The Kremlin has downplayed a renewed threat by Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka to cut Russian gas supplies to the European Union in response to Poland’s possible move to shut down its border with Belarus over an ongoing migrant crisis.
The EU has blamed Lukashenka’s regime for funeling thousands of migrants from the Middle East to its eastern flank as retaliation for sanctions the bloc has imposed on Minsk for its brutal crackdown on dissent in the wake of a disputed presidential election in August 2020 that kept Lukashenka in power for a sixth term.
During an interview with Russian journalist Dmitry Kiselyov that appeared on YouTube on December 1, Lukashenka said he was “serious” when he said last month that he intends to stop Russian gas deliveries through his country to Europe.
But Russia, a major exporter of natural gas to Europe via Belarus, quickly made it clear that it does not want to see any disruption in supplies, a critical source of revenue for it.
In response to Lukashenka’s statement, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said President Vladimir Putin “expressed his understanding of [Lukashenka’s] harsh responses. But, on the other hand, the president is counting on this not resulting in any breaches of our obligations toward European gas buyers, especially at such a tough time for the Europeans.”
Lukashenka’s comments came as a new law took effect in Poland that gives the government the power to limit access to areas around the border with Belarus. They also coincided with accusations from Warsaw that soldiers from the Belarusian side of the border have been shooting out lights set up by Polish guards to make it easier to monitor the situation at night.
“The provocations of the Belarusian services are absolutely unacceptable,” Mariusz Blaszczak wrote on Twitter, adding that the Belarusian defense attachÃ© had been summoned to Warsaw over the situation.
Russian natural gas supplies travel to Germany through the Yamal-Europe pipeline, which runs via Belarus. The supplies are crucial with the winter heating season approaching.
The crisis has added to tensions between Russia and the EU. Putin, who backed Lukashenka as he crushed opposition protests following last year’s election, has also backed Belarus in its migrant standoff with the EU.
Police in Belarus have violently cracked down on protesters, with thousands of detentions following a disputed presidential election in August 2020 that demonstrators and opposition figures say was rigged to extend Lukashenka’s 26-year rule. There have also been credible reports of torture and ill-treatment, and several people have died.
Many of Belarus’s opposition leaders have been arrested or forced to leave the country, while Lukashenka, who has ruled the country with an iron fist since 1994, has refused to negotiate with the opposition.
The United States, the European Union, and several other countries have refused to acknowledge Lukashenka as the winner of the August 2020 vote and imposed sanctions on him and his allies, citing election fraud and the police crackdown, which has also been aimed at press freedoms.