Russia Reviews Military Doctrine: Can Belarus Remain a Buffer State?
On 2 September, Russia vowed to revise and update its national Military Doctrine by the end of 2014. The decision was a direct reaction to NATO’s plans for deploying a rapid-reaction force in Eastern Europe, a move to be finalised at the summit in Wales this week.
In a speech in Tallinn on 3 September U.S. President Barack Obama announced plans for additional U.S. Air Force units to be based in Estonia.
NATO's increased presence in Eastern Europe may inject new energy into Russia-Belarus military cooperation. Pivotal for defending Russia's western borders in the event of conflict, Belarus could soon turn from a buffer state into the Russian military's most forward post.
For nearly two decades, Belarus has successfully balanced Russian interests against the West's. While closer military cooperation could strengthen Minsk’s bargaining position with Moscow in the short run, it could eventually undermine Belarus’ multi-vector balancing strategy and restrict its freedom to act alone.
Friends and Foes According to Russian Military Doctrine
The revisions to the Russian doctrine would reflect “changing military dangers and military threats,” according to Mikhail Popov, senior official at Russia’s Security Council. In a recent interview with the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti, Popov called NATO’s expansion “one of the leading military dangers for the Russian Federation.” Indeed, all of Russia’s military doctrines – passed in 1993, 2000, and 2010 – recognised NATO as a threat.
Yet the priority accorded to NATO as an enemy has increased over time. While the 1993 and the 2000 doctrines mentioned “the expansion of military blocs and alliances to the detriment of the interests of Russian Federation” among external dangers, they did not name NATO explicitly.
In contrast, the 2010 document moved the threat of NATO to the top of the list of external threats. It explicitly mentioned NATO’s goal “to arrogate to itself the assumption of global functions in violation of international law, and to expand the military infrastructure of NATO nations to Russia’s borders including through expansion of the bloc.”
The 2014 revisions could also amplify the importance of the Russia-Belarus military alliance. This indeed has happened with each subsequent edition of the Russian doctrine. The 1993 doctrine did not contain any references to Belarus or other CIS states. The 2000 document briefly acknowledged that countries in the region implement a common defence policy.
The 2010 doctrine, on the other hand, contains an explicit commitment to respond to an armed attack against the Union State of Belarus and Russia.
It lists the development of the armed forces and the maintenance of the defence capabilities of the Union State as top priorities for Moscow.
It also contains an additional clause regarding military cooperation within CSTO, which applies to Belarus and the four other CSTO members (Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan).
Were NATO to increase its presence in the Eastern European states along Belarus’ border, Belarus’ role in Russia’s military planning would quickly grow in importance.
Belarus’ Role in Russia’s Security
To date, Belarus has fulfilled primarily a symbolic role in Russia’s security. Its armed forces have remained small and military capabilities limited. Belarus’s defence budget (about $ 745 million) is more than 100 times less than Russia’s. In 2013, Belarus proved incapable of protecting the union-state airspace as it failed to register an amateur plane entering Belarus from Lithuania to distribute 800 teddy bears with human rights messages.
The military alliance may gain ground in its actual substance, however, as Russia-NATO tensions intensify. Russia may need Belarus to defend its Western borders. Belarusian territory is particularly useful for stationing Russian military posts and missile divisions, including the S-300 and S-400 anti-aircraft systems.
Russia has mulled the idea of establishing its first military airbase in Belarus. It would be located at Lida, close to the Lithuanian (35 km) and Polish (130 km) borders. So far, the terms of the base agreement remain up in the air. But the ongoing crisis in Ukraine could hasten the process of securing the base on Belarus' border with the EU. If so, Belarus could extract concessions in return for Russia's right to maintain a base on its territory.
An airbase in Lida would be Russia’s third military installation in Belarus. Moscow already operates an early-warning radar system near Baranavichy and a radio-electronic centre near Vileyka, which can be used for communications spying against NATO.
