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Russian President Vladimir Putin said that he'll talk to Alexander Lukashenko about gas flows to the European Union after the Belarusian leader threatened to interrupt supplies to the energy-strapped continent in the face of more EU sanctions.
Any disruption in gas supplies would threaten the countries' relationship as transit partners, Putin said. Pipelines crossing Belarus are owned by Russia's Gazprom PJSC, which lessens the risk of any shutdowns.
"He can, probably, though there's nothing good in that and I will, of course, talk to him about that, if it wasn't just hot air," Putin said Saturday in an interview on Russian television.
His comments could bring some relief to Europe's gas markets. Benchmark prices eased on Friday, when Russia reiterated its pledge to meet supply obligations.
Futures surged the previous day after Lukashenko said he could halt gas transit if the EU imposes harsh penalties against Belarus, which has channeled thousands of migrants, mostly from the Middle East, to the border with Poland.
Gas prices have more than halved from their record in early October, but are still almost fourfold higher this year amid uncertainty about Russian supplies ahead of winter.
"Theoretically, Lukashenko, as the president of a transit country, can probably give instructions to cut off our supplies to Europe, although this would be a violation of our transit contract," Putin said. "I hope it doesn't come to that."
Lukashenko didn't warn Russia before making his threat, Putin said. "He never said anything to me about it, didn't even hint."
As the migrant crisis on Belarus's border with the EU worsens, Putin said he hopes outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Lukashenko talk to each other soon, rather than through him. He denied any Russian involvement in the migrant crisis, instead blaming the underlying problems on the West. Putin and Merkel, whose 16-year term will likely end early next month, spoke by phone twice in the past week.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas suggested that Putin has the means to end what he called the "cynical recruiting of refugees from Iraq or Afghanistan" by Lukashenko, but had not intervened because it's in his interest to destabilize or split the EU.
"In any case, that assumption stands to reason," Maas said in an interview with regional German newspapers published Saturday when asked about Putin's tactics.
Lukashenko over the past year has rebuffed European efforts to mediate conflicts with his country and has refused to take calls from some Western leaders, including Merkel.
Poland has accused the Kremlin of masterminding the artificial flow of people from countries including Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan onto the border. Putin's economic and political support allowed Lukashenko to survive mass demonstrations against his 27-year rule and U.S. and EU censure of his brutal crackdown on the opposition.
The authoritarian leader has upped the ante against the west, using migrants as a weapon and threatening to block the transit of natural gas supplies from Russia.
"I want everyone to know that we have nothing to do with it," Putin said in the interview. "Everyone is trying to put responsibility on us, for any and no reason. And our airlines aren't carrying these people, in general, none of our companies do."
President Joe Biden told reporters Friday that the U.S. has communicated its concerns about the migrant crisis to both Russia and Belarus. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization in a statement condemned the "continued instrumentalisation" of the migrant situation "artificially created by Belarus" and said the alliance will remain vigilant.
(Updates with German foreign minister from 10th paragraph)
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