News that Russia has suspended oil shipments to Belarus should give the rest of Europe cause for concern. It shows that more than ever before the country is willing to use its commodities leverage to ensure cooperation, even of its allies.
The collapse of commodities prices in July 2008 illustrated the true vulnerability of the Russian economic growth story: in the second half of 2008 the price of crude oil fell from almost $150 a barrel to under $33 a barrel, forcing the government to take a huge chunk out of its currency reserves to stave off a rouble collapse.
While the fall was almost catastrophic, it appears to have done little to dampen Russia’s swagger, which is riding comfortably once more following the sharp snapback of commodities prices. Like the gas dispute between Russia and the Ukraine in January 2009, Belarus is a further example of the negotiating technique employed by the Putin government—a stark warning that the country is once again willing to rile friend and foe alike to achieve its goals.
This is not extraordinary in itself; the standoff with Belarus has been rumbling for some time with similar measures taken against the country in January last year. The significance this time, however, is that it marks a return to a style of international engagement most notably marked in recent years by the impasse between America and Russia over the missile defence system.