BERLIN — Germany began preparing for possible natural gas shortages on Wednesday, as the country’s economy minister highlighted growing concerns that Russia could halt supplies if payments for existing contracts are not made in rubles.
The government activated the first step of a national gas contingency plan that could eventually lead to natural gas rationing. Wednesday’s measure — the first step or the “early warning phase” — involves setting up a crisis team made up of representatives from federal and state governments, regulators and the private sector, said Economy Minister and Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck.
The move highlights the risk for European countries that depend on Russian oil and gas as the war in Ukraine drags on. On Monday, the energy ministers of the G7 countries rejected a demand by Russia to pay in rubles. Several European energy companies have said paying in rubles would require renegotiating long-term contracts.
“We will not accept any breach of private contracts,” said Mr. Habeck.
The ongoing standoff is part of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin’s attempts to resist a sweeping array of economic sanctions aimed at punishing the Kremlin for invading neighboring Ukraine.
“We need to step up precautions to be prepared for an escalation from Russia,” Mr Habeck told reporters. “A crisis team was convened when the early warning level was declared.”
The team will meet daily to monitor the situation and determine actions that could be taken if supplies run low, which Habeck said is not yet the case. Only when the situation was critical enough would the government step in and start rationing natural gas supplies. In that case, households and critical public services, including hospitals and emergency services, would be prioritized over industry, according to a planning document.
About half of Germany Households rely on natural gas for heating, and 55 percent of the country’s gas comes from Russia. It travels through Ukraine and Poland via land pipelines and through the original Nord Stream pipeline under the Baltic Sea. A sister pipeline awaiting German approval, Nord Stream 2, was effectively frozen by the government two days before Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine.
“The security of supply is still guaranteed,” said Habeck. “There are currently no delivery bottlenecks. Nevertheless, we must step up precautionary measures to be prepared for an escalation from Russia.”
Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned energy company, said on Wednesday that it has continued to supply gas to Europe via Ukraine, in line with requests from European consumers, and that flows remain high. Gas also flowed west through a pipeline crossing Poland from Russia for the first time since March 15, sources said.
Moscow has not said when calls for ruble payments will begin, but is expected to unveil its plans later this week.
The Russia-Ukraine War and the World Economy
On Wednesday, Dmitri S. Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said “Payments and deliveries take time. That doesn’t mean that everything delivered tomorrow has to be paid for by the evening. It is a protracted process.”
Russia’s top lawmaker on Wednesday warned that exports of oil, grain, metals, fertilizers, coal and timber could also soon be priced the same way.
Mr Habeck also urged German consumers and businesses to start making efforts to reduce their energy consumption wherever possible. “Every kilowatt hour counts,” he said.
Ivan Nekhepurenkocontributed reporting.