MILAN/BERLIN: Germany and Italy told companies they could open rouble accounts to keep buying Russian gas without breaching sanctions against Moscow following discussions with the European Union, sources said.
The debate over Russia’s demand that foreign buyers pay for gas in roubles has tested the resolve of European governments to take a hard line against Moscow over the war in Ukraine.
Poland, Bulgaria and Finland have refused to comply with Moscow’s demand that importers pay for gas via rouble accounts with Gazprombank and their supplies have been cut.
Other member states, however, have been unwilling to steer companies towards action that could result in losing vital supplies of Russian gas that heats homes and powers factories.
Brussels has given two sets of written guidance on how to buy Russian gas without breaching sanctions, but the legal route remains foggy as EU officials also advised firms in a closed-door meeting not to open rouble accounts with Gazprombank.
Some diplomats in Brussels from EU member states said they thought the advice was intentionally vague to enable countries to open rouble accounts and keep buying Russian gas.
“One has the impression that it leaves the door open for business as usual,” one diplomat said, adding that in their view it risked undermining EU unity against Russia if companies in some countries opened rouble accounts but others did not.
“They needed to create a level of creative ambiguity,” a second diplomat said, referring to the Commission’s advice. “The purpose of creative ambiguity is to create just enough room for all the different interpretations.”
A Commission spokesman said on Thursday it was not “advisable” for companies to open rouble accounts.
Two sources told Reuters that German gas importers have been told by Berlin they can open rouble accounts to pay for Russian gas without violating sanctions, as long as the payments they make to Gazprombank are not in the Russian currency.
The sources said Germany, which is the biggest importer of Russian gas in the region, had consistently acted on the issue in close coordination with the EU.
The Italian government also spoke to the European Commission and received clarity on how to buy Russian gas legally, a senior government source told Reuters.