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February 4, 2020 Special Dispatch No. 8538

Russia Treats Pompeo Visit To Minsk With Apathy And Derision

February 4, 2020
Russia | Special Dispatch No. 8538

On February 1, 2020 US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Minsk, Belarus. This was the first time a US Secretary of State has visited Belarus in 25 years. The visit crowned a growing rapprochement between Minsk and Washington that was accelerated by then National Security Adviser John Bolton's visit in August 2019. Pompeo's visit was fortuitous for his host, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, who in the past delighted in taunting the Americans by lavishly hosting Hugo Chavez and Muammar Ghadaffi, is embroiled with the Russians over what he considers undue pressure on Belarus to form a union state with Russia.

Part of the pressure came in the form of oil price changes. Belarus had been accustomed to receiving Russian oil at less than world market prices and then reselling it at a markup. Now Russia expects Belarus to pay the going rate unless of course it speeds up the pace of union with Russia.[1] Lukashenko complained that Russia was interfering in Belarus' attempts to import oil from Kazakhstan: "Kazakhstan will be able to supply us with oil if Russia agrees with this. It is strange: our ally does not agree to supply oil from our other ally. Well, this is the situation with oil supplies, and we must deal with this," Lukashenko said.[2]

Enter Mike Pompeo. Pompeo claimed that the US was prepared to provide for all of Belarus's oil needs, and help Belarus “build its own sovereign country”. The US, Pompeo assured his hosts, could meet Belarus’s entire oil demand "at competitive prices"...We're the biggest energy producer in the world, and all you have to do is call us,” he said at a press conference with Belarus’s foreign minister, Vladimir Makei.

Mr Makei, for his part praised Mr. Pompeo's visit as "obvious proof that Belarus and American relations are becoming more active".[3] Lukashenko told Pompeo that it was "very good that you risked coming to Minsk after various misunderstandings between Belarus and the US."[4]

Official Russia adopted an apathetic attitude to both attempts by Belarus to diversify its sources of oil as well as to the Pompeo visit. Commentators dismissed the visit as another attempt by Lukashenko to blackmail Russia. They reminded Lukashenko that Russian oil remained a bargain and that if he intended to cozy up to the Americans, he would suffer the same fate as other authoritarian leaders whom the American first befriended and then replaced.

Below are Russian reactions to the Pompeo visit and its context:


Pompeo with Lukashenko (Source: Voanews.org)

Official Russia Displays A Lack Of Concern

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov commented on the Pompeo visit: "The development of relations between Belarus and the United States is their sovereign right, but their "accelerated rapprochement" is improbable". Peskov added: "We have our relations with Belarus...there are a lot of issues on the agenda for the development of our relations, including some problematic issues that are being aired." [5]

Peskov had displayed similar indifference when Belarus sought to purchase oil from Norway: : "This is a matter of economic, let’s say, expediency. If this oil is cheaper than Russian, of course, any country should act solely on the basis of its own interests. Here we are talking about purely economic, purely commercial profit.”[6]

If the message was not clear to Lukashenko, Rt.com chose the unusual expedient of citing the Warsaw based Belsat that is critical of both Lukashenko and Putin. Belsat's observer Alexander Klaskovsky wrote "It's more likely that the master of the Kremlin has decided for the time being to place his stubborn Belarusian partner 'on ignore'. Moscow does not like such meetings, but so far it has taken a stand-by position, hoping that Lukashenko still has nowhere to go." [7]

No Substitute For Russian Oil

Russian commentators did not ignore Lukashenko and could not decide whether he was bluffing or being political suicidal.

On the immediate economic issue of oil prices most agreed that America could not relieve Belarus from its dependence on Russian oil. The view that Pompeo was merely blowing smoke was voiced by Alexander Frolov, Deputy General Director of the Institute of National Energy interviewed by Nikita Voronov on Radio Sputnik. He also predicted that Lukashenko would eventually give in to Russia as he had done on previous occasions:

Voronkov: "The US decided to help Belarus with oil. According to US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, Washington is 100% ready to provide Minsk with energy resources at competitive prices… Alexander Sergeyevich, in your opinion, how will Minsk view this US proposal?

Frolov..."This is crap, outright crap with no economic justification... What connection does Mr. Pompeo have with the oil and gas industry? … When did a large, state-owned, oil and gas company materialize in the United States that is capable of solving such problems at the state's behest… On the one hand, we see a political statement made by a person who is not responsible for these issues, on the other hand … the very structure of the US oil and gas sector contradicts the logic of these statements and contradicts the policies of the current administration … Belarus needs about 20 million tons of oil, and at the same time, this oil must be viscous and sour, and the United States sells light, ultra-light grades, they are not suitable for oil refineries in Belarus. The very logic of the conflict, which is now unfolding between Belarus and Russia, is that Belarus wants to maintain her 'premium', which she has due to the fact that there is no export duty paid on oil coming to Belarus. ...

Voronkov:" ... The USA wants to help Belarus create a sovereign state, can they donate some finances for such purposes...?.

Frolov: "... I will once again draw attention to the fact that no documents were signed after these (Pompeo’s) statements ... The United States has never built relationships with anyone in the framework of a “loyalty purchase” policy! ...

