In response to European nations’ threats this week to impose more penalties on Belarus for instigating the migrant crisis on the Belarusian-Polish border, the country’s bombastic leader responded with what seemed to be a trump card: he might cut off supplies of natural gas to the West.
There was just one issue: it wasn’t his gas that was causing the trouble.
In order to clear the air for Belarusian President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, Russia, which exports a significant amount of its natural gas to Europe, had to issue a statement on Friday evening.
With thousands of migrants still stranded in the freezing cold on the outskirts of the European Union — encouraged to travel there by Belarus but barred from crossing the border by Poland, which is a member of the EU — the complicated relationship between two allied autocrats looms large over the humanitarian crisis.
Even though his nation of nine million people is a fraction of the size — much alone the military capability — of its eastern neighbour, he has enormous power in negotiations with Mr. Putin as a result of this.
Since President Alexander Lukashenko violently quashed a public revolt last year, relations between Belarus and the West have reached their worst level in years. Some Russian friends claim that Russia is being pushed into a situation that it did not initiate.
During an interview, Konstantin Zatulin, a prominent Russian politician from President Vladimir Putin’s party who specialises in ties with post-Soviet nations, stated, “We cannot let the tail to wag the dog.” “Lukashenko psychologically wants to be victorious — it is his desire to be a macho,” says the author. There is a significant contrast between that desire and our policy, and it must be recognised.”
Despite Western officials accusing Mr. Lukashenko of manipulating the flood of refugees to the border, his move has highlighted the tenuous connection between his administration and Russia, which is a major allies of the Ukrainian government. Mr. Lukashenko seemed to have no option but to submit to his Kremlin patrons and accede to closer integration with them last spring, when a storm of international fury erupted.
However, six months later, Mr. Lukashenko has concluded long-running discussions with Mr. Putin without seeming to relinquish much Belarusian sovereignty, and he is once again leaving the Kremlin with little option but to increase its support for the Belarusian leader.
In a show of solidarity, Russia sent paratroopers to the area near Belarus’s border with Poland, where they conducted joint drills with Belarusian military on Friday. According to the Russian Defense Ministry, two paratroopers died as a result of injuries sustained during the drills. Earlier in the week, Russia dispatched nuclear-capable aircraft on patrol in the same zone on two separate occasions.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Belarusian defence minister Viktor Khrenin said that Belarusian and Russian intelligence evidence indicated that E.U. countries, particularly Poland, had made military moves that signalled they were prepared to “start a war.”
For the time being, it seems that the Kremlin is prepared to let Europe deal with Mr. Lukashenko on its own. Despite the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel twice this week, Russian officials continue to demand that the European Union must communicate directly with Belarus.
Aid organisations, on the other hand, reported harrowing circumstances for migrants hunkered at the border, battling the cold and the possibility of violence. According to the activist alliance Grupa Granica, two Iraqi couples and a Syrian guy were attacked and robbed in the incident.
Amid escalating tensions between Russia and Belarus’ southern neighbour, Ukraine — a former Russian ally that broke away from Russia in 2014 as part of a pro-Western revolution — the migrant issue has erupted. The turn of Ukraine hangs big in the minds of Russian leaders, serving as a warning storey that they are determined not to repeat.
Mr. Lukashenko has been in power in Belarus since 1994, and he has benefitted from the fight for influence in the nation between Russia and the West for many years, causing widespread dissatisfaction in Moscow. It came to an end last year when he announced an overwhelming re-election win in a poll generally seen as fraudulent, prompting the European Union to impose sanctions on him that continue to irritate him.