US Missile-Defence System in Europe Increases Strategic Importance of Belarus

As NATO started to construct its European missile defence system, Moscow on 16 May held talks with Minsk on its planned response. “We have an identical approach to the missile defence system,” insisted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. His government reportedly wants to deploy its missile units next to the system facilities, also in Belarus.

Yet Minsk is resisting placing Russian army units in the country because it would destroy emerging Belarusian neutrality, create a premise for a “Crimean scenario” and deprive Belarus of an opportunity to use its military cooperation with Russia as a bargaining chip in dealing with the Kremlin.

Belarus, however, is eager to capitalise on the opportunity to increase its value to Moscow as a provider of security to Moscow, and offer some kind of response to this NATO deployment.

Russia wants missiles placed in Belarus

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov on 16 May arrived in Minsk to discuss a possible response to NATO launching its missile-defence system. But Russia's response has been known for years. Moscow plans, inter alia, to deploy its Iskander ballistic missiles on the borders of NATO countries. That means in Belarus, too.

Officially, Minsk is expressing concern over deployment of additional NATO forces in the region. Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei after the meeting with Lavrov also called missile-defence installations “a potential challenge for our Union State.” Yet beneath the surface of this strategic accord there are important differences in the Belarusian and Russian positions.

For Moscow, the US missile-defence system could partly nullify Russia's nuclear arms and disrupt the system of mutually assured destruction.

First, the significance of the new missile-defence system for the security of Belarus and Russia differs diametrically. Makei implied this when he referred to the challenge it poses to the Union State, and not the Belarusian state. For Moscow, the missile-defence system poses a fundamental threat. It could partly nullify Russia's nuclear arms and disrupt the system of mutually assured destruction.

For Belarus, directly the new anti-missile facilities per se mean little, if anything at all. The Belarusian leadership sees direct threats to national security elsewhere – in the activities of pro- and anti-Moscow paramilitary groups, in the regional destabilisation caused by the war in Eastern Ukraine etc. - not in additional American deployments.

Minsk can wait

Unlike Moscow, Minsk can wait and bargain with the Kremlin. An anonymous high-level official of the Russian Defence Minister on 16 May told Moscow-based daily Kommersant about a clash of approaches on deployment of tactical missile systems to Belarus.

The Belarusian government wishes to get new Iskander-M's for free as a member of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation, or to buy them. The Kremlin allegedly wants to deploy to Belarus the Iskanders manned by Russian military personnel.

Kremlin's viewpoint: no allies needed

These differences fit into the pattern of bilateral relations of recent years. Since the early 2010s, Moscow has sought to minimise its dependence on its Belarusian partner. For more than five years, Russian industries have worked on substituting Belarusian-made military equipment of the Russian army with Russian-made equivalents.

Concurrently, it has either denied Belarus newer equipment (e.g., aircraft), or sent it outdated systems or import modifications (S-300 and Tor surface-to-air-missile (SAM) systems, respectively). Instead of providing arms, the Kremlin prefers to send its own soldiers to Belarus, e.g. in 2013-2015 Moscow insisted on deploying the Russian air force to Belarus.

Russia deployed its forces alongside the border not only with Ukraine but also Belarus

In a more recent development Russia deployed its forces alongside the border not only with Ukraine but also Belarus, indicating its attitude towards Minsk, too. In April and early May, Interfax news agency published a series of leaks about the formation by 1 December of three new motorised rifles division – in Voronezh, Rostov and Smolensk provinces of Russia, respectively The last of the three provinces – Smolensk – borders only on Belarus and no other foreign country.

Looking at these development, the former US national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski on 17 April in The American Interest wrote the following about Moscow: “currently it is pointlessly alienating some of its former subjects in the Islamic southwest of its once extensive empire, as well as Ukraine, Belarus, and Georgia, not to mention the Baltic States.”

A spectre is haunting Minsk – the spectre of the 'Crimean scenario'

Minsk, for its part, in recent years has increased its distance from Moscow in the foreign policy and national security spheres – e.g. through its positions on Ukraine, resisting Russian plans for an airbase in Belarus and repairing relations with the West. No doubt the Belarusian government currently would prefer not to endanger this emerging Belarusian quasi-neutrality by having the Russian army deployed in the country.

Deployment of quite a number of Russian battle units also makes the Belarusian leadership think of Crimea, where such Russian forces in 2014 overwhelmed the Ukrainian army. Belarus already hosts two Russian military technical facilities, but they date back effectively to the times before President Alexander Lukashenka and in any case no real Russian battle troops are garrisoned there, mostly just technicians.

 Lukashenka has resisted the Russian airbase in the past three years

One has to remember how much Lukashenka has resisted the Russian airbase in the past three years – although an airbase would be unlikely to bring about a 'Belarusian Crimea' scenario, it would still bring more Russian soldiers into the country. No doubt Lukashenka would die resisting Moscow's plans to deploy numerous ground forces with Iskanders to Belarus.

Security for Moscow

Last but not least, deployment of Russian Iskanders would mean that Minsk lost some of its significance to Russia as a provider of security for Russia's core region around Moscow. That is probably the most precious service the Belarusian government can offer the Kremlin at the moment.

This service relies on two components: Belarus' geography and the armed forces. While the former remains constant, the latter – especially its air defence component – has to be maintained in order to function as a bargaining chip for the Belarusian government in its dealing with Moscow.

degradation of the national army could have fatal consequences for Belarusian statehood

That is no easy task for a Belarusian government that is short of funds. Yet it realises that degradation of the national army could have fatal consequences for Belarusian statehood. Thus, after being pressured by Moscow to fulfil its obligations with regard to Minsk's participation in the united system of air defence or to accept a Russian airbase, Minsk immediately found the money to overhaul and deploy in 2014-2015 the lacking fighter jets.

The Belarusian government arguably will act in the same way when dealing with Russian insistence on deployment of tactical ballistic missiles to the country. Minsk realises that Moscow probably would not give Belarusians Iskanders and would look for other ways to cope with the situation. Anticipating the situation, last winter it ordered the Belarusian army to train with older tactical missiles systems.

Second, the government can use arms it has received from other sources. Although the Belarus-Chinese Palanez multiple launch rocket system is definitely not equivalent to the Iskander ballistic missile systems, it could be sufficient for more limited missions of the Belarusian army, also with regards to providing security for Russia.

The Belarusian government can capitalise on the new regional security developments which will follow the US missile-defence system by strengthening its position vis-a-vis Moscow. The Kremlin can do little to pressure Lukashenka without risking toppling him and either destabilising the country or driving it into the Western bloc. Thereby, Minsk is becoming involved in a global confrontation with all the gains and risks that involves.

Siarhei Bohdan is an associate analyst at the Ostrogorski Centre.

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