On March 2, 2021 during a meeting on Belarusian-Russian cooperation in the defence field, Aliaksandr Lukashenka suddenly began to give lengthy and vague explanations regarding the negotiations with Vladimir Putin in Sochi on February 22, 2021. Then some observers were quick to conclude that the issue of creating a Russian airbase in Belarus is on the agenda again.
The context of the situation. On the eve of the so-called “all-Belarusian people’s assembly”, Russian information sources reported on the upcoming meeting between Lukashenka and Putin at the end of February. Judging by the fact that the Belarusian side until the very negotiations was unable to provide related explanations regarding the agenda of the event, in Minsk this agenda was unknown until the last moment. At the same time, Lukashenka’s improvisation during the “people’s assembly”, when he said that he allegedly fell ill again with “this infection” (from which it could be concluded that he mentioned the Chinese coronavirus), taking into account Putin’s reverent attitude to his health, was to question the timing of the meeting. But it didn’t work out and Lukashenka had to go meet Putin.
The meeting had no clear results. The announced lengthy negotiations were reduced to “about an hour”.
Taking into account that the Kremlin is now virtually the only legitimizer of Lukashenka’s regime in the eyes of the Belarusian bureaucracy (including the punitive apparatus), the ability to resolve issues in Moscow is critically important for the Belarusian ruler.
Actually, it can be argued with a high degree of confidence that the meeting on cooperation between Belarus and Russia in the field of defence itself is a staged event, which was intended to act as a stage for Lukashenka to demonstrate that his relations with Putin at least have not deteriorated. But the issues of cooperation in the field of military security are the traditional “commodity” of official Minsk when bargaining with the Kremlin.
It should be noted that, judging by Lukashenka’s speech, one can conclude that Lukashenka did not receive a clear answer from Russia to any of his proposals. Therefore, Lukashenka had to say that these proposals “did not cause rejection” by Putin.
What exactly Lukashenka said. He did not speak of any Russian military base in Belarus. Moreover, he spoke out against it. Lukashenka would like to get new Russian fighters for use. Perhaps with mixed Belarusian-Russian crews and as a part of joint air defence combat duty.
Actually, Lukashenka did not say anything new: back in 2012, he not only asked Russia for new airplanes, but also expressed the idea that Moscow should finance the Belarusian army so that the level of servicemen’s wages of the two formally allied countries is the same. In the Kremlin, they became speechlessness after such impudence. After that through diplomatic channels they answered that Russia was ready to take over the financing of the Belarusian army only if it became de facto and de jure part of the Russian army. After that, the topic “we will accept fighters and money as a gift” has disappeared from the agenda. But then another one appeared – “your planes — our pilots”: Russia provides the Belarusian Air Force with aircraft for operation by Belarusian military personnel. Moscow again did not appreciate the proposals, but as far as we know, the Kremlin decided not to react in any way.
The history of the issue. The creation of a Russian airbase in Belarus is the carrot that Lukashenka has been waving in front of the Kremlin for the past twenty years. At the same time, one day he even had to agree on this: in April 2013, during a meeting of the defence ministers of Belarus and Russia, an agreement to create a Russian air base in our country was announced. It should be understood that the publication of such information was possible only if the agreement was obtained at the highest level – personally from Lukashenka.
It is interesting to note that at the same time in the information field the Belarusian side informally but persistently began to promote the thesis that Minsk, faced with isolation from the West due to political repression within the country after the 2010 presidential elections, was forced to agree to the creation of a Russian airbase. Doesn’t it look similar to something?
In December of the same year, the first four Russian fighters landed at the airbase in Baranavičy and took up combat duty together with their Belarusian counterparts. The Russian side presented this as the first step towards the creation of a full-fledged air base. But further events showed the premature of such statements:
— the link of fighters was based on a rotational basis, and not on a permanent basis;
— the Russian unit was under the Belarusian command;
— the Russian presence was carried out within the framework of a unified air defense system of the CIS countries, and not as an initial stage in the creation of a Russian air base;
— after Minsk decided that there was no longer a need for Russian fighters, the latter quietly flew to their permanent bases (tentatively — in May 2015).
On March 12, 2014, against the background of the beginning of the Russian aggression against Ukraine and the transfer of additional NATO air forces to the eastern flank of the Alliance, during a meeting of the Belarus Security Council Lukashenka demanded to ensure the transfer of additional Russian fighters to Belarus. Measures to strengthen air defense were announced as well. On the same day, as part of the verification of the interaction plan as part of the Belarusian-Russian Unified Regional Air Defense System, it was decided to relocate additional Russian fighters to Belarus. And the very next day, 6 Su-27SM3 fighters and three military transport aircraft with personnel were deployed to the Babrujsk airfield. On March 15, 2014 at the airfield in Baranavičy, in addition to the four Russian fighters, a long-range radar detection aircraft A-50 of the Russian Air Force arrived. The Belarusian authorities linked further parameters of the Russian air presence to the actions of NATO. However, later the degree of anti-NATO rhetoric was sharply reduced: it turned out that additional Russian air forces arrived in Belarus to guard the World Ice Hockey Championship, which was held in Minsk in May 2014.
It is obvious that Minsk was extremely frightened by the unexpected actions of the Kremlin against Ukraine. Having demanded additional Russian planes for Belarus, Lukashenka hurried to demonstrate loyalty to the Kremlin.
However, later these Russian military aircraft failed to prevent the official Minsk from recognizing the new Ukrainian government and not recognizing the annexation of Crimea by Russia.
Later, in October 2015, Lukashenka said that for the first time he hears about plans to create a Russian air base in Belarus. This was after Moscow published a draft of the relevant agreement.
Conclusion. Since October 2015, the issue of expanding the Russian military presence in Belarus has not been officially put on the agenda.
Lukashenka’s statements on March 2, 2021 are a propaganda action aimed at maximal demonstrating the Kremlin’s support for the Belarusian ruler and thus appeasing the bureaucracy. Another recipient of the message was the West with the traditional message “if you don’t want to talk to Lukashenka in Belarus, you will have to talk to Putin”. The purpose is to involve the United States and the EU in a dialogue with the official Minsk on conditions acceptable to the regime. Nobody paid attention to the fact that during the “people’s assembly” April was mentioned — the month when the freezing of American sanctions against the Belarusian petrochemical industry ends. It is not impossible that with the resumption of sanctions, the list of sanctioned enterprises will not be supplemented with new ones. After the start of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, the issues of regional security and containment of Russian expansionism are the only export “commodity” of official Minsk for Brussels and Washington.
It is necessary to underline, that in 2014-2020, Lukashenka masterfully sold essentially the same thing to two competing parties: he promised to one of them that he would die fighting NATO tanks, but not let them go to Moscow, and to another – to do everything not to let Russian tanks reach the Buh and Nioman.
In his traditional manner, Lukashenka tries to maneuver and manipulate, without taking on any specific obligations.