Belarus seeking security cooperation with both Russia and the West: Mission possible?
On 9 May in Washington, in a presentation at the American think tank Atlantic Council, Belarusian deputy foreign minister Aleh Krauchanka emphasised the importance of Belarus-US security cooperation.
Meanwhile, numerous Eastern European officials from Western-alligned nations made statements about their apprehensions regarding the upcoming Russian-Belarusian West-2017 military exercises. Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaitė announced that West-2017 exercise is evidence that Belarus and Russia are preparing for war with the West.
Minsk, however, is playing its own game and trying to get the best of both worlds. It is using the exercise to extract benefits from Russia while attempting to assure Russia's opponents of Belarus's neutrality.
Who's afraid of the big bad West-2017 exercise?
Latvian foreign minister Edgars Rinkēvičs stated that his country must be prepared for any outcome of West-2017, including Russian troops remaining in Belarus. The Secretary of Ukraine's National Security and Defence Council, Oleksandr Turchynov, claims that the exercise could turn out to be the preliminary stage for an offensive operation against Ukraine.
Lithuanian special services warned that Russia could overrun the Baltic states in 24 to 48 hours. In April, Lithuania conducted drills in preparation for a 'Crimean scenario.' Without warning local police personnel, armed men attacked the Lithuanian town of Šalčininkai. The invaders were presented as coming from Belarus. The aggressor-country in the scenario of the drills was called Udija – clearly hinting at Belarus, which is sometimes called Gudija in Lithuanian.
Interestingly, neither the local police nor the population resisted the attack, apparently unwilling to believe that Belarus could invade Lithuania. Therefore, it seems that West-2017 is worrying mostly for Eastern European politicians and special services, not so much the general population.
Officials in Western countries were more restrained, too. For example, US defence secretary James Mattis stated that the Belarusian-Russian drills were no cause for concern: 'It's a routine exercise. I trust it will stay routine.' In February, NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg announced only that NATO was paying 'some attention to military exercises, including West-2017.'
The price of the power show
The Belarusian government struggles to address concerns from neighbouring countries. On 3 February, Lukashenka commented:
If the [Russian] troops will be brought here, they will also smoothly leave this place again. ... The troops will disembark near the exercise place, they will set up camp, there will be very few live rounds – only to shoot at targets, the rest – blank rounds. Everything's under control.
Minsk would like to improve the image of the drills and make them more transparent by inviting observers and revealing details. Nevertheless, although it realises the drills are causing protests of its neighbours, it also sees them as an opportunity to solve certain issues with Russia.
One item on Belarus's wish list is obtaining new and expensive equipment for the Belarusian military. This is a crucial task for Minsk, which unfortunately has no money for weapons. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Belarusian military expenditure in 2016 has diminished by 17.5% to $597m.
It is in fact possible to calculate the price Belarus has extracted from Russia for the power show: the Kremlin has had to give its Belarusian ally expensive military hardware in order to secure its cooperation. On 7 April, Lukashenka openly articulated his hopes that Russia would help him arm the Belarusian armed forces: either at Russia's expense, or 'for a small price.' In particular, Lukashenka wanted to finally acquire the Su-30 fighter jets over which Minsk has been wrangling with Moscow for more than a decade.
According to Lukashenka, he recently discussed the issue with Putin, who "jumped up" after hearing of Belarusian appetites. The Belarusian leader offered to pay him half-price (despite the fact that each airplane costs about $25m) and apparently prevailed. Shortly after, various Belarusian military officials started speaking about receiving the new aircraft as soon as 2017.
That is certainly not all. In a related development, twelve new military transport helicopters (Mi-8MTV-5) were delivered to Belarus by the Russian corporation Vertolyoty Rossii in two instalments in November and March: months earlier than expected.
The Belarusian government blames all sides
Minsk has few other reasons to participate in this show of power called West-2017. Although these exercises are clearly a move by the Kremlin in its ongoing confrontation with the West, the Belarusian government simply keeps its distance from such conflict.
Speaking in Washington on 9 May, Belarusian deputy foreign minister Krauchanka emphasised that Minsk 'does not regard NATO presence as a direct threat to Belarus, although this undoubtedly creates risk and security challenges in the region.' The Belarusian government considers the rising tensions in Europe to be 'the biggest threat' to its national security.
Krauchanka was not the only Belarusian official to express this position. Defence minister Andrei Raukou, in a rather militant presentation at the Fourth Moscow International Security Conference, lashed out at new NATO deployments and stored military hardware. Given the conference venue, such statements come as no surprise. Nevertheless, he stated that for Belarus, NATO's eastward expansion was a fait accompli.
Speaking on 28 April, Belarusian foreign minister Uladzimir Makei mentioned the rising presence of NATO troops near Belarus's borders in a calmer tone. He underlined that in military terms, these deployments did not matter much, voicing other concerns instead:
We are alarmed by such actions also because of the recent increase in militant rhetoric between East and West. I will not say who is right, who is to blame. But ... these accusations are not always justified.
Silent security cooperation with the US
Likewise, Minsk is trying to increase its security cooperation with the West. Deputy foreign minister Krauchanka, during his latest visit to the US, called security cooperation 'a cornerstone' in Belarus-US relations. As examples, he cited Belarus's provision of land transit to supply NATO forces in Afghanistan.
US sanctions against Belarus notwithstanding, 'when America needed our help, we provided it. Moreover, we did it consciously, never tried to bargain, and even avoided speaking publicly about it.' Krauchanka failed to specify further plans for cooperation, but under the current tense circumstances in Eastern Europe, Minsk could play an important role in various international projects beyond mediating in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.
Thus, the Belarusian position could become important should the US attempt to raise the issue of Russia's possible violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. This possibility follows from an interview with Rose Gottemoeller, former US Under Secretary of State and the current Deputy Secretary General of NATO, published on 3 April by the Russian daily Kommersant. She underlines that the possible violation could be discussed not only with Russia, but also with other parties, i.e., Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine.
It would behove the Belarusian government to build a more balanced and neutral policy by establishing more diversified partnerships in the security realm. At the same time, Minsk realises the sensitiveness of this issue for Moscow, and agrees to what is most important to the Russian leadership, such as the forthcoming West-2017 exercises.
This, however, does not mean that the Kremlin can dictate whatever it wants. On the contrary, Belarus is reshaping its national security policies and can still persuade Russia to help it with military equipment.