Does the single air defence system bring Belarus closer to Russia?
On 6 April Moscow declared that the agreement on establishment of a Single Air Defence System of Belarus and Russia had been implemented.
That announcement downplayed the contradictory situation around military cooperation between the two countries and the question of Belarus' international balancing.
First, the air defence agreement itself brings little new. It mostly formalises already ongoing cooperation between Russian and Belarusian militaries. Secondly, on 8 April Belarusian Foreign Minister UladzimirMakei confirmed that the issue of a Russian airbase in Belarus was 'closed'.
Last but not least, on 3 April, chief editor of the main media outlet of the Belarusian government Pavel Yakubovich called the visit of a US Defence Department official to Minsk “the event of the week”.
That is, Minsk is continuing its attempts to avoid being squeezed between Russia and its opponents. Hence, it is developing relations with all and is avoiding siding with anybody.
Little new in the new single air defence system
On 6 April, Deputy Commander of the Russian Aerospace Force Pavel Kurachenko announced that the implementation of the 2009 agreement on a single air defence system with Belarus had been completed. Its implementation after seven years of bargaining provides mostly for the continuation of existing arrangements in air defence.
Since 1995 Russia with little success has been trying to reconstruct a semblance of the Soviet air defence system, aimed at including most of the CIS countries in a collective mechanism. By the late 2000s the futility of most CIS-based collective projects in all fields became clear, as adopted decisions simply remained on paper. Moscow moved instead to work with every post-Soviet nation individually.
So the 2009 joint air defence bilateral agreement with Minsk came into being. The Russian media proudly proclaims today the establishment of a 'single system in Eastern European region'. However, only Belarus and Russia are participating in it.
the single system of air defence will function under Belarusian command Read more
What was the point of this agreement, which Moscow has been demanding from Minsk for years? Initially it looked like the new scheme would bring a part of the Belarusian army under Russian command. But Minsk held its ground and the single system of air defence will function under Belarusian command. The Kremlin also failed to establish a Russian airbase in Belarus as part of the single system. Technically, the situation remains very much the same, as the air defence units of the two countries already work together and will continue working together.
The Belarusian and Russian governments have avoided explaining what they will achieve by implementing the agreement. Indeed, the core elements of the single system have already been in place for years. For example, joint standby alert duty arrangements [sovmestnoe boevoe dezhurstvo] have been underway since 1996. The same is true for information exchange, joint training sessions and supplies of equipment.
Formalising relations between two armies
No wonder that in 2009 Russia's official daily Rossiyskaya gazeta commented on the newly signed agreement in a restrained vein: "All these years the skies over our two countries were already guarded by joint efforts. Now the standby alert duty arrangement will gain legal status." Today, facing problems with the West and Eastern European nations, the Kremlin needs to demonstrate some achievements elsewhere. And so it spins the Single system.
That Moscow does not take the Single system seriously follows also from the situation with equipment supplies. Responding to Minsk's stubbornness on military and other matters, Moscow denied Belarus modern fighter jets and granted it only obsolete second-hand S-300P surface-to-air missile systems. Crying crocodile tears, Moscow-based daily Nezavisimaya gazeta lamented, “Still we cannot say that [after implementation of the agreement on the Single system] all tasks with regards to efficient air defence of the Union State [of Belarus and Russia] will be fulfilled.”
Moscow denied Belarus modern fighter jets and granted it only obsolete second-hand S-300P surface-to-air missile systems Read more
Against this backdrop one thing is clear. By further formalising their relations in the air defence field Minsk and Moscow are moving further away from the baseline of Belarus-Russian relations of the 1990s, a situation in which the Belarusian and Russian militaries were effectively one body, like the Soviet army. No clear borders or differences existed, and officers easily switched between the two armies.
As a result, establishment of the Single air defence system is not a step forward in integration but rather the transformation of the last remnants of messy post-Soviet military structures into a clear bilateral intergovernmental mechanism.
