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January 9, 2007
Will Russian Standoff Help Belarussian Dictator?

The dispute between Russia and its former satellite republic Belarus escalated again yesterday, and now Europe will pay part of the price for the standoff. After Belarus slapped a high duty on oil as a reaction to a massive hike in energy prices from their Russian suppliers, Russia cut off all deliveries through the pipeline to Poland and Germany:

Russia halted oil exports to Europe via Belarus yesterday as a bitter trade dispute escalated, renewing concerns that Moscow is bent on pursuing aggressive energy diplomacy.

Taps were turned off on pipelines to Poland and Germany but the European Commission said there was no immediate risk of shortages in either country because of ample stocks in refineries.

The commission was also investigating whether the supply was cut on another branch of the 2,500-mile pipeline feeding Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

This has now escalated into something much larger than a price dispute. Vladimir Putin has played games with oil prices in the past, especially last year when he attempted to quadruple the price to Ukraine, which had left the Russian political orbit after the Orange Revolution. The surprise here has been that Putin has launched an economic attack on the one European former republic that still remained close to the Kremlin.

However, Alexander Lukashenko has started talking about national sovereignty, which points towards what might be the heart of the dispute. It has been rumored that Putin wants Belarus to commit to an anschluss of sorts, annexing itself to Russia proper and accepting provincial status. Lukashenko has balked at this suggestion despite his former closeness to Putin, and this price war appears to be Putin's punishment for Lukashenko's nationalism.

This could just be an attempt by Lukashenko to rally his people around his rather unpopular government in a crisis. However, it fits with Putin's plan to expand Russian influence in the region, and the two men signed an agreement years ago to have Belarus give the pipeline to Putin and accept provincial status in exchange for assistance from Russia. Now that the bill has come due, Lukashenko has suddenly discovered his nationalism, and he wants to inspire a groundswell of support for his sudden Russophobia.

It might even work. Lukashenko has little popularity among the Belarussians, but defending the homeland will certainly help improve his standing, even among those who want close ties to Moscow. Putin may find that his plans to recreate the Greater Russia of the Soviet Union will be dashed -- again -- on the nationalism of it former component parts. And in this case, Putin may have created a nationalist nemesis out of what he had considered a lackey.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at January 9, 2007 6:08 AM

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