Russian Extortion Now an oil pipeline through Belarus runs dry. Will its customers in Western Europe finally be stirred?

Washington Post
January 9, 2007

RUSSIA’S CONTINUING attempt to squeeze neighboring Belarus yesterday led to the shutdown of a pipeline carrying oil to Europe — another stark reminder of how the Kremlin’s aggressive use of energy as a political tool threatens Western democracies as well as its neighbors. Just days after forcing Belarus to accept a huge increase in the price of natural gas, the government of Vladimir Putin stopped oil deliveries in an attempt to impose a large new duty that would eliminate a longstanding and lucrative subsidy. Because the pipeline carrying oil to Minsk also serves the rest of Europe, Poland, Germany and other European Union countries also did not receive Russian oil deliveries. Those countries have reserves to fill the gap for the near future. But once again the message should be clear: Countries that depend on Russia for energy can be subject to capricious and politically motivated demands — and interruptions of supplies if those demands are not met.

Belarus has been a faithful ally of Russia; its autocratic president, Alexander Lukashenko, has made himself a pariah in the West by stealing elections, imprisoning and murdering opposition leaders, and supplying weapons to rogue states. But Mr. Lukashenko has irritated Mr. Putin by failing to follow through on an agreement to merge his country with Russia. Now he is getting his punishment: an abrupt withdrawal of energy subsidies that in recent years have propped up his state-dominated economy. The Belarusan president consequently must choose between giving Mr. Putin what he wants or trying to make Belarus a genuinely independent country. Since the latter would require groundbreaking political and economic liberalization, the Kremlin’s risk may not be great. Belarus has already agreed to hand control of its gas pipeline to Russia, a concession Mr. Lukashenko had long resisted.

Other Russian neighbors are fighting back against its energy imperialism. Azerbaijan last week stopped buying Russian gas rather than agree to a huge price increase; it then reduced the amount of oil it pumps through a Russian-controlled pipeline. Azerbaijan offended Mr. Putin by agreeing to supply its own gas from a field soon to come online to neighboring Georgia, whose democratic and pro-Western government is Moscow’s first target. Both Caucasian countries have the prospect of ending reliance on Russian supplies in the near future; in that respect, they are considerably better off than the European Union, which gets a quarter of its gas from Russia.

Western governments are watching Mr. Putin’s hardball tactics with concern; yesterday they called for an immediate resumption of supplies through the Belarusan pipeline. They do not, however, have a policy for countering the Russian threat. Even the members of the European Union cannot agree among themselves on whether to appease Russia — by offering new long-term contracts and capital for investment in oil and gas projects — or push back, which they could do by insisting that Mr. Putin sign an international “energy