Russia’s Gazprom has emptied its gas storage facilities in western Europe to unusually low levels ahead of the winter, adding to fears that Moscow has exacerbated a shortage of supplies that has boosted prices to a record level.

Russian President Vladimir Putin this month blamed record gas prices on European energy companies not pumping enough gas into underground storage ahead of the winter, as he denied once again that Moscow has restricted supplies to Europe.

But while European storage levels are low, an analysis of European gas industry data shows the largest shortfalls are at sites owned or controlled by Russia’s state-backed gas monopoly Gazprom, in what critics say increasingly points to an attempt to squeeze European energy supplies.

“The big deficits are where Gazprom facilities are,” said Domenicantonio De

Giorgio, adjunct professor of finance at the Universitå Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, who has analysed data from Gas Infrastructure Europe (GIE), an industry body.

“Putin and Gazprom keep saying they have supplied all of their long-term contracts with customers. Well, they have supplied their customers, but they have not supplied themselves,” he said.

Data from GIE show that in countries where Gazprom does not own storage facilities, such as in France and Italy, the level of gas in storage has reached near-normal levels for this time of year.

Excluding Gazprom-controlled sites, European gas storage is just within the five-year average range, which the industry defines as a position of relatively comfortable supplies. Include Gazprom-controlled facilities, however, and the overall level in Europe is well below, at just above 75 per cent compared with 85 to 95 per cent in each of the past five years.

Gazprom has influence over almost one-third of all gas storage in Germany, Austria and the Netherlands.

Gazprom did not respond to requests for comment but has consistently said it has met all of its long-term contracts to customers this year.

But critics of Gazprom believe that allowing its storage facilities to decline has amounted to a subtle but highly effective effort to influence European energy prices, which are threatening the economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.