Belarus' parliament approved an agreement May 26 authorizing the country's participation in the Collective Rapid Response Force (CRRF) of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) after refusing to ratify the pact for more than a year. Though Belarus and Russia have made agreements on integrating their militaries further under the auspices of the Union State
, little has been done since the fall of the Soviet Union. Now, despite Minsk and Moscow's tumultuous relationship
, this agreement authorizes Russian boots on the ground inside Belarus — and thus one step closer to Europe. The CSTO is a Russian-led military alliance consisting of many former Soviet states — Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan — meant to replace the Warsaw Pact as Moscow's security bulwark. The alliance traditionally has been unorganized and only sporadically militarily coordinated. At best, the CSTO members' interoperability has come from their shared Soviet heritage. Mainly, Moscow has used the CSTO to make political points. But in 2007, Russia began shifting its focus to using the CSTO as a means of increasing Russia's influence in its former Soviet states
, transforming the ad hoc military organization into a more defined military bloc. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev announced in February 2009 that the CSTO would create a rapid reaction force
that would be "just as good as comparable NATO forces." The CSTO rapid reaction force would consist of approximately 16,000-21,000 troops — much more than the current CSTO forces of about 3,500. The areas of focus for this new force would be along the Central Asian states' borders with Afghanistan, in Armenia along the Azerbaijani and Georgian borders, and in the so-called Russia-Belarus zone. But when the time came for the CSTO members to ratify their commitments to the new rapid reaction forces in mid-2009, Belarus refused in order to use the CRRF ratification as leverage against Russia in a trade dispute. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Moscow and Minsk have had a relationship marked by continuous bickering. Though the two countries have a weak alliance under the Union State and could integrate further under a newly formed customs union, Russia and Belarus are frequently at odds. No previous agreements or alliances between the two allowed for the formal return of Russian troops to Belarus; the CSTO rapid reaction agreement does. With this agreement, Russia has used the CSTO aegis to move its troops further into former Soviet states — and with some alacrity. In the year since the CRRF pact's ratification by most CSTO members, Russia has broken ground on or opened four new military bases
for Russian troops in Armenia, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan (two of those bases are in Kyrgyzstan). Russia now has the legal framework to do the same in Belarus. This means that Russia could at any time — and fairly quickly — move its troops back into Belarus or open a base there just like in the other states. This complicates things for Minsk, which has been reluctant to actually agree on integration with Russia. It is one thing for Belarus to bicker with Russia when there are not Russian troops on its soil, but Minsk's — especially temperamental President Aleksandr Lukashenko's — room for maneuvering will be greatly tightened when that changes. The timing of Belarus' submission to the Russian-led military bloc is perhaps more than coincidental. Moscow has a vested interest — especially after recent developments — in reaching further into Europe. Belarus sits between Russia and the not-so-Russia-friendly Poland
. Earlier this week, Poland finally received the long-awaited Patriot missile system
from the United States, which will also see the formal stationing of U.S. troops on Polish soil. This not only gave Poland a sophisticated air defense system but also pushed the line of U.S. military stationing from Germany to Poland — closer to Russia. Now it seems that Russia is responding to the United States' move with its own westward push.