Is Russia About to Send New Weapons to Belarus?
Last week, Belarusian Defence Minister Andrei Raukou told TASS news agency that the political talks on when and where to place a Russian airbase in Belarus were still continuing. Moreover, “it is too early to discuss when [Russia's] aircraft and helicopters come to Belarus.”
In this difficult time, Minsk struggles to find a middle ground in confrontation between Russia, Ukraine and the West. Minsk pursues a policy of balancing for some years already. It looks to avoid choosing only between Russia and the West. Facing Putin's refusal to help modernise Belarusian army, three years ago Belarus launched unprecedented military cooperation projects with China.
Still Nothing Decided?
The statement by Raukou means that one more time, Belarusian officials commented on possible Russia's base as something still to be negotiated. They essentially dismiss the statement of the Chief Commander of Russia's Air Force Viktor Bondarev who announced last October establishment of a Russia's airbase in Eastern Belarusian city of Babruysk in 2016.
Minsk has a lot of reasons to keep distance from the issue. It primarily wishes to stay as much as possible neutral in current confrontation between Russia and NATO. This confrontation makes both sides deploy ever more military units and equipment in the region around Belarus. For instance, the US and Lithuanian governments agreed on 17 June to station US forces and weapons in Lithuania.
Minsk could have reconciled with this major change in regional security situation, as it has more vital concerns to worry about. Moscow, however, considers the US arrival to the region as crossing a red line by deploying military equipment – although without personnel – in the former Soviet Union.
So far Russia limited to rhetoric its response to this US decision as far as Belarus is concerned. Moscow is expected to deliver four batteries of S-300 surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems to Belarus by the end of this year. While undoubtedly important, this delivery of the systems decommissioned from the Russian army solely helps Minsk replace its older SAM systems and was scheduled years ago.
Last week, Russian Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily wrote about possible supply of Iskander short-range ballistic missile systems to Belarusian army. This offensive system should replace its Soviet-time predecessors and strengthen Belarusian army's capabilities. As early as in 2007, Minsk announced its plans to get Iskanders “within the framework of the Belarusian state military equipment program implementation through 2015”.
Yet Minsk feels that Kremlin is not willing to transfer Iskanders. Lukashenka on 16 June complained, “Our ally, Russia, is not so active in support of our aspirations. This is what we will talk about separately with the President of Russia. But we are grateful to the People's Republic of China and its leadership for their support.”
Moscow refused to give Minsk newer aircraft preferring to give them to African countries with disastrous credit history Read more
By that he meant Palanez multiple rocket launcher – a new Belarusian defence product which underwent recently trials in China. In May, the military parade in Minsk featured this first major weapons system produced in independent Belarus. Military analyst Alyaksandr Alesin immediately wrote about possible Chinese involvement into designing of Palanez.
On 23 June, the Jane's Defence Weekly confirmed this guess. It reported quoting a Chinese source that in 2012 China and Belarus signed an agreement to develop a new SAM system. In 2013, the two countries decided to create the new multiple rocket launcher system.
It is a very illustrative move. Kremlin demonstrates ever less willingness to pay the military bill of its Belarusian ally. Moscow refused to give Minsk newer aircraft preferring to give them to African countries with disastrous credit history. Apparently, in recent years Minsk got air defence equipment only after it accepted Russian air base deployment in Belarus. Facing the same problem with getting surface-to-surface rocket systems from Russia, Lukashenka simply looked for help somewhere else – in China.
No wonder, the government in Minsk for many years courts China hoping to avoid in its foreign policy choice between Russia and the West by opting for cooperation with Chinese global might.
Not to Be Dragged into War
Trying to escape the current Russia's quarrel with the West, Belarusian Defence Minister Raukou on 16 June emphasised, “The interaction of our country with NATO is stable, has a practical orientation, corresponds to our national interest and does not affect the interests of our allied relations with Russia.”
Minsk also organised a minor military exercise in Southern Belarus bordering on Ukraine. The exercise launched last week could have easily provoked Kyiv. After all, it involved border guards, territorial defence and special operations forces. Belarusian officials openly express their concern over the instability in Ukraine and some days ago Chairman of Belarus' Customs Committee Yury Sian'ko complained about illegal weapons coming from Ukraine.
Furthermore, Belarus recently established one more unit of guards on the border with Ukraine and rapidly constructed sophisticated border installations where never in history was one. The latest exercises were just one more step in this direction. However, to assure Kyiv even in these circumstances Minsk invited to participate in these drills not Russian but Chinese special forces.
Belarusian Foreign Policy: Controversial Yet Consistent
Belarusian government has little space to manoeuvre Read more
Belarus balancing between its largest neighbours is far less chaotic than it seems at the first glance. Minsk not only avoided to support Russia on Crimea but as recently as in April Lukashenka again acknowledged Abkhazia a part of Georgia. Minsk consistently strives to work with new government in Kyiv and has supplied Ukraine with many vital materials in its war effort. Concurrently, Minsk managed to put on hold the issue of Russian air base and cooperated with China in sensitive military area.
Given the Russia's leverage over Belarus economy and society on the one hand, and strenuous relations between Belarus and the West, Belarusian government has little space to manoeuvre. It cannot ignore Belarus' location next door to the centre of Russia and Belarus' tightly interconnectedness with post-Soviet space. The consequences of failure to balance between Russia and the West will be disastrous – destabilisation and even loss of national independence.
