Belarus is neither an energy producer nor a significant geopolitical actor in the Eurasian region. However, Belarus is an important transit country between Russia and Europe. The Druzhba pipeline, which traverses Belarus, has the distinction of being the world’s largest oil pipeline, bringing petroleum from Siberia to consumers in Western Europe.
As an energy “transit state,” Belarus could gain some leverage in international politics by threatening to disrupt key transportation links. But because the country relies on imports for over 85% of its energy needs, it has little bargaining power; it has no real alternatives to buying oil and gas from Russia. On the other hand, as long as Russia wants to sell energy to Western Europe through the Druzhba pipeline, it has little choice but to supply Belarus’ needs. If Russia wanted to cut its sales to Belarus and reduced the amount of oil flowing through the pipeline accordingly, Belarus could continue to take the oil it needed, meaning that it would be Western Europe — not Belarus — suffering a supply shortage. It is possible that Belarus’ geographic position thus increases its diplomatic importance in regional politics.
Russia has tried to use its oil and gas exports as leverage to increase its influence in Belarus. As Russia pursued political reintegration with former Soviet states after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it used discounted natural gas as a bargaining chip to gain political influence in its periphery. When Belarus faced budget shortfalls in 2011, it sold its transit rights through the Yamal-Europe pipeline to Gazprom for $2.5 billion in exchange for discounted gas rates until 2017. While this deal helped Belarus avoid defaulting on its debt obligations, the long-term loss of transfer fees has resulted in the loss of an important revenue stream for the Belarusian government, further entrenching the country’s economic dependence on Russia. Though many worry that Russia could use its clout in Belarus’ economy and energy sector to coerce Belarus into a friendly relationship, it is more likely that other factors play a greater role in determining the strength of their ties. For example, Belarus’ military weakness and pro-Russian government could easily encourage Belarus to seek a close friendship with Russia, even without the alleged existence of “pipeline politics.”