"And one more thing, this is the third major oil and gas conflict with Belarus in 10 years. The result of the first was the sale by Belarus of her gas transmission system to Gazprom, the result of the second... was that Belarus ceased to demand a reduction [of the price] for gas, and now we about to see the same result."[8]

Narek Avakyan of the BKS broker investment house also claimed than any substitute for Russian oil would prove more expensive: “For Belarus today, any oil other than Russian will be unprofitable. Any alternative raw materials will be at least 15% more expensive, and even Norwegian oil will also be more expensive, because, firstly, logistics is more expensive and there are transit countries, and second, the cost of production in Norway is much higher, and there are no trade agreements between the countries."[9]

The outlet Vz.ru, also disputed Lukashenko's economic arguments and relied on the expert opinion of Konstantin Simonov, head of the National Energy Security Fund (NESF). According to Simonov, Lukashenko and Belarus would only be punishing themselves if they sought alternative sources: "'In February, the customs duty on crude oil is $ 78 per ton. This is more than 10 dollars per barrel. Belarus does not pay this customs duty when buying Russian oil, so today the supply savings for her are $ 78 per ton. Is the United States ready to give Lukashenko a discount of more than $ 10 per barrel? This is ridiculous because no one will give such discounts. Russian companies do not give such a discount either, it is provided by the Russian state from the point of view of the Customs Union.”

Simonov also denied Lukashenko's claim that Russia was blocking supply of oil from Kazakhstan: "Kazakhstan is not going to give this oil to Lukashenko, incurring a loss of $ 60 per ton of crude oil."

Russia itself would not be adversely affected if Lukashenko went elsewhere for his oil assured Simonov: "For Russia there is no problem replacing these 18 million tons per year, which were previously supplied duty-free to Belarus"

The whole episode was another instance of Lukashenko attempting to rattle Russia, said Simonov: "Lukashenko...came up with a simply shocking political scheme targeted at Russia - to take oil in America and transport it through the Baltic ports of Estonia and Latvia. Apparently, we should lose our sleep altogether and start freaking out."

Since Lukashenko's antics have already become boring Lukashenko has to escalate his threats argued Simonov: "Soon, I think, and I’m not being ironic, Lukashenko will even declare a desire to join NATO, and I won't be surprised if he even is mad enough to do this."[10]

Lukashenko Is Driving A Faustian Bargain

Another recurrent theme was that authoritarian leaders, who had switched sides to the Americans, were betrayed by their new friends.

Senator Alexey Pushkov sought to remind Lukashenko of Viktor Yanukovich's fate in the Ukraine. The fourth Ukrainian president was deposed by what the Russians view as an American-orchestrated color revolution. Pushkov tweeted:

"The United States is 100% ready to provide Belarus with oil at competitive prices and will send a new ambassador "to bring relations to a new level." So promised Pompeo in Minsk. This is familiar: at one time, they "brought [relations with] Yanukovich to a new level" in Ukraine. US Ambassador J. Payette played a prominent role. [11]

Simonov, in the aforesaid Vz.ru article also believed that Lukashenko was playing with fire: “Lukashenko is playing a dangerous game with the Americans. Pompeo says he will return the US ambassador to Belarus. But we know how the American embassies work in post-Soviet countries: they are actively starting to work with the opposition. If Lukashenko returns the American embassy, he will get a Ukrainian version of the progress of events. It will be more convenient for them [the Americans] to tear it [the Belarus regime ] down and put in some predictable and controlled one."[12]

The journalist and political consultant Aleksander Haldej acidly commented in Regnum.ru: "Lukashenko’s hopes to maintain control over the degree of US penetration into Belarus's internal political space are as naive as Faust’s hopes of outwitting Mephistopheles.

"The United States is on course for forging a system of total control over the Belarusian elite, that is, to interdict Lukashenko's internal political control. Lukashenko is very frightened of this, but in the case of the Americans, for some reason, he thinks he can play [them]. Yeah. Milosevic, [Saddam] Hussein, Ghaddafi, and Yanukovych also thought this way. Where they are all now is clear. One [Yanukovych] was lucky - the [Ukrainian] border is nearby, today he is in Rostov [in southern Russia]." (Regnum.ru, February 3, 2020)

In contrast to the heavy skepticism over Pompeo's offer, Mikhail Petrovsky, in an article titled "America's New Favorite Wife", claimed that Pompeo's proposal was feasible for Belarus, and arguments that American oil was unusable were spurious: "Well, Belarusian oil refineries have recently undergone a major modernization and are now ready to 'eat' any oil. And one more thing: the Ukrainian oligarch Igor Kolomoisky, since last fall, has been buying American oil [delivered] by tankers for his refinery in Kremenchug, and it turned out to be more profitable for him than buying it from Azerbaijan. Ukraine is already ready to transport the same American "black gold" from the port of Odessa to Belarus to the Mozyr Oil Refinery - via the Odessa-Brody pipeline. So for now, everything is working out."

Furthermore, Belarus' foreign policy reorientation was not necessarily suicidal for Lukashenko: "No one has ever seen in Eastern Europe such a glaring, overt, and instantaneous "switch" of the foreign policy direction from one empire to another. If this is just Lukashenko's game to psyche Putin, then the game is brilliant, even [the famous Russian actor and director Konstantin] Stanislavsky would have believed it. If this is a genuine geopolitical reorientation, then the old dream of the Belarusian, Ukrainian and Polish nationalists may come true tomorrow: 'Intermarium', a union of countries west of Russia, east of "old Europe".[13]

 

 

[1]The Moscowtimes.com, January 29, 2020.

[2] Interfax.ru, January 20, 2020.

[3] Ft.com, February 1, 2020.

[4] Rt.com, February 1, 2020.

[5] Rbc.ru, February 3, 2020

[6] Gordonua.com, January 31, 2020.

[7] Rt.com, February 2, 2020.

[8] Sputnikradio.ria.ru, February 1, 2020.

[9] Ria.ru, January 21, 2020.

[10] Vz.ru, February 2, 2020.

[11] Twitter.com/Alexey_Pushkov, February 1, 2020

[12] Vz.ru, February 2, 2020.

[13] Rosbalt.ru, February 3, 2020.

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