Following approval from Brussels, Germany and Italy approve Russian gas payments –

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MILAN / BERLIN – Germany and Italy have told companies that they could open a ruble account after negotiating with the European Union to continue buying Russian gas without violating sanctions against Moscow, sources said.

Russia’s claim that foreign buyers pay for gas in rubles has tested European governments’ determination to take a tougher stance against Moscow in the Ukraine war.

Poland, Bulgaria and Finland have refused to comply with Moscow’s demands that importers pay for gas through a ruble account with Gazprom Bank and cut off their supplies.

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Other member states, however, are reluctant to allow companies to take steps that could result in the loss of vital supplies of Russian gas that heat up homes and factories.

Brussels has issued two sets of written guidelines on how to buy Russian gas without violating sanctions, but the legal path remains unclear as EU officials also advised firms in a closed-door meeting not to open ruble accounts with Gazprombank.

Some diplomats in Brussels from EU member states said they felt the advice was deliberately vague to enable countries to open ruble accounts and continue buying Russian gas.

One diplomat said, “One thinks it has left the door open for business as usual,” one diplomat said, adding that it risked undermining EU unity against Russia if companies in some countries opened ruble accounts but others did not.

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Referring to the commission’s advice, a second diplomat said, “They needed to create a level of creative ambiguity. “The purpose of creative ambiguity is to create enough space for all different interpretations.”

The commission declined to comment on the talks.

A spokesman for the commission said on Thursday that it was not “desirable” for companies to open ruble accounts.

‘Gray zone’

Two sources told Reuters that Berlin had told German gas importers that they could open a ruble account to pay for Russian gas without violating sanctions, as long as the money they paid to Gazprombank was in Russian currency.

Sources said that Germany, the largest importer of Russian gas in the region, has been working closely with the EU on the issue.

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The Italian government has spoken to the European Commission and received clarification on how Russian gas could be bought legally, a senior government source told Reuters.

Italian energy company Annie said on Tuesday it had begun the process of opening two accounts, one in euros and one in rubles, the source said.

“The decision is in line with what was reported by the department,” the source said, referring to the European Commission’s energy department.

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi said last week that there was no official ruling on whether it was a “gray zone” that would violate Russia’s sanctions on compliance with the funding scheme.

Draghi’s office declined to comment Friday.

In its written instructions, the EU said that companies could buy Russian gas without violating sanctions if they paid in the currency of their existing agreement – and declared that doing so would fulfill their contractual obligations.

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Most of the EU firms’ deals with Gazprom are in euros or dollars.

The guidelines do not explicitly state, however, that converting those funds into Russian currency for opening a ruble account would violate EU sanctions.

Katja Yafimava, a senior research fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, said there was no legal basis for suggesting that the ruble violated the account-opening ban.

‚ÄúThere is nothing in the written instructions that prevents buyers from opening such accounts. While the European Commission’s oral statements have created ambiguity, the written guidelines are important, “he said.

National governments are responsible for enforcing EU sanctions, which were approved by all 27 member states.

Brussels can take legal action against governments that fail to enforce them, but member states refuse to pay for gas.

Poland has sought clear advice from Brussels on whether the company could open a ruble account.

A spokesman for the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs said the country was lobbying for a clear EU stand “to draw a line for the whole EU”.

(Reporting by Marcus Walkett, Stephen Jukes, Giuseppe Fonte, Nina Chestney, Kate Abnett and Toby Sterling; Editing by David Clark)

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