Russia wants Europe to pay its gas bills in rubles – but the EU forbids that. What to do? After much back and forth, a compromise seems to have been found. But whether Moscow will accept it remains to be seen. And there is also displeasure in Europe.
The exact date is not entirely clear, but it should be ready by the end of May. By then at the latest, the German energy company Uniper will have to pay its gas bill. But a simple standing order using the direct debit procedure is not enough at Uniper. Because the bill for the gas comes from: Russia.
And transferring money to Moscow or St. Petersburg has become extremely complicated for energy companies because of the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine. At the end of March, Kremlin chief Vladimir Putin issued a decree that western countries would have to pay their bills in rubles in the future. Otherwise, deliveries to the “unfriendly” countries would be stopped, Putin threatened. Presumably, the Kremlin wants to stabilize its currency with the measure.
However, for precisely this reason, EU sanctions prohibit paying with rubles. In any case, the vast majority of contracts with Russia specify payment in euros or dollars, argues Brussels. “The companies will pay according to their contracts,” emphasized Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) at the end of March.
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However, negotiations with Moscow were going on behind the scenes. The so-called “K-accounts” are now considered a compromise: customers from the West pay in euros or dollars into an account with the in-house bank of the Russian energy company Gazprom. Gazprom takes this money, converts it into rubles and then transfers it to the actual business account. In this way, the EU can claim that it paid in euros or dollars – and the Kremlin can claim that the payment came in rubles. “The fact that the Russians then say that we paid in rubles, we would have to live with that,” Uniper CEO Klaus-Dieter Maubach told the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” (FAZ) at the end of April.
Germany agrees with this model, said Klaus Müller, head of the Federal Network Agency, on Tuesday of the FAZ. In his understanding, the K accounts are “a viable option”. But the uncertainty among the energy companies is great. On the one hand, this is due to the EU, which has not always argued precisely on this issue. But above all, the uncertainty is due to one man: Vladimir Putin.
Because in the end, the question of the payment process is a political matter, not a technical one. Russian authorities have confirmed that the K solution is acceptable, according to EU Commission circles. However, if Putin changes his mind, Europe is powerless.
It is unclear whether the Kremlin can bring itself to do so – Russia is dependent on foreign exchange from energy trading. But Moscow has already made an example of the comparatively unimportant customers Poland and Bulgaria: Because both countries refused to use the K solution, Russia stopped gas deliveries without further ado.
The first rumors are already spreading. On Saturday, the Polish news agency PAP reported that the EU Commission announced at a hastily convened meeting with diplomats from member states on Friday evening that energy companies can also pay their bills in rubles. Germany and France in particular had spoken out in favor of this step. Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki was then quoted in the Polish media as saying that he was disappointed that several EU states now wanted to “give in”.
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However, this report is denied by circles in the EU Commission: Rather, the meeting was about the compromise with the K-accounts, in which Western companies – at least technically speaking – do not pay in rubles. However, there are countries that take a different view here, it said. At a press conference on Tuesday, a commission spokesman stressed that payment in rubles was still prohibited. It was also heard from the Federal Ministry of Economics that no compromise other than the K solution was known.
In all probability, western gas customers will go down the K-account route – hoping that the Russian side will accept the compromise as promised. German energy giant RWE opened an account with Gazprombank on Monday, a spokesman confirmed.
Only the Finnish state-owned energy supplier Gasum is taking a different approach – and is taking Gazprom to court. There was no other choice, said CEO Mika Wiljanen on Tuesday. Payment in rubles is out of the question.