In front of a huge metal turbine that normally propels natural gas from Russia to Germany via the Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz dismissed Russia’s claim that technical problems were behind the sharp reduction in gas flows to Germany.
He said the only reason the machine had not yet been sent back to Russia after undergoing maintenance was that Russian energy giant Gazprom did not want it back.
The turbine, which is at the heart of a dispute between Germany and Gazprom, was displayed at a media event in the western German city of Mülheim an der Ruhr on Wednesday, where it is stored since returning from renovation to Canada.
Gazprom and Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian president, accused Siemens Energy, the manufacturer of the turbine, of having delayed returning it to Russia. They repeatedly cited the need for “Documents and clarifications required”, and said the absence of the turbine was the reason it had reduced gas flows to 20% of its capacity.
Gazprom published a statement later Wednesday, saying sanctions imposed by Canada, Germany and Britain prevented him from taking over the turbine. But Mr. Scholz had said earlier that nothing stood in the way of his return.
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After weeks of publishing only terse responses, the German side seemed determined to call the Gazprom and Mr. Putin bluff.
“It is obvious that nothing, nothing at all, opposes the continuation of the transport of this turbine and its installation in Russia. It can be carried and used at any time,” Scholz told reporters. “There is no technical reason for the reduction in gas supply.”
European officials say Russia is cutting gas supplies to punish Europe for its opposition to the war in Ukraine. In mid-June, Gazprom reduced the amount of gas it delivered to Germany through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline to just 40% of its possible capacity. Last week, he cut the amount in half again.
Germany still relies on Russia to meet about a third of its natural gas needs, down from more than half before the war started, but still enough to leave the country reeling from the cuts. It is scrambling to stockpile enough fuel before demand spikes in the winter, hoping to avoid rationing and shutdowns of key industries if Russia cuts off supplies altogether.
Gas storage facilities in Germany were 69% full on Wednesday, but officials told businesses and citizens to start cutting energy use as much as possible while the weather was still warm. Almost half of all homes in Germany are heated with gas, and households, as well as essential infrastructure such as hospitals and emergency services, will be given priority in the event of a shortage.
Mr Putin suggested that Germany could solve its gas problem by opening the second gas pipeline that was mothballed days before Russia invaded Ukraine, Nord Stream 2.
This proposal was taken up by Gerhard Schröder, the former German Chancellor, who remains close to Mr Putin despite having been rejected by his own political party, the Social Democrats, and many Germans. In an interview with the German weekly BackMr Schröder, who met the Russian president in Moscow last week, also said the Kremlin was open to talks to end the war, provided Ukraine gave up its claim to Crimea – that the Russia annexed in 2014 – as well as its aspirations. join NATO.
Asked about the prospect of restarting Nord Stream 2, Mr Scholz stifled a laugh, pointing out that its twin gas pipeline running under the Baltic Sea, Nord Stream 1, was already underutilized, as were other overland links across the Ukraine, as well as one across Belarus and Poland — that Russia had imposed sanctions.
“There is enough capacity with Nord Stream 1,” he said. “All the contracts that Russia has concluded for the whole of Europe can be fulfilled with the help of this gas pipeline.”
Reduced natural gas flows have driven prices in Europe to record highs. On Wednesday, they remained about double what they were in mid-June, when Russia began restricting flows through the Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline.
Christian Bruch, the head of Siemens Energy, who appeared with Mr Scholz, said his company was in regular talks with Gazprom over the issue of the turbine and was eager to return it so that other Siemens turbines used in the pipeline can also be taken for maintenance.
But Russian society has a “different view” of the situation, he said, without elaborating.
“This turbine is ready to operate immediately,” said Scholz. “If Russia doesn’t take this turbine now, it shows the whole world that not taking it is just an excuse to cut Germany’s gas supply.”