A day after the European Union paved the way for fresh sanctions against Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko lobbed a new threat at the bloc, threatening to shut down Russian natural gas flowing into Europe.
The increasingly rogue leader made the comments Thursday after the EU accused him of waging a “hybrid attack” by encouraging thousands of migrants to cross into Europe at the Polish border.
“We are heating Europe. They are still threatening us that they will close the border. And if we shut off natural gas there?” state news agency Belta quoted Lukashenko as saying. “Therefore, I would recommend that the Polish leadership, Lithuanians, and other headless people think before speaking.”
Cutting the vital supply of Russian gas just as Europe braces for winter amid skyrocketing prices in the volatile European natural-gas market is seen as a dangerous threat, judging by the initial reaction from EU sources.
The EU on Wednesday threatened sanctions on a number of airlines, including Russian carrier Aeroflot, for transporting migrants to the Polish border with the promise they could cross into Europe. This week, Russian warplanes were spotted performing a joint mission over Belarus airspace to underscore the Kremlin’s support for Lukashenko. The Kremlin released video of the maneuvers by two long-range Russian Tupolev Tu-22M3 supersonic strike bombers, which they said were practicing “issues of interaction with ground control points” with armed forces of Belarus.
Meanwhile, the U.S. said Wednesday it would also apply “followup” sanctions against Belarus in support of the EU, condemning the Belarusian leader for “ongoing attacks on democracy, human rights, and international norms.” The White House’s National Security Council spokesperson said, “We are deeply concerned by the Lukashenko regime’s inhumane actions and strongly condemn their callous exploitation and coercion of vulnerable people.”
Thousands of migrants—some with tiny infants—are camped in sub-zero temperatures on the Belarus side of the border with Poland. On Wednesday, Polish forces, which number more than 15,000, stopped nearly 500 attempts to breach the border.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees Chief Filippo Grandi warned that the crisis would likely spark “a race to the bottom” on European migration policy as it bars migrants from entering the bloc. “These challenges simply do not justify the knee-jerk reaction we have seen in some places: the irresponsible xenophobic discourse; the walls and barbed wire; the violent pushbacks that include the beating of refugees and migrants, sometimes stripping them naked and dumping them in rivers, or leaving them to drown in seas; the attempts to evade asylum obligations by paying other states to take on one’s own responsibilities,” Grandi said.
“The European Union, a union based on rule of law, should and can do better.”