More Russian Military Bases in Belarus?

More Russian military bases may appear in Belarus soon. According to naviny.by, a Belapan news agency web site an entire aviation division may soon be deployed. This report, however, referred only to an expert from the dubious Russian “Academy of Geopolitical Problems”.

Belarusian military expert Alexander Alesin predicted that “as ability of the national air forces for battle diminish, the air borders of Belarus will be increasingly guarded by Russian military pilots.”

Earlier, the opposition media negatively commented on the symbolic presence of Russian paratroopers at a military parade in Minsk on 3 July. Speculations and fears of the Russian military overtaking Belarus are also prominently featured in Belarusian politics. Often they help both the opposition and the government to achieve their other political aims.

Nobody Wants A Neutral Belarus

Belarus proclaimed its neutrality as early as 1990, although its current Constitution more cautiously states that it strives "to achieve neutrality". Meanwhile, almost no major political group in the country is seriously commited to neutrality. The government openly promotes a military alliance with Russia. The opposition loudly protests against such policies but fails to commit to neutrality and instead campaigns for an alliance with the West.

Belarusian politicians, however, articulate and instrumentalise security issues also in other contexts. Both the Belarusian government and opposition use a politics of security - discussing seemingly unrelated issues in security terms - as a strategy to convince their respective foreign friends of their own importance. For years Lukashenka has been resorting to security-related rhetoric about “Belarusians always defending Moscow” to put pressure on the Russians each time they try to push the Belarusian ruler into a corner.

For their part, the Belarusian opposition emphasises that the regime endangers not only the future of Belarusian nation. Opponents of the current government try to prove that Lukashenka is a threat to regional security – on his own or as a stooge of Russia, and moreover, sometimes he takes to creating mischief far away – in the Middle East, Latin America, Africa. Later on appear the fake documents about Belarus supplying weapons to Pakistani terrorists or arming Sudan's government killing Darfurians.

Does Anybody Fears Today's Belarus?

Its security strategy failed in many cases. Gazprom repeatedly charged Belarus to the fullest extent possible for the sake of Russian gas, carefully ignoring its ally status. No serious Western expert considers Lukashenka a real threat to international security - for example as a source of weapons for Iran. Moreover, even in neighbouring countries opinions on this matter differ.

For instance, after in late April Belarus and Russia publicised the plans for a Russian air base in Belarus, the most harsh reaction came from Warsaw. Even some reputable politicians like former defence minister Onyszkiewicz talked there about danger of Belarusian and Russian military cooperation for Polish national security. Fortunately, other Polish experts sounded much more reserved.

Anna Maria Dyner in the June issue of the Bulletin of the Polish Institute of International Affairs warns, “at this stage, the development of Belarusian–Russian military cooperation cannot be treated as the beginning of an “arms race” in Central and Eastern Europe”. Moreover, she believes that, “Russian support to maintain the country's military capabilities is necessary,” given the scarce funding Belarus gives to own military.

Lithuania even more cautionsly reacted to the news of a prospective Russian air base in Belarus. The Lithuanian defence minister Juozas Olekas, speaking to the BNS news agency in late April, said that he gave no particular importance to possible influence of a new Russian military base in Belarus on regional security. “For some time now we have been watching the cooperation between Belarus and Russia, and, it is possible, the time has come when their integration, especially in defence matters between these nations is increasing. One of its forms may be seen in the establishment of military bases on Belarusian territory,” he explained.

Risk of Proxy Confrontation of Russia and NATO in Belarus

Actually, the Belarusian government has little choice at the moment in matters of national security, but to ask Russians for help. As Yury Drakakhrust of the Radio of Free Europe argued, last year's teddy-bears' bombing conducted by Swedish pilots over Minsk “has demonstrated the weakness of Belarusian air defence – the Russians decided to strengthen it their own way (and have wanted to do so for a long time).” He believes that the Swedish action provided a psychological background for Russian decisions and had harmful consequences irrespective of intents.

Unfortunately, the security situation around Belarus concerns not only Belarus and surrounding states. It is becoming ever more a situation of bigger confrontation. In this confrontation Belarus – justly or not - is perceived as a proxy for Russia, while Minsk and Moscow consider surrounding states first of all as the NATO. The trend continues. Thus, Anna Maria Dyner of the Polish Institute of International Affairs proposes that Poland should not only keep modernising “its own defence capabilities, [and] pursue regional cooperation”, but also “work towards maintaining the involvement of NATO in the region”.

Belarus can become involved into geopolitical struggle between the West and Russia with all dangerous consequences thereof

In this context, Belarus can become involved into the geopolitical struggle between the West and Russia with all dangerous consequences thereof. This security policy helps to freeze the existing situations of political suppression - not only because Lukashenka can use military confrontation with the West and historical reminiscences of, say, Second World War to mobilise ordinary Belarusians and distract them from issues of internal politics and economy. He would get for his confrontation with the West something more important – more help from Moscow. And that means his rule will stay.

Actually, the talks of security threats from Belarus look odd against a background of the current situation with Belarusian military. The Russian military delegation which visited Belarus in June found most of the two dozens Soviet-era Belarusian military airfields deactivated and unsuitable for use. The situation with arms is not much better. Belarus only now completed modernisation of its air defence with the S-300, and it apparently gave up its loudly-discussed plans to buy Russian-made Iskander tactical missile systems.

It is n o wonder that the national defence budget this year is just $686.4 million. It equals to 1.2% of GDP, this number did not change significantly in last decade, and is one of the lowest levels among post-Soviet states far below the level of defence budgets in the NATO states. It failed to prevent Anatoli Paulau of the United Civic Party a couple of years ago from publicly criticising military spending as hypertrophied on the grounds that on every serviceman Belarus spends ten times more money than on a teacher. The comparison proves nothing as soldiers and teachers cost very differently in every country.

At the same time the neighboring countries embarked on ambitious programmes of military reorganisation and modernisation inside NATO. Neighbour states and wider Western community shall recognise security concerns of Belarus. It would be wrong to see the current Belarusian state as a mere marionette of Russia.

On the other hand, security-related actions - e.g., harsh reactions to ordinary military exercises in Belarus or promotion democracy flights over Belarusian territory - may cause more extensive Russian military presence in Belarus. Such actions present a real danger for gradual transformation of the country and its integration in the region. In fact, Belarus does not threaten anybody in the region or beyond it. Responsible Western politicians and media should avoid helping the Belarusian regime by overplaying military issues.

Siarhei Bohdan is an associate analyst at the Ostrogorski Centre.

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