Putin said in a televised meeting with government officials that employees would observe “non-working days” from October 30 to November 7, during which they would still receive salaries. He said the period, in which four of the seven days are state holidays, could start earlier or be extended in certain regions. 

Daily coronavirus deaths in Russia have been surging for weeks because of sluggish vaccination rates, casual attitudes toward precautionary measures and the government’s hesitancy to tighten restrictions. 

 

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the outlook is “very sad,” pointing out the vaccination rates in various regions are especially low. 

 

About 32% of Russia’s nearly 146 million people have been fully vaccinated, although it was the world’s first country in August 2020 to authorize a coronavirus vaccine and vaccines remain plentiful.

 

In July, Russia became one of the world’s first countries to launch a revaccination campaign, but the Kremlin said Wednesday Putin has yet to receive a booster shot. 

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters. 

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FBI Raids Washington, New York Homes Linked to Russian Oligarch Oleg Deripaska

FBI agents raided homes Thursday in Washington and New York City linked to Oleg Deripaska, a Russian billionaire with ties to the Kremlin and to Paul Manafort, the onetime chairman of Donald Trump’s 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.

The agents carried boxes out of a mansion in one of Washington’s wealthiest neighborhoods, with yellow “CRIME SCENE DO NOT ENTER” tape across the front yard, and towed away a vehicle. 

A spokesperson for the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation confirmed the agency was conducting a court-authorized law enforcement activity at the home, which The Washington Post has previously reported was linked to the Russian oligarch.

The specific reason for sealing off and searching the Washington mansion was not immediately clear, and the FBI spokesperson did not provide details. 

A representative for Deripaska said the home, as well as the one in New York, belong to relatives of the oligarch. Reuters could not immediately determine Deripaska’s whereabouts. 

A spokesperson for the FBI’s New York field office confirmed “law enforcement activity” at the home in New York City’s Greenwich Village neighborhood but declined further comment.

Deripaska, 53, has been under U.S. sanctions since 2018. Washington imposed sanctions on him and other influential Russians because of their ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin after alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election. 

Deripaska once employed Manafort, who was convicted in 2018 on tax evasion and bank fraud charges and was among the central figures scrutinized under investigations of alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election, which Moscow denies.

Russia used Manafort and the WikiLeaks website to try to help Trump win that election, a Republican-led Senate committee said in its final review of the matter released last year. While still president last December, Trump pardoned Manafort.

The Senate report found Putin personally directed the Russian efforts to hack computer networks and accounts affiliated with the Democratic Party and leak information damaging to Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton. 

The report also alleged Manafort collaborated with Russians, including Deripaska and a Russian intelligence officer, before, during and after the election. 

Deripaska owns part of Rusal via his stake in the giant aluminum producer’s parent company En+ Group. 

Washington previously dropped sanctions against both companies but kept them on Deripaska. Rusal’s Moscow-listed shares extended losses after the report of the raid on the Washington home, falling 6%. 

The representative for Deripaska, who declined to give their name because of company policy, confirmed the raid on both homes and said they belong to Deripaska’s family rather than the executive himself.

The representative said the searches were carried out on the basis of two court warrants related to the U.S. sanctions but provided no further details. 

 

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