Will Minsk revive the “post-Soviet NATO” at the behest of the Kremlin?
On 14 October, Belarus became the chair of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). Taking over the chairmanship, Alexander Lukashenka stated that the CSTO needs to become “serious” in order to force the West to finally recognise the Russian-dominated organisation.
On the surface, Lukashenka promises to help bring about Moscow's dream of making the CSTO “a post-Soviet NATO.” This militant rhetoric seems to confirm the opinion of Lithuanian foreign minister Linas Linkevičius that Belarus functions as "one whole” with Russia.
The facts of Belarusian membership to the CSTO, however, point to a different reality. The CSTO never mattered very much to Minsk, and probably matters even less now. Unfortunately, the Belarusian government has trouble convincing its neighbours that it is not playing Putin's game.
Lukashenka and the CSTO
At the recent CSTO summit in Yerevan, Lukashenka criticised the CSTO for its passivity, and demanded more ambitious plans. Not a single one of his counterparts supported this line however, giving the impression of a one man show.
This was not the first time Lukashenka lashed out at the CSTO. For instance, in an April 2015 meeting he insisted to the CSTO Secretary General Nikolai Bordyuzha that the Organisation “should not become another phantom.” In May 2013, Lukashenka refused to attend an informal CSTO summit in Bishkek.
Despite this criticism, the Belarusian government has done little to strengthen the CSTO. For instance, this year Minsk renewed its prohibition on deployment of Belarusian troops abroad in its national military doctrine.
Minsk preferred the CSTO as it was before 2009, i.e., a political project without military obligations. In 2009, it established the Collective Rapid Deployment Forces. These have never been deployed – despite the existence of certain situations in which they could hypothetically have been. In 2011, the Belarusian leader proposed using the CSTO Collective forces to quell “Arab spring” style uprisings in post-Soviet nations. Nothing came of it.
After a couple of years, Minsk began to fear Moscow, with its concept of Russkiy Mir (the Russian World: where Moscow insists on its right to maintain its interests), no less than Western-backed colour revolutions. And although Lukashenka speaks of strengthening the CSTO, Minsk now has few reasons to really want this.
Two reasons for Minsk not to strengthen the CSTO
At present, the CSTO effectively plays two roles. Belarus is not happy with either of them. Firstly, it facilitates links between post-Soviet countries and guarantees favourable conditions in purchasing weapons from Russia.
Yet most relations between post-Soviet nations already develop on a bilateral basis. As a result, Belarus boasts more military cooperation with certain non-CSTO members (like Azerbaijan or Ukraine) than with some of its CSTO partners.
Moreover, Russian arms supplies have proven scarce and linked with undesirable conditions from Russia. Thus, Minsk had to wrangle significantly to obtain Tor-M2 surface-to-air missile systems, as Moscow was apparently trying to make their delivery contingent upon Belarus agreeing to host a Russian air base.
The second role of the CSTO concerns Moscow's use of the organisation to make some of its unilateral operations seem multilateral, and thus less intrusive. For instance, the Russian base in Kyrgyzstan is formally linked to the CSTO.
Had Belarus not refused to host the Russian air base last year, the Kremlin might have tried similar tactics on Minsk: making its unilateral project “quasi-multilateral" . Experts hinted at this probability after the Kremlin's plan for a Russian base in Belarus failed. Alyaksandr Shpakouski, a political analyst known for his access to Belarusian government sources, then claimed that if Moscow and Minsk were to return to the idea of the Russian air base, it would no longer be a “Russian airbase” but rather some other arrangement – such as a base linked to the Union State of Belarus and Russia.
The Kremlin could easily make use of the proven method of putting a military facility under the auspices of the CSTO. This is one more reason for the Belarusian government to keep the organisation at arm's length, lest Moscow take advantage of it to insert its troops inside the country.
Few have noticed Minsk's independent policy...
Politicians and the media frequently cite Belarusian membership in the CSTO, along with similar arrangements with Russia, as evidence that the emerging Belarusian neutrality is nothing more than an illusion. In recent months, several government officials in neighbouring countries repeatedly dismissed Minsk's attempts to not take sides.
For example, Lithuanian foreign minister Linkevičius, speaking at NATO's Warsaw summit on 8 July, insisted that “Belarus should be perceived as one whole with Russia. Belarus has made its own decisions on several isolated issues, yet our perception has not changed.”
On 19 August, Commander of the Ukrainian Navy Ihor Voronchenko issued a gloomy warning to the Belarusian government. According to him, “Everything is clear with Belarus. Lukashenka tries to satisfy all sides. But such games end badly. If he allows Russian [to enter Ukraine] via Belarus, he will pay dearly.” He further implied that Belarus cooperates with Russia in its attempt to surround Ukraine.
Given the efforts Belarusian officials have undertaken to emphasise the country's refusal to support the Kremlin's policies on Ukraine, this means Minsk has achieved little in persuading its neighbours of its independent foreign policy.
… except Moscow
The Belarusian government keeps trying. Its officials – ranging from the president to deputy foreign ministers and ambassadors - incessantly reiterate that they do not consider the additional NATO troops deployed in the region a threat to Belarus.
They are also seeking more channels to get their message through. On 20 September Belarusian foreign minister Uladzimir Makei met with the US deputy assistant secretary of defence Michael Carpenter. The Foreign Ministry reported that they discussed the facilitation of “direct dialogue between military agencies of the two countries.”
On 11-13 October Minsk hosted Ukrainian inspectors, who visited one of the most combat-ready units of the Belarusian army, the 38th Air Assault Brigade, on the Ukrainian border in Brest. The inspectors also verified an unspecified region of Belarus and confirmed the absence of un-notified military activities.
Unlike certain NATO countries and Ukraine, Russia does notice such gestures and reacts accordingly. The Moscow-based daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta wrote about the direct link between the recent dispute between Minsk and Moscow over natural gas payments and Moscow's statement that “Belarusian leadership has stopped calling NATO a monster to intimidate the local population.”
To sum up, the moribund CSTO, like similar organisations, provides Minsk with an opportunity to demonstrate that it cares about Russian sensitivities without making much sacrifice. However, these manoeuvres do cause some Western and neighbouring countries to dismiss the autonomy of Belarus's foreign policy. In doing so, they miss the substance of Belarusian policy by paying too much attention to loud words.