Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko threatened Thursday to cut off a major pipeline transporting Russian gas through Belarus to the European Union if the EU imposes new sanctions, escalating what the EU calls Belarus' "hybrid attack" on the 27-member bloc. Earlier this week, thousands of migrants from the Middle East moved through Belarus to the EU's Polish border, and now they are stuck in frigid weather between Polish border guards who won't let them in and Belarusian guards who won't let them return.
"We are heating Europe," Lukashenko said Thursday. "They still threaten us that they will close the border. And if we shut off natural gas there?" The foreign minister, he added, "must warn everyone in Europe: If they impose additional sanctions on us, that would be indigestible and unacceptable for us. We must answer." Russia supplies about 35 percent of Europe's natural gas, delivered through several pipelines, BBC News reports. The Yamal-Europe pipeline travels through Belarus to Poland and Germany.
Analysts were divided on whether Lukashenko was bluffing. And it's actually "Russian President Vladimir Putin who would decide whether Lukashenko could follow through with threats to turn off the Belarus pipeline, which supplies about 20 percent of Europe's Russian gas," The Washington Post reports. Putin ramped up the supply of gas to the EU earlier this week, easing a shortage that has sharply driven up energy prices in Europe, but "so far, Russia has insisted it has no part in Lukashenko's growing feud even as it declines to rein him in."
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The EU said it will introduce new sanctions on Belarus as early as Monday and won't be intimidated by his gas supply threats. The Western member states of the United Nations Security Council strongly condemned Belarus on Thursday for endangering the lives of migrants from Iraq, Syria, and Yemen "for political purposes" and ramping up tensions to divert "attention away from its own increasing human rights violations." Russia defended Belarus.
The U.S. and EU have layered sanctions on Belarus since Lukashenko declared himself winner of a fixed election last year, and Lukashenko has been escalating his pushback since the spring.
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