|Alexei Kostyuchenko of the pipeline operator denied that Belarus stopped pumping oil. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)|
Russia says it has been forced to halt oil exports to Europe
MINSK, Belarus -- Russian oil exports to Europe via neighboring Belarus were halted yesterday as a bitter trade dispute between Moscow and Minsk spilled over into several European countries, including Germany and Poland.
EU energy chief Andris Piebalgs said the situation posed "no immediate risk" to energy supplies in the European Union. However, Germany, which holds the EU presidency, called for the oil deliveries through a pipeline that transits Belarus to be resumed "as quickly as possible."
The impact of a short-term stoppage is likely to be minimal, as refineries in the EU maintain strategic oil stocks.
Yet the disruption to Russian oil supplies to Europe once again highlighted concerns about European energy reliance on Russia a year after its pricing dispute with Ukraine briefly affected EU imports of Russian natural gas.
Russia's Deputy Trade and Economic Development Minister Andrei Sharonov said that Moscow had been forced to suspend oil exports via the Druzhba, or Friendship, pipeline after disruptions he blamed on Minsk.
"We view this situation as force majeure," he said in an interview with Russian news channel Vesti, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency.
Germany and Poland said earlier yesterday that Russian oil supplies through Belarus had halted, and Russia accused its neighbor of siphoning off oil destined for Europe since the weekend.
The 2,500-mile-long pipeline has the capacity to ship over 1.2 million barrels a day to eastern and central Europe and generally works at or close to its full capacity.
The pipeline has two branches, one of which runs to Poland and Germany, and the other to Ukraine, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic.
A Belarusian delegation last night for urgent talks in Moscow.
The head of the Russian state pipeline operator Transneft, Simon Vainshtok, said that Belarus, which is furious that Russia is demanding it pay new oil duties, had diverted 79,000 tons of oil so far.
Belneftekhim, a state Belarusian industrial and energy holding company, ordered the suspension of the transit of oil to Germany, Poland, and Ukraine, the Interfax and ITAR-Tass news agencies quoted unidentified officials from the pipeline's Belarusian section as saying.
But Alexei Kostyuchenko, head of the pipeline operator Gomeltransneft-Druzhba, denied this.
"The responsibility for the stoppage [in oil pumping] lies on the Russian side. Belarus never stopped pumping. All questions -- to the Russians," he told the Associated Press.
The Belarusian Foreign Ministry also denied blocking the transit of Russian oil, saying that Belarus was not responsible for a decrease of pressure in the pipeline.
But ministry spokesman Andrei Popov said, without elaborating, that Minsk had "to take measures to counter the economic damage to the Republic of Belarus from a shortage of important energy resources."
In Warsaw, the Economics Ministry said yesterday that Poland was suffering disruptions in oil deliveries from the pipeline that crosses Belarus. Poland relies on the pipeline for around 96 percent of its oil consumption.
"This shows us once again that arguments among various countries of the former Soviet Union, between suppliers and transit countries, mean that these deliveries are unreliable from our perspective," Poland's deputy economy minister, Piotr Naimski, told TVN24 television.
The German government confirmed that the pipeline, which supplied two refineries in Germany, had been shut down. Russia is Germany's top supplier of oil, supplying roughly a third of its imports.
About two-thirds of Russian oil for German consumers comes through the Druzhba pipeline.
The Hamburg-based Association of the German Petroleum Industry said it was looking at alternate routes for the delivery of Russian crude, including the use of tankers.
Poland said it has about 80 days of reserves and Germany has 130 days, according to the EU.
MOL, Hungary's oil and gas company, said yesterday that the crude oil shipments through the pipeline to Hungary have decreased and according to information from MOL's partners, crude oil shipments have stopped altogether coming to Ukraine from Belarus.
The Czech Industry and Trade Ministry said it expected supplies of Russian oil via Belarus to stop later yesterday.
Natalia Leshchenko, an analyst with Global Insight, said that Belarus had nothing to lose by cutting off Russian oil exports because its authoritarian leadership was already treated as a pariah in the West.
"Given the urgency of the matter, the dispute is likely to be resolved soon, and most likely at the expense of Russia," she said in an e-mailed comment.