THE BELARUSIAN PARLIAMENT
ratified an agreement on Wednesday that calls for the country to participate in the Collective Rapid Response Force (CRRF) of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Moscow-dominated security bloc that consists of Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Belarusian Defense Minister Yuri Zhadobin followed this by saying the country would contribute more than 2,000 military personnel to the CRRF, including conventional military units, counterterrorism officers and a contingent from the intelligence services. While 2,000 elite troops dedicated to Belarus' participation in the CRRF is significant, we at STRATFOR are less interested in Minsk's contributions than we are in those of Moscow. What the Belarusian ratification
means is that Russia can now legally station its own troops, under the guise of the CSTO, on Belarusian territory. Even more significant is what the move says about Moscow's strategic position: Russia has evolved over the past 20 years from a collapsed and crippled former superpower to a country that is swiftly building much of its strategic influence in the countries it used to formally control. The fall of the Soviet Union left Russia a shadow of its former (Soviet) self in terms of population, economy and general political coherence. One institution that particularly suffered was the Russian military. Russia's military went from competing with the United States for influence on a global scale at the height of the Soviet Union to shrinking dramatically after its fall, both in terms of size and effectiveness. Russian bases evaporated, and strategic assets such as weapons, aircraft and infrastructure began to crumble. Russia failed miserably in getting its own country in order, suffering two protracted wars in secession-minded Chechnya and watching helplessly as NATO engaged in air raids on longtime ally Yugoslavia. It has come to the point where Russia is simply running out of places in the former Soviet Union upon which to bring its influence to bear.
But there has been somewhat of a reversal of these fortunes over the last decade, which has seen the vast bulk of U.S. military efforts and resources concentrated in the Middle East and South Asia. Despite the current military drawdown in the Iraqi theater, the political and security situation in the country is still tenuous and beholden to the perpetuation of relative calm and stability. U.S. forces continue to surge into Afghanistan, where they will remain committed at current levels for at least another year. And that is not even considering the constant threat emanating from Iran, the regional power that sits between the two countries. If all goes as planned (and that is a big if), only in the next few years will the United States begin to rediscover excess bandwidth for its ground combat forces. Until that happens, the American distraction has opened a window of opportunity for Russia, one Moscow has been working feverishly to seize before it closes. The 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine was a turning point for Russia, as Moscow saw the most strategic state to its security interests swept under the wave of Western-fueled movements that brought a hostile and pro-Western government right to its border. After the Orange Revolution, the Kremlin began to focus its efforts and resources, buoyed by high energy prices and a political consolidation by then-president and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, on pushing back Western influence in the former Soviet Union and substituting it with its own. To this end, Moscow has seen a series of victories across its former Soviet periphery in the past few years. These include the military defeat of pro-Western Georgia in the 2008 war, the election of a pro-Russian regime in Ukraine, and most recently another color revolution — this time favorable to its own interests — in Kyrgyzstan. Through these events and countless others, Moscow has positioned itself in its near abroad to sufficiently project power in virtually every strategic nook and cranny. It has come to the point where Russia is simply running out of places in the former Soviet Union upon which to bring its influence to bear. Thus, Moscow is moving on to consolidate its gains and focus its attention beyond its near abroad — beginning with Poland, a NATO member state wary of Russia. In the face of a resurgent Russia, Warsaw has been seeking to strengthen its security relationship with the United States. On Wednesday, Poland welcomed the deployment of a U.S. Patriot missile battery and a complement of American troops. Russia has vocally opposed such a deployment, not so much because of the system itself but because of the threat it sees in the corresponding American boots on the ground. With the addition of Belarus in the CRRF, Russia has the legal right to position itself right on Poland's doorstep. It is perhaps no coincidence that the agreement to include Belarus in the CSTO rapid reaction forces, which floated the country's parliament for more than a year, was signed into law the same day. Despite the ratification, many of the Russian military's institutional problems remain. But the difference between the Russia of the chaotic 1990s and present-day Russia is primarily geopolitical. Only a few years ago, the U.S. perception of Russia was that of a broken former power. And while Washington thought it had plenty of time before Moscow could even begin to bolster its position, the Russians have already regained much of the influence in the bulk of their old Soviet territory. That is not to say that the Red Army is about to return en masse to the streets of Prague or Budapest any time soon, but the Russians have begun to start pushing further out, beginning with the legal right to station their troops on the European frontier near Poland.