Belarus Threatens EU Gas as Merkel Pushes Putin in Migrant Spat
(Bloomberg) -- Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko threatened to shut down a key pipeline carrying Russia gas to the European Union, escalating a dispute flaring over migrants seeking to cross from his country into the EU.
Together with the U.K. and U.S., the bloc is planning more sanctions on the isolated authoritarian leader, who has turned to Moscow for economic and political support.
For the second day in a row, German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin about the situation by phone, the Kremlin said. In response to Merkel’s appeals to intercede with his ally Lukashenko, Putin reiterated his stance that the EU should talk to Minsk directly.
The refugee tensions on the border between Belarus and Poland -- which the EU accuses Lukashenko of instigating in retaliation for its pressure on his government over its brutal crackdown on domestic opponents -- have spiraled in recent days, with several thousand people stuck on the frontier.
Neither the Kremlin nor Russian gas giant Gazprom PJSC commented on Lukashenko’s latest ultimatum Thursday and it wasn’t clear whether he had the legal authority to do it. Since tensions with the West spiked last year in the wake of his crackdown on critics after presidential elections, Lukashenko has threatened a wide range of retaliatory moves, but followed through on only a few.
“We’re heating Europe and they are threatening us that they will close the border,” Lukashenko said at a meeting with officials. “What if we cut off natural gas flows there? Therefore, I would recommend the leadership of Poland, Lithuanians and other empty-headed people to think before speaking.”
About 20% of Russian gas flows to EU were sent across Belarus so far this year, largely through the Yamal-Europe pipeline, making it a key supply route as the continent faces the worst energy crisis in decades, amid limited Russian supplies of gas, among other factors. Russia has been lobbying the EU to approve its controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline directly to Germany, circumventing transit countries. European gas prices extended gains after Lukashenko’s threat.
Lukashenko said he asked Russia to deploy strategic bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons to patrol his country’s border and mulled shutting down cargo transit to Europe as well as other possible measures to retaliate for any additional sanctions.
“What Lukashenko is doing is irresponsible,” Olaf Scholz, German chancellor-in-waiting, said Thursday. “We will do everything we can to bring this game to an end,” he added, saying “that includes sanctions against all those who are helping and supporting this game.”
Facing the influx of refugees from the Middle East and other conflict zones on their borders with Belarus, Poland and Lithuania have demanded the EU take stronger action against Lukashenko.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, after meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden, said Wednesday that the EU and the U.S. are preparing to penalize the regime for orchestrating a “hybrid attack” on the bloc.
“We have to protect our democracies from this kind of cynical, geopolitical power play,” she told reporters outside the White House.
The bloc is discussing targeting airlines, possibly including Russian ones, in the new package, an EU official said. New penalties could be announced -- jointly with the U.S. and possibly the U.K. -- early next month, the person said.
“We will widen our sanctions against Belarus, so very rapidly at the beginning of next week, there will be a widening of the sanctions against elements,” von der Leyen said. “As far as I’m informed, the United States have prepared sanctions that will be in effect at the beginning of December.”
Poland estimated that thousands of migrants may be in the forests along the border, and even more on route to the frontier area from Belarus’s capital. Neighboring Lithuania, facing a similar problem, called on the United Nations to open a humanitarian corridor in Belarus.
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