Belarus is a key military and security partner for Russia. Located between the firmly Western-oriented Poland and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, Belarus has long been used to project Russian military power and is seen by Moscow as a crucial buffer state. Belarus is one of the most committed members of Russia's security bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Belarus and Russia also have a number of bilateral security agreements, including a joint air defense network, and the two countries frequently hold joint military exercises and training.
The plans to deploy anti-missile batteries and fighter jets, and particularly the discussions to set up a Russian military air base in Belarus, take this cooperation to a new level. This is likely related to the growing security cooperation among other countries in the region, especially the Nordic and Baltic states. It is these countries (all of which are NATO members except Sweden and Finland) that serve as the greatest Western security challenge for Moscow due to their proximity to Russia. These countries have increased the scope and tempo of their military cooperation — in November, Poland and the Baltics will hold the Steadfast Jazz military exercises, which will involve 5,000 NATO troops.
The greater involvement of Sweden and Finland in regional defense cooperation, whether through the air policing missions in Iceland starting in 2014 or regional security organization Nordic Defense Cooperation, has created even greater concern in Russia.
This sheds light on a number of Moscow's recent moves in the region. Russia announced that it would hold Zapad military exercises in 2013 with Belarus that, when last held in 2009, simulated an attack on Poland and the Baltic states. Russia has also been more active with its military and air drills. Recently, it staged a flyover near Sweden's airspace that prompted Danish NATO fighter jets stationed in Lithuania to shadow Russian jets, since Sweden was reportedly unprepared to respond to the flyover. While Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said the country would not ask the Russian government for an explanation of the flyover, Swedish Defense Minister Karin Enstrom said that the Russians have "stepped up their training exercises" and that Sweden is watching this closely.
Also of concern for Russia, the Baltic region has been the most aggressive in challenging Moscow's dominant position in the energy sphere; Poland and Lithuania are both constructing liquefied natural gas import terminals and taking Gazprom to court over pricing and monopolization issues. Though Russia has been in negotiations with both countries over these energy issues and has shown hints of pragmatism, Moscow is less likely to be as accommodating when it comes to growing coordination and action in the security sphere.
The Nordic and Baltic countries have also supported Belarusian opposition groups against Lukashenko, and a Swedish human rights group in 2012 staged a teddy bear drop to expose human rights abuses in Belarus and undermine Lukashenko's rule. This exposed gaps in Belarusian air defense and may be a contributing factor in Belarus' attempts to acquire new air defense missiles and Russian aircraft. In addition, Belarus in December 2012 retired its remaining Su-27 aircraft (after having previously retired its Su-24s) due to a lack of funds to maintain them. This has reduced Belarus' already lacking ability to defend its airspace, giving Moscow a greater incentive to bolster the Belarusian air defense network.
Therefore, the defense agreement between Moscow and Minsk is only the latest in a long line of seemingly tit-for-tat moves between the Nordic and Baltic countries on one side and Russia and Belarus on the other. But should the deployment of the Russian air base with fighter jets to Belarus occur, it would take regional security competition to a new level. This would also put the onus on Nordic and Baltic states to respond, which would be somewhat difficult. Most of the countries in the region — with the exception of Poland — have been cutting their defense budget in line with the European financial crisis, and regional security cooperation is still conducted within the wider frameworks of NATO and the European Union. Furthermore, increased actions on the part of these countries could make Russia even more aggressive on the security front.
In that sense, Russia's recent announcement could be designed to send a message that it sees the growing Nordic-Baltic security cooperation as a significant threat and that it is willing to make bold moves to counter this threat.