Russian air base in Belarus

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On April 23, 2013 Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu during a meeting Alexander Lukashenko in Minsk announced his intention to deploy a Regiment of fighters in Belarus in 2015. “We proceed to consider the plan to establish a Russian airbase here with fighter planes. We hope that in 2015 there will already be an Aviation Regiment here”, — said Sergei Shoigu. According to him, in this year an aircraft commander’s office should be set up in Belarus and first fighters should be on duty. Shoigu also said that at a joint meeting of the Defence Ministries of Belarus and Russia the issue of supply in our country of four battalions of air defence systems S-300 would be discussed. The transaction will be carried out on the basis of personal agreements previously reached by Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin.

The question of the features and characteristics (especially in terms of combating cruise missiles) of the complexes, provided to Belarus has still no answer. Our country has experience of getting Russian weapons with characteristics very different from those expected by the Belarusian generals.

Prehistory. Rumours about a possible deployment of Russian air base in Belarus have been appearing since the early 2000s. One of the reason for this could be the financial support for maintaining the airfield infrastructure, provided by Russia to Belarus.

In October 2012 during a meeting of Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the two countries in Minsk, Mr. Lavrov said that Belarus intended to participate in the construction of Russia’s missile defence system. This announcement got no response from the official Minsk.

Previously, on September 21, 2012 President Lukashenko, commenting on another meeting with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, told reporters: “We have a joint air defence system. And we have discussed a lot of issues on Air Force. I asked for support and got it. In the near future we will get modern aircraft to be on duty on the border”. The fact that the aircraft will arrive together with their crews, wasn’t mentioned by Alexander Lukashenko. Or, at that time he just didn’t know about it.

The suspicions of some “package agreement” between Moscow and Washington, which marks the boundary between their spheres of influence, should be taken into consideration as well. According to that agreement Belarus supposedly becomes an exclusive sphere of influence of Russia, while the West gets Ukraine, Moldova and the Transcaucasia. At the same time we can’t be sure that such an agreement exists; and even if it exists, that the parties will strictly adhere to it. However, another thing should be admitted here: the revitalization of Belarusian diplomacy in the West was observed just after the start of Obama’s second term, and soon after reports of a possible agreement between Russia and the United States. It’s essential to note, that if in October-November of the previous year Belarusian diplomats held 1-2 meetings devoted to issues of relations between Belarus and the West a month, starting from December they started to hold about 2-3 such meetings a week. And this is only according to open data.

The external background. At the moment the probability of military conflict in the region of Central and Eastern Europe, perhaps, is the lowest in history. Of course, this does not mean that such situation will remain in the future. But so far no military threats to regional security are observed.

Moreover, the crisis in the EU and change in U.S. foreign policy priorities have lead to the overall increasing degradation of NATO offensive capabilities in Europe. On January 5, 2012 U.S. President Barack Obama announced his new concept in Pentagon: the USA is almost leaving Europe. Instead of the four brigades only two smaller ones will be permanently basing in Europe. Many bases on European territory will closed, and the United States is going to focus on the Asia-Pacific region.

Talking about the base in relation to European missile defence program is inappropriate only for the reason that recently there has been a statement of Mr. Rogozin that Russia does not consider the European missile defence system as a threat to their own security, as it has the technical capacity to overcome it. The threat from the East (from Belarus and Russia) is more theoretical in nature and is primarily discussed by some “experts” in Moscow and Minsk, who live in the times of the Cold War. Thus, there is no pressing need to place the Russian air base in Belarus. It seems that the reason for this step is to be found in the internal situation in the two countries and their mutual relations.

Supposed motives of Russia. The Russian establishment as a whole can be fairly divided into two large groups: the realists and those who still live in the times of the Cold War. This can clearly be seen in the two fundamental documents: the Foreign Policy Concept and the Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation. The first is a list of threats identical both to Russia and the West. The neutralization of these threats requires maintaining the partnership between the two parties. Moreover Russian foreign policy concept involves the creation of mechanisms for joint transatlantic security. But the Military Doctrine considers the West to be a source of danger.

