On November 11, Belarus’ authoritarian president, Alexsander Lukashenko, threatened to cut off gas supplies and leave Europe in retaliation for sanctions on Minsk. Europe and the United States blame Belarus for fomenting a migrant crisis.
Thousands of fleeing Middle Easterners have flocked to the Polish, Lithuanian and Latvian borders with Belarus. Those countries responded by deploying military and law enforcement, who then clashed with migrants attempting to cross from Belarus.
The coordinated EU-U.S. sanctions would target some 30 Belarusian officials, along with Belarus’ state airline and Belarusian travel agencies, France 24 reported.
Lukashenko told members of his cabinet on November 11 that Belarus “is ready for a tough response” to the new restrictions, stating:
“We are heating Europe. They are still threatening us that they will close the border. And if we shut off natural gas there?"
That claim is false. Belarus does not supply gas to Europe. Russia does, using Belarus as a transit country.
The Yamal-Europe pipeline that passes through Belarus belongs to Gazprom, the Russian state natural gas monopoly. Belarus itself depends on Russian gas.
“Decisions to suspend supplies to Europe are made in Moscow, not in Minsk,” Margarita Assenova, senior fellow and energy expert at the Jamestown Foundation, told Polygraph.info. (Disclosure: Assenova is a former Polygraph.info fact checker.)
Lukashenko’s gas threat came shortly after he spoke by telephone with Russian President Vladimir Putin. According to the Kremlin’s website, “The presidents exchanged opinions about the situation with refugees” on Belarus’ borders with Poland and Lithuania.
The Kremlin quickly denied any involvement in Lukashenko’s threat. “This is a statement by the president of Belarus,” said Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary. “Belarus is our ally, but it is a sovereign state."
Belarus’ sovereignty is becoming increasingly questionable, however. On November 4, Lukashenko moved to strengthen his country’s dependence on Russia by signing an integration treaty with Putin. According to experts, that treaty puts the two nations back into a relationship similar to the one that existed under the Soviet Union.
Countries in Eastern Europe and the Balkans rely on Russia for anywhere from 40 percent to 100 percent of their natural gas supply, according to the data tracking site Statista.
Putin is unlikely to allow Lukashenko to “stop Russian gas supplies to Europe,” Assenova said. However, she added that Lukashenko’s threats “well serve” Putin’s strategy of pressuring the EU into certifying the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline, the new Baltic Sea pipeline that will boost Russian gas deliveries to Europe.
Russia cut gas supplies to Europe to a minimum last summer and fall, delivering just enough to fulfill contracts but not enough to meet its market obligation to store sufficient gas for the winter. Russian gas supplies delivered through Ukraine were also reduced by more than 40 percent.
As a result, gas prices have been hitting historical records. Europe accused Russia of manipulating the market to pressure the EU into licensing Nord Stream 2, which European leaders believe will increase Europe’s energy dependence on Russian gas and strip Ukraine of a large chunk of income from gas transit fees.
Nord Stream 2 runs under the Baltic Sea, well north of Ukrainian territory.
Europe will soon be forced to choose “between mainlining ever more Russian hydrocarbons in giant new pipelines and sticking up for Ukraine and championing the cause of peace and stability,” British Prime Minister Boris Jonson said on November 15.
That same day, Gazprom increased gas deliveries via the Yamal-Europe pipeline crossing Belarus, despite Lukashenko’s threat.
But the small increase in deliveries is not nearly enough to make it possible for Europe to avoid an energy crisis this winter, Asssenova said, since “very little goes to storage, because the heating session has already begun.”
“The situation may worsen if we see a cold spell in January or February — without enough supplies in storage, no matter how much gas Gazprom is going to pump into Europe, there will be chokepoints in the pipes preventing gas from reaching customers,” Assenova said. “Unless NS2 is operational, of course — and this is the point the Kremlin is trying to make.”
Gazprom said the Nord Stream 2 pipeline was ready to start operations in September but needed a license from the European Commission, as well as from national energy regulators. On November 16, Germany suspended its approval of Nord Stream 2, citing non-compliance with the German law. The delay may set back the project for several months, the BBC reported.
The German suspension was followed by a 19% surge in natural gas prices in Europe, as Russia is unlikely to increase gas deliveries through Ukraine, Bloomberg reported.
Many believe Russia’s strategy goes beyond using the gas as a political lever. Kremlin has launched a “hybrid war” with “active measures” including “disinformation over Nord Stream2; the weaponization of refugees on Belarusian border; a military build-up on the Ukrainian border,” tweeted Ukrainian analyst Taras Kuzio.
The Pentagon said on November 15 that the United States is concerned about the “unusual military activity and a concentration of Russian forces” near Ukrainian borders.
This month, U.S. President Joe Biden dispatched CIA Director Bill Burns to Moscow to warn the Kremlin and assess Russia’s motives. “Burns also brought up U.S. concerns that Russia is close to using its gas exports as leverage, with Ukraine and other European nations forecast to suffer energy crises heading into winter,” CNN reported.
Meanwhile, the migrant crisis continues to escalate, especially on the Belarus-Poland border. On November 16, Polish border guards reportedly used tear gas and water cannons to push migrants back into Belarusian territory.
Since the crisis emerged last summer, news reports and social media videos showed Belarusian troops delivering groups of migrants to the EU borders and assisting their crossing. In some cases, they could be seen forcing migrants from Belarusian territory into Poland and Lithuania.
On November 14, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said that the “actions by the Lukashenko regime threaten security, sow division, and aim to distract from Russia’s activities on the border with Ukraine.”
Poland accused Russia of “masterminding the artificial flow of thousands of people from countries including Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan” onto its borders. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said that Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia are considering asking NATO to hold emergency talks, Time magazine reported.
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said Russia has the “clear responsibility” to stop the “shameful” and “manufactured” migrant crisis on the EU borders.
Germany’s Deutsche Welle and other media reported that Russian travel agencies in the Middle East have been offering trips to Belarus and providing potential migrants with cheap visas.
On November 14, Putin denied that Russia was behind the migrant surge, claiming he learned about the situation from media reports. Russia is ready to “contribute in every possible way” to resolve the situation at the EU and Belarus border, he said.
Three days before Putin offered help in solving the crisis, Russia’s state-owned broadcaster RT reported that, in response to Poland’s deployment of troops to its border with Belarus, “Russian NUCLEAR-capable Tu-160s are sent up to patrol the skies.”