On May 15-16 Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov paid a working visit to Belarus.
The event was planned. Among other issues, the sides discussed issues of regional security and the expansion of NATO military infrastructure in neighbouring countries including the creation of missile defence facilities. Public speeches of Russian and Belarusian officials regarding this problem were quite restrained (source, source).
However, the very fact of discussion of the issue of European missile defence once again served as a pretext for speculation regarding the possibility of expansion of the Russian military presence in Belarus, including deployment of operational-tactical missile system (hereinafter referred OTMS) “Iskander” in Belarus (source).
A tale that is told. Actually, the “Iskander” saga in Belarus has a long history. The missiles were regarded within the framework of the replacement of Soviet OTMS “Tochka-U”: the normative operation life of the missiles have long been out, but is regularly prolonged. However, the dreams were broken by the harsh reality. On the one hand, the official Minsk traditionally hadn’t money for defence issues. That’s why it was planned to gratefully accept Russian missiles as a gift or much less gratefully to buy them on credit with a considerable discount.
Moscow refused. The official motivation:
— Systems are too expensive to be presented even to close allies;
— Equipping own troops, rather than exports, is the priority;
— Production capacity of the Russian defence industry won’t allow to meet the domestic needs in the near future, that’s why it’s untimely to discuss the export of the system.
The informal motivation included:
— Fear of technology leaks or unauthorized access to the “Iskander” of third countries, particularly China;
— Reluctance to provide Minsk with weapons that in theory greatly increase the capacity of Belarusian army and as a consequence reduce the level of military and political dependence of Belarus on Russia.
The response to the Kremlin’s intractability was Belarusian national missile program.
Already irrelevant. It is worth noting that even in the case of supply of OTMS “Iskander”, Belarus would have received an export version of the complex with a range of 280 km.
But now the situation has changed: if we talk about supply of OTMS “Iskander” to Belarus – they can be provided only free of charge. There are several reasons:
— there are good results of the program of creation of own missile weapons, the range of which is close to one of OTMS “Iskander”. And although OTMS, heavy MLRS like “Polonaise” and cruise missiles are weapons of different classes, in the situation of our region the most important function of such systems is deterrence. I.e. the mere presence of “long arm” weapons matters.
— In the situation of limited resources the procurement of “Iskander” means giving up our own missile ambitions. Which is no longer possible for political reasons (it is a matter of national prestige) and irrational on financial ones (the export of missiles is seen as a good perspective);
— There are doubts in the usability of the OTMS “Iskander” in the event of a conflict because of guaranteed presence of electronic “bugs”.
However, such gifts from Russian shouldn’t be expected. All the original reasons and Moscow’s doubts are now accompanied with the position of official Minsk on the war in Ukraine, which is considered a betrayal of Russia’s interests by many Russian “hawks”. Although it is not entirely clear why Belarus should watch over Russian interests.
About Russian base in Belarus. This time about missile base. From time to time in Russia one can hear speeches about feasibility of deploying Russian units equipped with OTMS “Iskander” in Belarus, as a response to the European missile defence. It’s interesting to note that the same topic is enthusiastically taken up by the Polish media. The ideas neither in the West nor in the East are varying: Belarusian authorities are totally dependent on Moscow and will do whatever the Kremlin wants. However, the Kremlin wants to deploy military bases in Belarus for the second decade already. But there is still none of them. And there are reasons to believe that they won’t appear. The arguments are known:
— Minsk doesn’t want to get involved in the confrontation between Russia and the West;
— Bases can be used as a tool to interfere in internal political processes;
— The foreign military presence almost destroys an independent foreign policy of Belarus.
At the same time Beijing won’t like that. China is purposefully working on weakening Russian influence in the former Soviet Union. A military base is a symbol and instrument of such influence. In this case, there is a situational coincidence of interests of China and the West in the post-Soviet space: the Russian role there should be limited to the maintenance of stability and dampening down the conflicts. However, in fact Moscow is rather a warmonger than a peacekeeper.
Conclusions. Consolidated Belarusian and Russian negative attitude to the expansion of NATO infrastructure in the east has different implications. Russia considers the situation in the framework of the confrontation with the West. Belarus fears the strengthening of pressure from the side of the eastern neighbour on the issue of the adoption of proportionate response measures — expansion of the Russian military infrastructure in Belarus.
However, the common position doesn’t necessarily imply common response. It is obvious that Russia is ready to continue the confrontation with NATO. At the same time it’s obvious that the Belarusian authorities are trying to distance themselves from the confrontation.
And by and large, in this situation “Iskander” is an unnecessary element. Although, if Russia decides to present them to Belarus, it’s necessary to accept such a present. Partners in Beijing (and not only they) can be interested in this.