Russian president Vladimir Putin said on Saturday that Belarus had not consulted him before raising the possibility of cutting Russian natural gas flows to Europe, adding that such a move would risk harming ties between Minsk and its key ally Moscow.
Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko threatened on Thursday to retaliate against any new European Union sanctions against Minsk over a migrant standoff on the Belarus-EU border, suggesting he could halt the transit of gas and other goods via Belarus.
Mr Putinblamed western countries, rather than Belarus, were ultimately responsible for a migrant crisis on the Belarus-Poland border, pointing to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mr Lukashenko’s warning briefly lifted spot gas prices in Europe, which gets about a third of its supplies of the fuel from Russia, including via the Yamal-Europe pipeline that runs through Belarus to Poland and Germany.
The Belarusian section of the Yamal-Europe pipeline is owned by Russia’s state gas monopoly, Gazprom.
“I’ve recently spoken to (Lukashenko) twice and he didn’t mention this to me once, he didn’t even hint,” Mr Putin said in a state television interview, making his first public comments about the Belarusian threat.
“Of course, in theory, Lukashenko as president of a transit country could order our (gas) supplies to be cut to Europe. But this would mean a breach of our gas transit contract and I hope this will not happen,” Mr Putin added.
Russia has been Belarus’s closest ally for years, helping with everything from cash to cheap energy supplies and military assistance, but Mr Lukashenko’s comments come at a sensitive time for Russia’s energy exports to Europe.
Analysts say Mr Lukashenko’s gas comments have likely tested Mr Putin’s patience with Russian gas supplies already at the centre of heated debate in Europe.
European gas prices – and therefore, energy bills – are on the rise this year as the recovery from the pandemic has triggered a spike in demand, forcing customers from Europe to Asia to fight for supplies.
Some European politicians have accused Moscow of failing to do more than just send contractual gas volumes, in order to calm down prices.
The European Commission said on Friday that if Mr Lukashenko made good on his threats, it would further harm gas suppliers.
During Saturday’s interview, Mr Putin said that if Belarus did cut off supplies, it would “cause great damage” to the European energy sector “and would not help in developing our relations with Belarus as a transit country”.
“I will raise this with him (Lukashenko) in case this wasn’t something (he) said in the heat of the moment,” Mr Putin said.
Russia, which this week started to increase supplies to refill its European storage ahead of the winter heating season, has said more could come once its newly built Nord Stream 2 pipeline gets a green light from Germany.
Nord Stream 2 is another Russian pipeline designed to bypass transit countries, particularly Ukraine, which has a history of gas pricing standoffs with Moscow.
The Kremlin calls the pipeline a “purely commercial project” and denies that politics are behind it in any way.
Meanwhile, Mr Putin’s comments – blaming western countries for migrant issue – came after Polish police said a body of a young Syrian man was found in the woods near the border with Belarus.
The body was found near the village of Wolka Terechowska, police said, bringing the death toll now to at least nine reported victims. The exact cause of death could not be determined. Russia is a key ally of Belarus, which the European Union has accused of mounting a “hybrid attack” by flying in thousands of migrants, mainly from the Middle East, and pushing them to try to cross illegally into Poland.
As the EU prepares to impose new sanctions on Minsk, Mr Putin told Russian state television he thought Belarus was not to blame for the crisis.
Referring to conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, Mr Putin noted that Iraqi Kurds and Afghans were among the migrants at the Belarusian border. “Belarus has nothing to do with it … the fact they’ve come via Belarus is unsurprising because Belarus … has visa-free entry for the countries of origin.”
He accused Polish forces on the border with Belarus of beating migrants, firing rounds above their heads and turning on lights and sirens at night near the migrants.
“This doesn’t really tie in well with the ideas of humanity that supposedly underpin all the policies of our western neighbours,” he said.
The regime in Minsk has for months been encouraging illegal migration across the border into the EU nations of Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.
All three countries are reinforcing their borders, seeking to block the newly opened migration route, and the situation is growing more dangerous as winter approaches.. – PA, Reuters