Strong response to Putin's Russia overdue
As Russia and Belarus sought to blame each other on Monday over the suspension of oil supplies through the northern leg of the Druzhba oil pipeline to Poland and Germany, Europe might well have paused to take stock of its own share of responsibility for the latest threat to its energy security.
For, as charge and counter-charge flies between Moscow and Minsk over who is really to blame for the current debacle, the fact is that Europe has done next to nothing in recent years to produce a coherent response to Vladimir Putin's increasingly authoritarian regime in Russia and far too little to tame Alexander Lukashenko's brutal dictatorship in Belarus.
The immediate precursor to this deeply worrying state of affairs was Russia's recent decision to more than double gas prices to Belarus and slap full export duties on Russian crude. Minsk promptly slapped its own duties on Russian oil crossing its territory. The first signs that things were getting really nasty, however, came when Belarus subpoenaed the head of Transneft, Russia's oil pipeline company, on Saturday for allegedly illegal oil transfers. Transneft's response was to accuse Belarus of stealing thousands of tonnes of oil from its pipelines.
It would be an understatement to say that Russia miscalculated over this affair, which marks yet another searing indictment of the Kremlin's handling of former Soviet republics. It is personally humiliating for Mr Putin, who is undoubtedly apoplectic that this spat undid in one night all the hard work that Russia has done in the past year to reassure the west that the halting of gas supplies from Ukraine at the beginning of 2006 was an exception that would never be repeated.
But to argue that the Kremlin initiated the crisis just because it raised gas prices would be unfair. Why, after all, should ordinary Russians pay for other peoples? energy consumption? If we are going to criticise the Kremlin, we must be clear about where its guilt lies.
The central point is that Mr Putin's Russia has nurtured the Lukashenko regime for years as a Soviet-style ally that could be relied on to reject the west. When the rest of Europe was slamming the farcical elections held in Belarus last March as blatantly fraudulent, the Kremlin stood alone in upholding them. When the riot police went hell for leather against peaceful demonstrators protesting against those elections, the western world denounced Mr Lukashenko, and Mr Putin supported him.
Having promoted a dictatorship that survives by violence and deceit, Russia cannot be surprised that that same regime fails to respect the rules of fair play. But the extent of the Kremlin's miscalculation is even greater than that because it really should have known what it was getting into over the last couple of weeks. It has been obvious for years that the Lukashenko regime has been able to survive only by buying off significant sections of the population with state subsidies largely financed through cheap Russian gas supplies. Given the nature and fragility of the regime, it beggars belief that Russia did not realise that raising gas prices would force Mr Lukashenko against the wall.
What happens now is not easy to predict. Mr Lukashenko has shown that, if put under pressure, he is both willing and able to create havoc. Russia, it seems, is daft enough to respond in kind. Europe now finds itself in the absurd situation that its energy security can be compromised by the two most unappealing regimes on the continent. Of course, there are no short-term or easy solutions. But it must surely be time to consider a completely new approach to both countries.
As far as Belarus is concerned, it should now be obvious that there will be no long-term solution to this problem as long as Mr Lukashenko remains in control. He is not only a dictator, he is also a maverick. Russia must have learnt from current events that Mr Lukashenko poses a threat to its interests. There is now an opportunity for Russia and Europe to join forces and do all in their power to bring his regime to an end.
The bigger problem, though, is Russia itself. Europe knows that it must diversify gas and oil supplies and is working out ways to do that. But it must also, finally, recognise that appeasing Mr Putin's Kremlin as it went from one authoritarian milestone to another has been a mistake. The time for a strong, concerted response from Europe has surely now come. If not now, when?
The writer is a senior transatlantic fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States