Isolation of the country in the West, Ukraine's or Western attempts to make Belarus take a more clear position on Russia's policy in the region will render Belarus extremely vulnerable before Putin's pressure. Despite all efforts of Minsk, China cannot really substitute the Western countries as an alternative to Russia anytime soon.
Belarus and the United States: Stepping Stones to Nowhere
On June 10, US President Barack Obama extended sanctions against Belarusian leaders for one more year. Responding to the news, press secretary of the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Dzmitry Mironchyk observed a “clear improvement” in Belarus-US relations in recent years. In his view the decision is result of the sluggish US bureaucracy and lack of sensitivity to events in the region.
Recently there has been much conjecture about changes in the foreign policy of Belarus. It took part in the Eastern Partnership summit at Riga (21-22 May) and there have been some low level discussions between US and Belarusian personnel.
But there is little sign of any serious breakthrough in the longstanding American-Belarusian impasse. It culminated with the virtual emptying of the respective embassies in 2008 when US Ambassador Karen Stewart was asked to leave Belarus or risk being declared persona non grata. The US Embassy’s position is that that the overall relationship is “anything but smooth.”
The logic of the converse argument is that given the crisis in Ukraine it no longer makes sense to treat Belarus as an international pariah. As Belarusian president Aliaksandr Lukashenka put it, he is no longer "the last dictator in Europe". Moreover, he has presided over two summits in Minsk attended by the French and German leaders in what have thus far been failed efforts to stop the fighting in Ukraine.
Analyst Grigory Ioffe in Eurasian Daily Monitor refers to the recent initiatives from Minsk as a “diplomatic offensive”. He notes that Lukashenka has made three public appeals for the United States to take part in the negotiations over Ukraine. The last at the Victory Day parade in Minsk on May 9, which was followed, but not necessarily linked with US Secretary of State John Kerry’s surprising visit to Russia.
If Lukashenka is hoping to improve relations with the United States, however, thus far the results have been notably meager. A meeting on human rights took place in Washington, DC on May 14 involving two officials from the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Yuri Ambrazevich, Director-General for Multilateral Diplomacy and Aleh Krauchenka, Director for the Americas.
But the meeting was relatively low level, and attended on the US side by a deputy assistant administrator for USAID, Jonathan Katz, and Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary Eric Rubin. Conversations focused on the forthcoming presidential elections, shared OSCE commitments to free assembly and association, and political prisoners in Belarus.
the US Congressman from New Mexico visited Minsk and spoke before a basketball game between former players in the NBA and the Belarusian team Read more
On 27 May, in an interview with The Washington Post, Belarusian Minister of Foreign Affairs Uladzimir Makei refused to rule out the possibility that the two countries might reappoint ambassadors. He talked about the need first for “small steps” and foresaw a very gradual progression to the level of ambassadors. In other words the two sides are at the bottom of a high staircase with no immediate prospects of ascending it.
On 28 May, the US Congressman from New Mexico Steve Pearce visited Minsk and spoke to a press conference before a basketball game between former players in the NBA and the Belarusian team. Pearce praised Belarus for its mediation in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia, and emphasised its “incredibly important position” between East and West. Yet one can hardly consider this visit as evidence of restored relations.
Foreign Policy Priorities
Even the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ official priorities list the United States in fifth place after Russia, the CIS, the European Union, and “countries of the South,” noting only that Belarus stands for a “constructive and equal dialogue” and “full-scale bilateral cooperation” that includes cooperation in the fight against drug trafficking.
More recently, Belarusian foreign policy priorities have been reiterated. On 7-8 June, Makei met with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, in an encounter that elaborated the deep ties between the two countries and appeared to push Belarus decisively in the Russian direction. The two ministers noted, for example that the strategic partnership between the two neighbours had to be strengthened “in the face of common challenges.” They talked about deepening integration in the Eurasian Economic Union and bilateral cooperation between the two foreign ministries.
Perhaps most notable was an agreement to coordinate their foreign policies in 2016 and 2017 within the framework of the Russia-Belarus Union. This entity that has been largely dormant throughout most of its existence but will move into focus of the forthcoming session of the two foreign ministries in October. Coordinating foreign policies appears to undermine fundamentally the new image of Belarus as a mediator. It exposes Lukashenka’s limited freedom of maneuver within the “Russkiy Mir.”
Belarus needs to be wary not only of Russian military threats. It has also become even more dependent on Russian largesse because of a currency collapse of over one third against the US dollar over the past eighteen months, along with the loss of once valuable oil revenues.
the United States, concerned with abuses of human rights and the continuing detention of political prisoners, has little motivation to move closer to the Minsk regime Read more
As cited by Michael Birnbaum in The Washington Post on May 25, Makei declared that: “Let’s be sincere. Europe cannot replace Russia for us, at least not today.” The statement encapsulates Belarus’ current position. It also explains why there are no short or intermediate term prospects for rapprochement with the United States.
In turn the United States, concerned with abuses of human rights and the continuing detention of political prisoners, has little motivation to move closer to the Minsk regime. There are no major trading links and unlike in Ukraine, there is no significant opposition that is promoting a movement westward.
Lukashenka has helped with Ukraine, but thus far his intervention hardly offsets past transgressions (in US eyes) and moreover, it has hardly been decisive. A Minsk-3 might change opinions but few in Washington would be convinced that it would achieve much.
Ultimately, Moscow is demanding that the leadership in Minsk makes its position clear. It appears to be complying, however reluctantly.
David is a Distinguished University Professor at the University of Alberta in Canada.