Lukashenko threatens EU with gas cutoff as border tensions rise
The European Union will not be intimidated by threats from Belarus, Economy Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni said Thursday, following Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko’s warnings he could cut off gas transit if the bloc pushes ahead with more sanctions against his regime.
In addition to another round of EU sanctions, Poland closed one of the main border crossings with Belarus earlier this week. One of the remaining border points is reporting trucks have to wait more than 50 hours to cross.
“We should not be intimidated, of course, by Lukashenko’s threats,” Gentiloni told a news conference presenting the Commission’s new economic forecasts.
Earlier in the day, according to Belarus’ Belta news agency, Lukashenko said: “We provide heat to Europe, and they are threatening us with the border closure. What if we block natural gas transit? I would recommend the leadership of Poland, Lithuanians and other brainless folk to think hard.”
Belarus is encouraging migrants to fly from the Middle East to Minsk, after which it is reportedly aiding access to the country’s borders with EU countries. Polish authorities say several thousand people are camped in the damp birch forests marking the Polish-Belarusian border.
Migrants have made several efforts to push past the Polish border fence, which is protected by 15,000 troops, police and border guards. They have also been making efforts to cross into Latvia and Lithuania, with Lithuanian officials estimating about a thousand people are gathered on the border.
In a joint statement, Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian defense ministers on Thursday described “the security crisis unfolding on the Polish-Belarusian and Lithuanian-Belarusian border as very alarming.” They condemned the deliberate escalation by the Belarusian regime, “which is posing serious threats to European security.”
Lukashenko is retaliating against EU sanctions imposed against him and top allies for their brutal crackdown on pro-democracy supporters following last year’s stolen presidential election.
Brussels and EU border countries have denounced Belarus’ actions as hybrid warfare. The Commission is preparing another round of sanctions to force Minsk to stop channeling migrants toward the EU, which could be approved by next week.
“They have started to intimidate us with the fifth package [of sanctions]. With regard to this fifth package, the prime minister has been instructed to think of retaliatory measures,” Lukashenko said on Thursday, adding that if Belarus sees the measures as “indigestible and unacceptable … we will hit back.”
It’s unclear how Lukashenko would be able to turn off gas flowing from Russia to Poland on the Yamal pipeline, which is owned by Russia’s Gazprom. Any such effort would have to be approved by Moscow.
The border crisis is prompting Belarus to cozy up to Russia, its sole remaining ally. The two countries already have a tight economic and security relationship. Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke earlier this week.
Two Russian Tu-160 nuclear-capable bombers rehearsed bombing runs in a training exercise over Belarus on Thursday. On Wednesday, Russia sent airplanes across Belarus in a sign of support for the country, Lukashenko said.