On October 11, 2019, during the CIS summit in Ashgabat, Aliaksandr Lukashenka expressed concern about the large-scale military exercises “NATO Defender Europe — 2020” planned near the borders of Belarus: “Probably, the President of Russia and I will have to think about how to protect ourselves during this period. We will have to respond somehow.”
“Defender Europe 2020” exercises are scheduled for next spring. During the event 20 thousand American soldiers with weapons will be sent to Europe. This will be the largest such event since the end of the Cold War. But the exercises themselves will not become the largest. According to the plan, they will involve 37 thousand soldiers from 18 NATO countries. For example, in the last year’s NATO exercises “Trident Juncture 2018”, about 50 thousand troops from 31 NATO and partner states were involved. According to Russian estimates, up to 100 thousand military personnel participated in the “Anaconda 2018” exercise.
It should be noted that next year not only NATO exercises will be held. The presidential elections in Belarus will take place in 2020 as well. It is unlikely that they will meet the criteria of transparency, fairness and honesty. In previous years, the Kremlin was the legitimizer of the Belarusian elections. But in recent years, Belarusian-Russian political relations at the highest level have been experiencing a crisis of confidence.
That is why it is important for official Minsk to guarantee the favourable position of the Kremlin during the upcoming presidential electoral campaign. Ashgabat proposal of Lukashenka to Vladimir Putin jointly “… to protect themselves” during the NATO exercises is an attempt to find ways to improve bilateral relations by using security-sensitive topics for Moscow.
Moreover, the format of such a “joint response” has already been used. On March 12, 2014 during a meeting of the Security Council of Belarus Aliaksandr Lukashenka demanded to ensure the deployment of additional Russian fighters to Belarus in connection with the increased military presence of NATO at the borders of our country: the Alliance sent additional fighters to the eastern flank after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The measures to strengthen air defence were announced. The very next day, 6 Su-27SM3 fighters and three military transport aircraft with personnel were deployed to Bobruisk airfield. On March 15, 2014 the airport in Baranavičy hosted the Russian A-50 early warning aircraft.
While Russia occupied the Ukrainian Crimea, Minsk was officially afraid of NATO. In fact, Russian aggression against Ukraine was a complete surprise for the CIS countries. In many capitals of CIS states, the rulers thought about the possibilities of the Ukrainian scenario to be implemented in their countries. Somewhere the idea of arming the loyal part of the state-forming ethnos was discussed. In Belarus they decided to get closer to Russia for some time. When the limits of Russian aggressiveness became clear, the Russian air force was sent back home.
It seems that Aliaksandr Lukashenka decided to repeat the successful experience of 2014. But this time, this can be done in order to guarantee at least friendly neutrality of the Kremlin in the course of future presidential elections. “Defender Europe 2020” is just an excuse to start a discussion of this issue with Russia.
By the way, Vladimir Putin is still ignoring the proposal of his Belarusian counterpart to respond to NATO jointly.