Russia has cut natural gas supplies to Belarus in a dispute over outstanding debts. The move could backfire against Russia if it is seen as a threat to gas deliveries to Europe.
In a televised meeting with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, Gazprom chief Alexei Miller accepted orders to begin cutting supplies to Belarus.
Miller says Gazprom, Russia's state-controlled gas giant, started reducing gas delivery to Belarus by 15 percent on Monday. He said the company will gradually shut off supplies by up to 85 percent, until the former Soviet republic pays off its debt.
Gazprom claims Belarus has been underpaying for gas, and now owes the company nearly $200 million. Miller said Belarus recognizes its gas debt, and has offered to repay with equipment and machinery.
President Medvedev mocked the concept.
He said Belarus must make the payment with currency, and that it is not acceptable to pay off a debt with pie, butter, cheese or other forms of payment.
The cut-off could have implications for Europe, which receives some natural gas supplies from Russia through pipelines that run through Belarus.
Last year, Moscow cut off supplies to Ukraine in a pricing dispute. That move left many Europeans without heat during two freezing cold weeks of winter.
The head of the National Energy Security Fund in Russia, Konstantin Simonov, says, with the previous dispute in mind, the move against Belarus may backfire against Russia.
He says while the dispute with Belarus is unlikely to significantly cut gas supplies to Europe, he thinks it may have a negative psychological impact that many Europeans will use against Moscow.
He notes the previous dispute with Ukraine was costly to Russia, because it expedited the construction of the Nabucco pipeline. The project aims to give Europeans an alternative to Russian gas, by bringing supplies through Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey.
Relations between Russia and Belarus have been tense in recent weeks, as Belarus has refused to sign on to a proposed customs union linking the two countries and Kazakhstan. Belarus has insisted that Russia first remove a customs duty on oil.
Belarus also has given refuge to the former president of Kyrgyzstan, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was ousted by a movement supported by Russia.