Germany and Austria have triggered emergency plans over possible gas supply disruption amid a payments stand-off with Russia.
Russia had demanded “unfriendly” countries pay for its gas in roubles from 31 March, but the EU, which mainly pays in euros, rejected the idea.
Moscow later appeared to soften its stance, saying on Wednesday rouble payments would be introduced gradually.
But Germany and Austria have taken the first steps towards gas rationing
Germany urged consumers and companies to reduce consumption in anticipation of possible shortages, while Austria said it was tightening its monitoring of the gas market.
Germany gets about half its gas and a third of its oil from Russia and has warned that it could face a recession if supplies suddenly stopped.
Neighbouring Austria relies on Russia much more for gas, with the country getting about 80% from the country and Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer’s office said measures such as gas rationing would only come into play in an “immediate crisis”.
Under an existing gas emergency plan, the “early warning phase”, which both Germany and Austria have begun, is the first of three steps designed to prepare the country for a potential supply shortage. In its final stage, the governments would bring in gas rationing.
German economy minister Robert Habeck said the country’s gas supplies were safeguarded for the time being, but said it was increasing precautionary measures in case of escalation by Russia.
The head of German network regulator Bundesnetzagentur, Klaus Müller, said the aim of the early warning was to avoid a deterioration of supply. He urged consumers and industry to prepare for “all scenarios”.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia would not demand payments in roubles from Thursday.
“Payments and delivery is a time consuming process… from a technological point of view, this is a more prolonged process,” he said.
The West has been imposing sanctions on Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine.
In response, Russian President Vladimir Putin has demanded that natural gas exported to Europe should be paid for in roubles.
Analysts say the move will support the country’s currency, which fell sharply after the invasion but has begun to recover.
Europe, which in total imports about 40% of its gas from Russia and pays mostly in euros, says Russia’s state-controlled gas giant Gazprom cannot redraw contracts.
But Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of the lower house of the Russian parliament, said on Wednesday: “European politicians need to stop the talk, stop trying to find some justification about why they cannot pay in roubles.
“If you want gas, find roubles.”
The Kremlin also said Russia could start demanding payment in roubles for other commodities such as fertiliser, grain, metals and timber.