Russian Airbase in Belarus: A Long Story With No End in Sight?
This month, the Kremlin intensified pressure on Belarus to agree to a Russian airbase on its territory. Last Saturday President Putin asked his Defence and Foreign Ministries to negotiate and sign the agreement on an airbase with Minsk.
The Financial Times noted that "Russia is moving ahead with plans to establish a military air base in Belarus." Yet Moscow still needs to hammer out a deal with Minsk.
While the airbase does not change the regional military balance, it changes the relationship between Belarus and Russia. Minsk risks losing leverage over Moscow and will no longer look as a neutral party in the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
Minsk tries to delay the deal on the airbase and to change its terms. So far Moscow has only two technical facilities in Belarus, and the joint Belarus-Russian air defence system was only established after many years of delays and Russia having to take Minsk's demands into account.
Some Time, Somewhere, Something...
On 2 September the Russian government sent President Putin a draft agreement on the Russian airbase in Belarus.The week after, the draft was published. However, it left out some significant details. These include the location of the base and which military units are to be deployed there. Previously the two sides had only discussed stationing a regiment of heavy fighter jets near the Eastern Belarusian city of Babruysk.
An airbase agreement would ally it closer to Russia and strip it of much of its foreign policy autonomy.
Asked when the agreement would be signed earlier this month, Russian Prime Minister Medvedev said that the signing “should be comfortable for both the Belarusian and Russian sides.” This could prove difficult. Minsk does all it can to avoid signing the agreement at a sensitive time of confrontation in Ukraine. An airbase agreement would ally it closer to Russia and strip it of much of its foreign policy autonomy.
Moscow however is determined to integrate Belarus closer. It is tired of Minsk's refusal to support the Kremlin's policies in the former Soviet Union and of Lukashenka's deals with the West. So Moscow tries to place the Belarusian president in a bind, or as Foreign Policy put it, "Putin clips Lukashenko’s wings with air base in Belarus."
Therefore, Minsk wants to sign the document either as late as possible, or preferably not at all. Moscow wants to sign it now.
No Change in Regional Military Balance
Dmitry Medvedev claimed that idea of establishing an airbase in Belarus began in 2009. “Back then we signed the documents on the joint protection of the borders of Belarus and Russia and the joint air defence system. In fact, the agreement [on the airbase] implements those agreements.”
That is an exaggeration. Those documents say nothing about a permanent Russian base in Belarus. Moscow decided to enhance its military presence in Belarus only in early 2013. In April 2013, it publicly announced plans to station its own airforce in the country. Back then, revealed details of official talks and expert comments indicated that the reason for such plans was the weakened Belarusian airforce.
Indeed, by that time Moscow had doubts about Minsk's ability to protect the joint air border as agreed. Minsk which had inherited an impressive fleet of Soviet state-of-the-art military aircraft did not buy newer planes after independence.
The situation with obsolete Belarusian aircraft worsened in the 2010s because of financial constraints. By that time Minsk had no functioning heavy Sukhoi fighter jets at all. Earlier, in the mid-2000s, the Belarusian government due to a lack of funds had halted the modernisation programme of MiG-29 light fighter jets for ten years. This programme started again only in late 2013 after Minsk realised that Russia would not give it newer aircraft.
A decade ago Minsk still had its own regiment of Sukhoi heavy fighter jets
Now Russia is going to send its fighter jets to Belarus. In terms of the regional military balance it means return to the situation of a decade ago. Back then Minsk still had a regiment of Sukhoi heavy fighter jets. Now Russia wishes to send its own regiment (of the same modernised Sukhoi airplanes) to Belarus.
Nevertheless, in the current tense atmosphere of Eastern Europe, Minsk will anyway face a possible backlash over the possible establishment of a Russian airbase. On Tuesday, Lithuanian Defence Minister Juozas Olekas warned that a prospective Russian airbase in Belarus would harm Minsk's relations with Lithuania, the EU and NATO.
How to Destabilise the Country?
The base will dramatically change relations between Belarus and Russia. It is, however, unlikely to create a threat of the “Crimea Scenario.” One regiment of fighter jets lacks any means to prepare a Crimean-style intervention. In addition, according to the draft agreement the regiment shall be a part of the Single System of Air Defence between Belarus and Russia, hence Russian planes cannot operate without Minsk's consent.
Belarus is losing its military value for Moscow
But something more terrible than a “Crimean Scenario” threatens Minsk. Belarus is losing its military value for Moscow. Earlier, Minsk could boast of its protecting Moscow and ask for money. Now, Moscow is going to provide its security itself, without its Belarusian ally.
The Belarusian government loses a major bargaining chip in negotiations with Moscow. In the future, for its financial support the Kremlin can demand from Minsk more assets and concessions. It already started to do so in the case of the airbase.
According to the military analyst Alexander Alesin, it was not a coincidence that Russia published the draft agreement on the airbase just as the Russia-controlled Eurasian Stabilisation and Growth Fund announced a possible loan for Belarus until the end of this year.
The airbase is a payment which the existing regime owes Russia for the right to keep dominating and ruling our territory
Of course, not everything is about money. Belarusian politician Yuras' Hubarevich insists, "Russian leaders indirectly help Lukashenka get reelected. The airbase is a payment which the existing regime owes Russia for the right to keep dominating and ruling our territory."
Meanwhile, Minsk faces another related problem too. Moscow wants Lukashenka to renounce his policy of seeking balance or even a neutral position in relations with Russia, Ukraine and western states.
Clearly siding with any side in the current confrontation between Russia, Ukraine and the West will mean for the Belarusian state reduced opportunities for foreign policy manuevering, further deterioration of foreign trade and increasing loss of international legitimacy. It potentially also means possible destabilisation inside the country too.
The government understands the risks and tries to postpone and reshape the airbase agreement. After all, it succeeded in postponing for years the establishment of the Single System of Air Defence between Belarus and Russia and managed to make it more convenient for Belarus.
The agreement on the airbase was also prepared already by October 2013 yet Minsk successfully procrastinated on it. The end of the airbase story remains uncertain, because Belarus' relations with the West are improving, resulting in the diminishing of Russia's opportunities to put pressure on Minsk.