Contacts with the US in the military sphere after a decade-long break
The latest developments in Belarus-US relations also indicate that establishment of the Single air defence system does not amount to some radical decision by Minsk to move closer to Russia.
On 28 March the US embassy revealed that last December a delegation from the Belarusian ministry of defence visited Washington. After ten years in which Minsk had no cooperation with the US on military issues, the Belarusian government is looking for an opportunity to resume contact.
It has found some understanding in Washington, and US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence Michael Carpenter visited Minsk on 28-30 March. The Belarusian government went out of its way in welcoming him. Carpenter held meetings with the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
He even met President Alexander Lukashenka – something unusual taking into account his relatively junior position. Carpenter also put forward a proposal to exchange military attaches. Minsk agreed.
Moscow smells treason
Carpenter's visit was greeted by loud condemnation in the Russian media. The chauvinist Regnum news agency asked “Does he wish to tease Russia or is this the early signs of treason?” But even moderate news agency Lenta.ru exclaimed:
The visit of a Pentagon representative to Belarus is only a link in a chain of political games around Belarus and its relations with Russia. […] the Belarusian leadership is already on the verge of losing control over the situation. The Belarusian Foreign Ministry and President had gone too far and that is also evident from the fact that Minsk kindly embraced Carpenter effectively by spitting on Moscow.
On 8 April, Belarusian Foreign minister Makei responded to this criticism, pointing out that Minsk simply wants to have a normal dialogue with the West and, for example, to discuss with the EU and NATO their military activities on the western borders of Belarus.
Minsk is doing everything possible to avoid being squeezed between the increasing military activities of both NATO and Russia. In these circumstances its attempts to find a new channel of communication with the West, particularly in the security sphere, reflects survival logic.
At the same time, the Belarusian government realises the risks of ignoring the security needs of Russia which the Kremlin perceives as vital, such as the air defence of Moscow. Minsk provides for these needs, yet defends concurrently its own sovereignty, interests and neutrality as far as possible.
Upgrading Relations with Europe, Winning in an Embassy Row – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest
In recent weeks, Belarus managed to noticeably upgrade the level of its relations with EU countries. However, the ministerial-level meetings have been limited to Belarus’ long-time sympathisers in Europe (Hungary and Slovenia) as well as its closest neighbours (Poland).
The relations with the United States have maintained their positive dynamics but remained at the expert level. The embassy row with Israel has ended with a victory of Belarusian diplomats.
Visiting “friend Szijjártó”
On 16–17 March, Belarus' foreign minister Vladimir Makei paid an official visit to Hungary. The Belarusian foreign ministry made no prior announcement of the visit. It released its first communiqué when Makei almost exhausted his agenda in Budapest.
Makei had talks with his Hungarian counterpart, Péter Szijjártó, and met high government and parliamentary officials as well as potential investors.
Belarus and Hungary focused on the ways to develop economic cooperation, with priority attention given to agriculture and food processing, mechanical engineering, pharmaceuticals, construction, telecommunications and tourism.
Belarus seeks to play the card of Hungary’s independent position towards Brussels on several policy issues, including the EU’s relations with Belarus and Russia.
Makei: "Any state's task... is to find legal ways of circumventing sanctions" Read more
Makei and Hungarian politicians favour pragmatism and prioritise economic interests over human rights and democracy considerations. In his interview to a conservative Hungarian daily, the Belarusian minister advocated search for “legal ways of circumventing sanctions”, referring to the EU and Russia's reciprocal embargoes.
Today's atmosphere of bilateral relations is prone to higher-level contacts between Belarus and Hungary. One should not exclude a possibility of a meeting between Alexander Lukashenka and Viktor Orbán in 2016.
Exploring new investment projects with Slovenia
On 25 March, Slovenia’s foreign minister Karl Erjavec visited Belarus accompanied by representatives of eleven Slovenian companies in a bid to strengthen bilateral relations and look for new economic opportunities.
The Slovenian politician met his Belarusian counterpart and was received by President Alexander Lukashenka. The identified priorities in economic cooperation match those in relations between Belarus and Hungary, with addition of power industry.