Anti-Western rhetoric is popular in Russian society, as well as the fantasies of Russian great power status. Establishment of a military base in Belarus can raise Putin’s popularity in the domestic field. Especially it’s necessary to take into consideration the fact, that since the third term has begun Russian leader hasn’t achieved significant success.

Belarus: supposed motives and consequences. All internal political problems of Belarusian regime correlate with external problems. It is clear that with the help of the Russian military base President Lukashenko will try to resolve a number of issues in his favour. The main stumbling block in bilateral relations in recent years has been the letting Russian companies to take active part in the privatization of the main enterprises of Belarusian industry. While Alexander Lukashenko “keeps the front”: Russian companies participate in privatization in not enormous volumes and on Belarusian terms. However, resisting Moscow alone is becoming more difficult: the relations with the West are being frozen; hopes for China were vain, according to our predictions.

We can not exclude the fact that Alexander Lukashenko has made another “manoeuvre”: “exchanged” the privatization of state assets to deep defence cooperation. A side effect of this will be the fact, that the lobbyists of the Belarusian authorities in the West will receive an additional asset in the fight for the abolition of EU restrictive measures: the notorious “Russian threat” has become more visible (although not a real one). In addition, the procedure of placement and subsequent operation of the new Russian military facility in Belarus is an additional possibility to pressure on Moscow in getting material support. Just recall the situation around Russian military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Curiously enough, the Russian air base is beneficial for Belarusian political opposition as well. Opposition to the Russian military base in Belarus could become a reason for increased funding of political opponents of the regime who are experiencing a serious shortage of resources. Belarusian authorities can just not pay attention to broad and noisy anti-Russian campaign of the opposition. This will allow the Belarusian regime to speculate on the fears of Russian elites to lose the influence in the post-soviet countries in the result of “colour revolutions”. And the best prevention of revolution is constant financial support from Moscow to its “allies” (though they are not very reliable, but old ones).

Thus, a seemingly strange symbiosis between the regime and its opponents is appearing: the creation of a Russian air base may contribute to increase of funding of Belarusian opposition by foreign donors and the regime can indirectly counteract Russian influence with the help of its opponents and for the Western money. Both sides in this case will receive additional material benefits, while the opponents of the authorities expand the field of activity. And by the way, it becomes possible to return to the secret cooperation of political antagonists according to the model of 2010. However, the results of this collaboration (if it happens) won’t be significant.

We should also pay attention to the date when the deployment of the air base is planned to complete — 2015. This year the presidential elections in Belarus will be held. Preservation of the Russian financial support in at least the current volume is critical for President Lukashenko. It won’t ensure the economic growth, but can help to prevent a collapse of the national economy. While the Russian economy, by the way, is also not very stable. At this rate the factor of foreign policy success, confirming the notorious “greatness” of Russia may be needed in the Kremlin.

However, the benefits, stated above, are tactical. In the long term, however, the Russian military presence in Belarus is a threat to our country. Firstly, international experience shows that it takes long time and is really difficult to get rid of foreign military bases. Secondly, Belarus becomes a hostage of relations between Russia and the West. At the moment they are generally good. But no one knows what will happen next. Thirdly, it should be understood that the issue of ownership is not removed from the agenda, but only postponed (and maybe not for a long time). Fourthly, it is time to get out of the habit of getting constant Russian aid. The reason is not the fact, that getting Russian financial aid is worse getting American, European or Chinese one. The point is, that these are foreign money, not our own. The experience of the EU shows, that living on financial aid from other countries (in the EU it is about loans, in our case – about Russian subsidies) is a “dead-end track”. Russia’s position is unstable for a number of reasons. Belarusian authorities should realize that at some moment Russia will just not be able to support Belarus. So, Russian money may disappear, but the base will remain. And the potential threats related to it with it, will remain as well.

What can be expected in the future. Belarusian-Russian relations are characterized by a high degree of secrecy. Many problems are solved on the basis of informal arrangements of the leaders, not mentioned in international documents. It can be expected that the next step can naturally be a fully united air defence system of Belarus and Russia under Russian control. At the moment it exists only formally.

In addition, we must remember that there are “hawks” not only in Moscow but also in the West. However, they are a little bit more marginalized, but in any case, Russian military base in Belarus will be a factor to irritate a part of the Western elites.

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