Russia resumed gas supplies through Belarus yesterday (25 June) after paying gas transit debts. But the gas row left a bitter aftertaste in EU circles, reinforcing mistrust in Russia as a reliable gas supplier.
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko called on 22 June a halt to gas flows to Lithuania, Poland and Germany following a payment dispute with Russian monopolist Gazprom, speaking of a "gas war" (EurActiv 23/06/10).
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told gas monopoly Gazprom to cut gas supplies to Belarus by 15% on 21 June, pressing its neighbour to pay mounting debts and raising fears of disruptions to deliveries to Europe (EurActiv 21/06/10). A further cut was ordered the next day.
Russia supplies a quarter of Europe's gas needs and uses Belarus, which borders European Union member Poland, as one of two key transit routes for oil and gas to the continent. Some 20% of the Russian gas exported to the EU crosses Belarus. 6.25% of gas consumed in the EU is delivered via Belarus.
Politicians in the European Union and the United States have repeatedly accused Russia of using its vast energy resources to bring its neighbours to heel, though Moscow says it is simply trying to secure market prices for its energy supplies.
Several EU countries were badly affected by the January 2009 gas crisis, when Russia stopped supplying gas to Ukraine over a payment dispute (see EurActiv LinksDossier on 'Pipeline politics').
"We regret that a conflict erupted," Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said after calling a meeting of top energy officials in the Siberian town of Novokuznetsk, the Russian press reported.
"We hope it won't be repeated [:] We need to hold talks with our partners and solve all disputed issues in a normal, working, amicable atmosphere," Putin said.
Neither Moscow nor Minsk has explained why relatively low debt levels sparked the dispute, the Moscow Times writes. But analysts quoted by the daily note that the spat followed the souring of relations between the two neighbours after they failed to agree on unified customs rules.
"There were absolutely no reasons for the conflict," the president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, said in an official statement. Belarus side asked for a two-week deferrment of payment on the debt, "but our ally, our closest people, told us, 'No, we are not going to wait another day'," Lukashenko is quoted as saying.
"The main thing is that the dispute arose when Gazprom owed us USD 260 million for transit (and transit is linked to the deliveries of gas to Belarus), whereas we owned them USD 190 million, even USD 187 million. They recognised it, and we paid them this USD 187 million," said Lukashenko.
Russia's 'gas war' with Belarus further damaged Russia's reputation as a reliable energy supplier, wrote the UK's Daily Telegraph.
"The dispute is likely to leave many European policymakers with a bitter aftertaste and reinforce doubts about the wisdom of relying on Russia so heavily for the bloc's energy needs," the daily commented.
Ukrainian daily Kyiv Post writes that behind the Belarus gas row is the Russian leadership's real aim, which may be to topple - or at least undermine - Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian president of the former Soviet republic of 10 million people.
The explanation, according to Minsk-based opposition leaders and analysts, is simple: Lukashenko is no longer trusted by Kremlin leaders, the Kyiv Post further writes.
Another explanation is that Moscow is playing Kyiv and Minsk off one another, using classic divide-and-conquer tactics.
The gas spats reveal a disturbing trend in Russian foreign policy, says David Kramer, a senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, quoted by the daily.
"This latest incident follows other examples where Russia has used energy cut-offs to pressure neighbours, either to collect more money or to try to gain control over assets or infrastructure," Kramer, who worked in former US President George W. Bush's administration, said.
"Ukraine in 2006, Belarus in 2007, Ukraine again in 2009, and now Belarus again [:] these are the most obvious examples. Russia is using economic/energy means to gain greater control over their neighbours," he said.
"The way that relations, especially energy relations between countries such as Russia and its neighbours, are repeatedly clarified really should raise concerns throughout Europe," Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said on 23 June.