Russia’s Role in Belarus’ Military Planning
Since gaining independence from the Soviet Union, Belarus has published only two military doctrines. The 1992 doctrine, passed under the leadership of Stanislau Shushkevich, emphasised the nation's neutrality and envisioned the creation of a "nuclear-free belt" from the Baltic to the Black Sea.
Neutrality was absent from the 2002 doctrine, which prioritised the formation of “a single defence space with the Russian Federation.” Among the threats mentioned in the doctrine is the “enlargement of military blocs and alliances at the expense of military security of the Republic of Belarus and the counteraction of collective security systems pertaining to the Republic of Belarus.” This exact threat is also mentioned in the corresponding Russian doctrine.
Russia and Belarus have concluded over 30 binding cooperation agreements in the military-technical field, including the Treaty on Military Cooperation, the Agreement on Joint Efforts to Provide Security in the Battlefield, the Concept of Belarus-Russia Joint Defence Policies, the Concept of Security of the Belarus-Russia Union, and the Military Doctrine of the Union State.
Unsurprisingly, Belarus’ perception of security threats in the region has increasingly reflected those of Russia.
The End of the Buffer State?
Lukashenka has succeeded in extracting significant economic benefits by arguing that Russia’s military security depends on Minsk’s economic wellbeing. Even as the President has been careful not to side with Russia as the conflict in Ukraine has unfolded, he has continued to emphasise that, as Russia’s military ally, Belarus would have to react to an increase in NATO’s military capabilities on its borders.
On 3 September, Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin twitted a veiled threat, "The Government of Ukraine approved the abolition of the country's non-block status. NATO is now screwed [Rus. 'Hana teper' NATO']."
Should Russia-NATO tensions continue to escalate, Belarus' buffer zone status would erode and its territory would be at Russia’s disposal.
The old, long-standing rumours that Russia may deploy Iskander missiles in Belarus could become reality if NATO establishes a greater presence on Russian borders following the summit in Wales on 3-4 September.
If the need should arise, Russia could also take direct control over components of Belarus' national defence system, as it has always sought to do.
Even if the Russia-NATO tensions are defused, Belarus’ dependence on the Russian economy and its membership in the Eurasian Economic Union leave it exposed to Western sanctions.
Talks with Neighbours and the EU, Ties with Iraq – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest
The gathering on the Ukrainian crisis meditated by Belarus and held on 26 August in Minsk became one of the most important recent global events.
The Belarusian government tried to make maximum use of this opportunity to promote its own national interests in its relations with the EU and its other neighbours.
Lukashenka Talks with Neighbours, EU Officials
The key foreign policy event for Belarus in August was the Minsk meeting of the Eurasian "troika", the Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko and three top EU commissioners. Belarus Digest covered the background and political ramifications of this meeting for Belarus in a separate story.
It is telling that although Alexander Lukashenka and Vladimir Putin held no bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Minsk summit, the Belarusian president held bilateral meetings with all other parties in attendance.
His meeting with Catherine Ashton was more an issue of protocol than anything else, without any joint statement or even a mention of the bilateral discussion. Still, any dialogue at such a high level seemed impossible only a few weeks ago.
Time will tell whether this meeting helped the parties to start building the trust they need to design and implement a package of reciprocal steps to normalise their relations. However, Lukashenka's appreciation of the EU's role in the peace process in Ukraine, expressed during a phone call with his Serbian counterpart on 1 September and made public by his press service, looks like a positive sign.
Lukashenka and Poroshenko discussed several bilateral issues besides the Ukrainian crisis, including strengthening of mutual trade and economic relations, especially in the energy arena, and the official demarcation of Belarus-Ukraine border. However, Lukashenka's press service chose to keep quiet about these bilateral discussions. They focused solely on the crisis in Ukraine and potential implications of the country's association agreement with the EU for its neighbours.
Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev chose to stay in Minsk overnight after the Minsk meeting to continue his discussions with Alexander Lukashenka. The two leaders may have found common ground with regard to their status in the Eurasian Union. However, unlike Nazarbayev, Lukashenka now prefers to refrain from any public statements criticising the EaEU.
Warsaw and Minsk Discuss Ukraine
Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei paid a working visit to Poland on 28-29 August. In Warsaw, he met with his Polish counterpart Radosław Sikorski and Janusz Piechociński, Polish Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economy.
The talks focused on the situation in and around Ukraine. Vladimir Makei shared his assessment of the Minsk meeting. Radosław Sikorski said that the fact that Russia and Ukraine were Belarus and Poland's immediate neighbours was "the cause of their great concern about what was happening between these two countries."
Poland certainly values Belarus as an important source of insider information about Russia's intentions towards Ukraine. The Polish government also appreciates the measured position the Belarusian authorities have taken in the Ukraine crisis from its very inception.
Polish PM Donald Tusk already called Lukashenka in April to discuss this issue. This move surprised many of those who are aware of Lukashenka's pariah status in the West. National security considerations seem to have overweighed the reluctance of dealing with Lukashenka's regime. Sikorski's invitation to Makei to visit Warsaw is a continuation of this policy line.
No Breakthrough in Polish-Belarusian Relations – Yet
The foreign ministers also discussed bilateral relations. Radosław Sikorski expressed Poland's satisfaction with the progress achieved during the bilateral talks. Indeed, the two countries have recently established contacts on the level of deputy ministers on a monthly basis. The dialogue has focused predominately on trade, visa issues, trans-border and cultural cooperation.
At the press briefing after their meeting on 28 August, Sikorski mentioned some conversations on consular matters, the forthcoming signing of an agreement in the field of education as well as increased historical dialogue among positive examples of cooperation. The Polish minister spoke in favour of upgrading the existing legal framework of bilateral relations as "some agreements dated back to Soviet times". He also rejoiced in Makei's meeting with the minister of economy, seeing it as another positive step forward.
Vladimir Makei refrained from highlighting any specific areas of bilateral cooperation during his press briefing. He announced that the parties had agreed on "holding a separate meeting on bilateral relations in the future". However, according to Makei, "this meeting requires thorough preparations".
Translated from diplomatic language, this means that such a meeting is unlikely to happen any time soon. Any breakthrough in bilateral relations will come only after Belarus takes serious steps to calm the West's concerns about political freedoms and the human rights situation in the country.
Belarus Successfully Restores Its Relationship with Iraq
Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei made an official visit to Iraq on 23 and 24 August. This was the highest-level Belarusian delegation to visit this country in the post-Saddam era.
The overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime by the US and allied military forces in 2003 dealt a crushing blow to relations between Belarus and Iraq. Lukashenka's regime was then one of the staunchest supporters of Hussein in the world. It used this status mostly to promote its economic interests. Some allegations were also made about military cooperation between the two regimes.
The new Iraqi authorities had little appreciation for this old friendship and relations between the two nations practically froze. Belarus closed down its diplomatic mission in Baghdad, and Iraq reopened its embassy in Minsk only three years ago.
However, this difficult period seems to be over. Vladimir Makei met with several of the most important top-ranking Iraqi officials during his trip to Baghdad. This list of officials included the president, the current and future prime ministers, parliament's speaker, and foreign and oil ministers. Iraq's President Muhammad Fuad Masum interpreted Makei's visit as a sign of support to the Iraqi authorities in their ongoing fight against extremism.
During its visit, Belarus' top diplomat predictably emphasised its trade and investment interests. Belarus seeks to enter Iraq's lucrative oil market with its equipment. Two countries signed an agreement on mutual protection for investments. They also confirmed plans to organise another meeting of the bilateral commission on trade and economic cooperation and a visit of Iraqi businessmen to Belarus.
Minsk now seems to be ready to stage a comeback in Iraq. Yet much depends on whether Belarusian business will be able to deal with Iraq's omnipresent corruption.