The Washington Post
By Robyn Dixon
MOSCOW — Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko opened another potential front against Europe on Thursday, threatening to choke off gas supplies amid a deepening crisis that has brought migrants surging to E.U. borders and Western leaders planning to retaliate with more sanctions.
Lukashenko’s warning jolted energy markets and further suggested his authoritarian regime still had the backing of its key ally Russia, whose natural gas pipelines — including one crossing Belarus — are critical for European supplies.
It is also Russian President Vladimir Putin who would decide whether Lukashenko could follow through with threats to turn off the Belarus pipeline, which supplies about 20 percent of Europe’s Russian gas, according to analysts. So far, Russia has insisted it has no part in Lukashenko’s growing feud even as it declines to rein him in.
“It’s clearly a very serious threat, and the next step is to watch what Russia says or does about this,” said Nigel Gould-Davies, a Belarus analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and a former British ambassador to Belarus.
In another display of Moscow’s support, two Russian strategic bombers flew near Belarus’s border with the European Union for the second day Thursday. On the ground, meanwhile, thousands of migrants from the Middle East and elsewhere huddled at the heavily guarded Polish border — the latest flash point after Lukashenko has for months opened routes from Minsk to E.U. frontiers.
Lukashenko — often called Europe’s last dictator by his foes — has steadily escalated his fight with the E.U. and its allies since elections last year that handed him victory but were widely viewed by Western leaders and others as riddled with fraud.
His threat over gas supplies comes as E.U. officials plan new sanctions as early as next week, with other possible measures to follow by the United States, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Wednesday after talks in Washington with President Biden.
“We have seen [Lukashenko’s] threats, and what we are saying very clearly is that we are not going to allow ourselves to be intimidated,” the European Commission’s deputy chief spokeswoman, Dana Spinant, said at a news briefing Thursday.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel called Putin for the second time in two days to press him to use his sway over Lukashenko to end the standoff, but Putin shrugged off any role. Putin said the E.U. should restore contacts with Belarus to resolve the problem, according to the Kremlin press service.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday that Russia wanted to see the migrant crisis resolved “just like any other country.”
Yet Putin remains a political lifeline for Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994 and still appears emboldened by Kremlin support. In the Belarus capital, Minsk, Lukashenko told Belarusian Prime Minister Roman Golovchenko that if the E.U. imposes new sanctions, “you must not forgive them anything.”
“We are heating Europe. They still threaten us that they will close the border. And if we shut off natural gas there?” said Lukashenko. Belarus hosts one of the major pipelines carrying gas from Russia to Europe, but pipelines cross through other countries and are out of Lukashenko’s control.
“The Foreign Ministry must warn everyone in Europe: If they impose additional sanctions on us, that would be indigestible and unacceptable for us. We must answer,” he said in comments reported by the BelTA state news agency.
Lukashenko has long been known for his bluster and bellicose rhetoric, said Gould-Davies, the former ambassador. But the leader now appears intent on escalating his conflict with Europe.
“We’re in new territory now, and I think that’s one point that emerges from this whole crisis,” he said, adding that Lukashenko was not interested in restoring relations with Europe as he had done in past years. “On the contrary, he’s burning more and more bridges all the time.
“He’s now making himself a threat to the outside world, so it’s very hard to judge what he might do now, based on his record in the past, because he’s becoming so much more unpredictable and volatile.”
In a sign of worries about a potential supply squeeze from Belarus, the price of future contracts at a benchmark exchange in the Netherlands was up more than 3 percent at one point Thursday before falling back.
Lukashenko’s comments came after Russian state gas giant Gazprom said Tuesday it had started to refill its European gas storage facilities, following an order from Putin last month. He had told Gazprom to increase supplies to Europe after replenishing domestic stocks.
Europe relies on Russia for about 35 percent of its natural gas through pipelines including Nord Stream 1 via the Baltic Sea, TurkStream and Blue Stream via Turkey, and the Yamal-Europe pipeline via Belarus and Poland to Germany.
But Russian gas flows via the Yamal-Europe pipeline were halved Thursday from the previous day, Reuters reported.
A controversial new pipeline, Nord Stream 2, opposed by Ukraine and criticized by the United States, is undergoing a regulatory approval process in Germany, with Russia pressing Europe to speed up the process.
The 1,242-mile Yamal-Europe pipeline has an annual capacity of 32.9 billion cubic meters, according to Gazprom, compared with 31 billion cubic meters for TurkStream and 16 billion cubic meters for Blue Stream. The capacity of Nord Stream 1 is 55 billion cubic meters, and Nord Stream 2 will double that.
Putin last month dismissed claims that Russia was limiting supplies to Europe to exert pressure for speedy approval of Nord Stream 2 — connecting Russia and Germany — as “politically motivated blather.”
Von der Leyen accused Belarus of trying to destabilize European democracies in comments to journalists Wednesday after meeting with Biden. She added that the United States would impose new sanctions in early December.
The migrant crisis on the Belarusian border with Poland came to a head Monday, when a large column of migrants, including many women and children, walked to the border to try to cross, only to be stranded in freezing conditions in a forest next to the razor-wire border fence.
Polish officials declared that the migrants would not enter Poland and deployed 12,000 troops along the border. Belarusian border guards prevented people from trying to go back into Belarus, according to local media.
The migrant crisis on Belarus’s borders with Europe has been brewing since June, when Lukashenko announced he would stop the policing of his country’s borders in retaliation for tough sanctions announced by the E.U. on June 2, the fourth package since October 2020.
The E.U. has ratcheted up sanctions pressure over the “fraudulent nature” of Belarus’s presidential election in August 2020; regime “brutality” against peaceful protests, journalists and activists; and the forced landing of a Ryanair flight in May to arrest independent Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega.
Lukashenko said 1,790 migrants are in a camp on the border with Poland. He ordered officials to deliver firewood to the migrants and suggested that children could be taken from their parents and put in a sanatorium, “and somewhere maybe with their mothers.”
“Pregnant women and children. Question number one. We cannot not leave them. Especially children. We would at least take them to get a shower, to be washed and fed,” he said.
The Belarusian leader also claimed, without providing evidence, that attempts were being made to send weapons and explosives from separatist eastern Ukraine to migrants encamped on the border to create a provocation.
Perry Stein in Brussels contributed to this report.
Robyn Dixon is a foreign correspondent on her third stint in Russia, after almost a decade reporting there beginning in the early 1990s. In November 2019 she joined The Washington Post as Moscow bureau chief.