Erjavec attended the opening of the transformer station in Minsk build by Slovenia’s civil engineering giant, Riko Group. In presence of the two countries’ foreign ministers, Riko Group signed new cooperation agreements with local energy agencies.
In February 2012, Slovenia vetoed the introduction of the EU’s sanctions against Yury Chyzh, a Belarusian oligarch who was then closely linked with Alexander Lukashenka (but recently detained). At that time, Riko Group was implementing a large construction project in Belarus with one of Chyzh’s companies.
Alexander Lukashenka did not fail to thank the Slovenian diplomat for the “position, which Slovenia [had] taken in recent years on Belarus, in particular, when discussing problems with the EU”.
Discussing “most sensitive issues” with Poland
In between his encounters with the regime’s probably strongest allies in the EU, on 22-23 March, Vladimir Makei welcomed in Minsk Poland’s foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski. President Alexander Lukashenka also received the Polish official.
While trade and investment relations have kept their traditionally important place in the bilateral dialogue, the parties discussed other issues extensively.
Belarus and Poland seek to further reinforce their shared border and agreed to seek financing from the EU funds while the security of the EU’s external borders remained a hot topic in European capitals.
Lukashenka thanked Poland for seeing Belarus as a sovereign and independent country Read more
Poland would like to see progress in the treatment of Polish minority in Belarus. The Polish government also worries about the situation of the Catholic Church in Belarus, especially regarding the status of Polish clergy in the country.
Alexander Lukashenka reassured Waszczykowski about his intention to guarantee equal rights of all ethnic groups and creeds in the country. Vladimir Makei also mentioned the two countries’ “willingness to seek mutually beneficial solutions to absolutely all issues, including the most sensitive ones”.
However, one should not expect a quick progress on the matters involving human rights and democratic freedoms in Belarus. The Belarusian authorities manage very well to use these issues as a bargaining tool in a prolonged diplomatic game.
Honouring a US expert
On 28-30 March, Michael Carpenter, US deputy assistant secretary of defence, visited Minsk to meet Alexander Lukashenka, Vladimir Makei and Belarus’ defence minister Andrei Ravkov.
Carpenter is a top expert of the US department of defence for the ex-USSR. However, his strictly mid-level position in a bureaucratic hierarchy would preclude his direct talks with top government officials in most other countries. However, lately Lukashenka chooses to disregard such subtleties.
The US expert focused on bilateral relations with Belarus in the security and defence areas as well as on the situation in neighbouring Ukraine. Lukashenka used this opportunity to reiterate his earlier calls for a greater US involvement in the resolution of the crisis around Ukraine.
In dissonance with Russian politicians, the Belarusian president admitted that he was not inclined to demonise NATO’s expansion eastward and to think that NATO was going to wage a war against Russia or Belarus.
The Belarusian leader also chose to talk with the security expert about expanding economic ties between Belarus and the United States.
Ending embassy row with Israel
Belarus and Israel are close to a full resolution of the recent embassy row. The situation in bilateral relations quickly deteriorated in early January when Israel announced the imminent closure of its embassy in Minsk. Belarus immediately retaliated by announcing the symmetrical withdrawal of its mission in Tel Aviv.
Within a few weeks, influential Israeli politicians began sending repeated signals that their government’s decision would most likely be revoked. However, the Belarusian foreign ministry refused to suspend measures directed at phasing out its diplomatic presence in Israel. Several diplomats returned to Minsk. The embassy suspended some consular services.
Even the publication of the decision to maintain the embassy on the Israeli government's web site failed to satisfy Belarusian diplomats.
Only after having received a formal notification from Israel’s foreign ministry in late March, the Belarusian foreign ministry admitted that it got formal grounds for reconsidering the issue of Belarus’ diplomatic presence in Tel Aviv.
Belarusian diplomacy has scored another victory in already the second embassy row with Israel. This time, a more resolute retaliation led to a much quicker restoration of status quo.