Belarus Crisis Highlights Europe’s Energy Problem

Map of Belarus and Environs, adapted from images at cia.gov

(Oilprice.com – Vanand Meliksetian – Sept. 24, 2020)

The ongoing demonstrations in Belarus and the looming instability are a threat to both Russia and the EU. Moscow prefers the continuation of Lukashenko’s regime due to political reasons. Europe, on the other hand, faces an energy crisis if the situation escalates which could lead to a disruption of supplies. Belarus’ geographic location, a land-locked nation of 9.5 million inhabitants, is highly strategic as it connects the east with the west. Since the end of the Cold War, Minsk has carefully exploited its position.

Over the years Ukraine has received most of the attention when it comes to energy security and trade between the EU and Russia. Recent events, however, have highlighted the undervalued importance of Belarus. Allegations of election fraud have caused friction and instability which questions the country’s ability to remain a stable conduit of oil and gas to Europe.

Europe’s most important conduit

The small nation of Belarus hosts two major pipelines for the transportation of the industrial world’s most important resources: oil and gas. The Druzhba oil pipeline is an engineering marvel that was constructed during the Cold War in the 60s. It is the world’s longest and one of the biggest oil pipeline networks. It is also referred to as the ‘Friendship Pipeline’ as it provided cheap energy to the communist nations of Eastern Europe. Currently, Russia can export approximately 1.4 million barrels per day (mb/d) through Belarus.

Furthermore, the Yamal-Europe Natural Gas Pipeline is another important extension of Moscow’s energy strategy. Planning and construction started after the Cold War in 1992. The pipeline can transport 33 bcm of natural gas annually which is approximately 17 percent of Russia’s entire gas exports to Europe.
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Contaminated oil

The importance of the Druzhba pipeline became clear after an incident in which oil destined for refineries in Europe was contaminated with chloride. This caused significant damage to the infrastructure and made the oil virtually unusable.

The crisis highlighted the strategic and financial value of the pipeline as Moscow suffered billions in lost revenues. Furthermore, importers were struck by their dependence on Russian oil which strengthened the need for diversification to mitigate the consequences of a future crisis. However, the highly interconnected nature of the infrastructure, low production costs in Russia, low transportation costs, and lack of cheap alternatives for inland refineries make the pipeline indispensable for many importers.

Lukashenko’s tightrope skills

Although Belarus is highly dependent on Russia, relations with Europe before the contested elections were improving. Moscow has been pushing Minsk to integrate the countries’ political and economic systems even further. This prompted Lukashenko to look for new partnerships due to fears of a ‘merger’ with Russia.

Belarus’ strategic value ensures Moscow’s attention. For Russia preventing the ‘Ukraine scenario’ in which a pro-western government takes control of the country is a priority. From a security point of view, Belarus is essential in averting a closed front in Western Russia from the Baltics to the Black Sea. Economically the country is even more important to Russia as the majority of its revenue is earned from oil and gas exports.

Solving the conundrum

The current stalemate in Belarus could transform the political landscape in Eastern Europe. As was the case with Ukraine, Russia will do whatever it can to prevent Belarus from falling out of its sphere of influence. Fortunately for Russia, the demonstrations in neighboring Belarus are not anti-Russian but anti-Lukashenko. However, Moscow’s unwavering support for “Europe’s last dictator” is changing the Belarussian population’s opinion of their large neighbor.

The EU, on the other hand, is divided on how it should respond. After weeks of protests, Belarus is still not subjected to sanctions. Even if they would have been enacted, the penalties are a mild response aimed towards several high-ranking officials. Partly that can be attributed to the EU’s slow and compromise seeking decision-making process.

However, the strategic value of Belarus for Europe’s energy security rules out a heavy-handed response that could derail the export of oil and gas. Also, the pandemic has ensured a bigger problem for Europe to face.

[article also appeared at oilprice.com/Geopolitics/Europe/Belarus-Crisis-Highlights-Europes-Energy-Problem.html]