The Russia-West Standoff Manifests in Belarus

4 MINS READJun 22, 2015 | 09:16 GMT
The Russia-West Standoff Manifests in Belarus
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) talks to his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko at the Kremlin on March 3.

Belarus is caught in the middle of the Russia-West standoff and the military buildup associated with it. Belarus has attempted to serve as a mediator so far, hosting talks on the Ukrainian conflict and slowly warming to the European Union economically. However, Belarus is strategically aligned with Russia and Minsk is likely to strengthen its military and political ties with Moscow as the country's economy weakens and a presidential election looms. These closer ties — which could include the opening of a new Russian air base in Belarus — could favor Moscow in its competition with the West.

More than a year and a half after the Ukraine crisis began, the conflict and subsequent standoff between Russia and the West show no signs of abating. Weapons buildups and frequent military exercises have become a recurring feature for both NATO and the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization military alliance. While NATO has increased exercises in places like the Baltics, Poland and Romania, Russia has beefed up drills near the borders of these countries as well as Central Asia.

Located just north of Ukraine and between Russia and Europe, Belarus has understandably become a key player, a role that concerns the Belarusian government, led by long-serving President Aleksandr Lukashenko. When the Ukrainian uprising ousted then-President Viktor Yanukovich in February 2014, Belarus was isolated from the West. It faced sanctions from the European Union and United States after the West accused the Belarusian leader of authoritarianism and criticized him for crackdowns on protests.

However, Lukashenko adeptly made Belarus an intermediary in negotiations between Russia and the West over the conflict in Ukraine. Minsk served as a primary venue for talks and cease-fire agreements that produced tangible, albeit incomplete, results. By doing so, Lukashenko prevented the West from fomenting a Euromaidan-style uprising in Belarus and enabled Belarus to gain economic benefits from Europe at a time when Russia's economic crisis was hurting the Belarusian economy.

But despite these gestures, Belarus has been careful to preserve its more entrenched relationship with Russia. Belarus is a member of both the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Eurasian Economic Union. Minsk also relies on Moscow for the majority of its energy supplies and financial support. The two countries are strategically aligned militarily as well; Belarus is a part of Russia's joint air defense system and a strong supporter of security initiatives like the Collective Security Treaty Organization Rapid Reaction forces.

The military buildup occurring in NATO countries such as Poland and the Baltics, as well as U.S. and NATO military exercises taking place in Ukraine, has particularly worried Minsk. Lukashenko's press service has reported that NATO has "ramped up its exercises by more than 1.5 times compared to last year, including large-scale exercises near the border of Belarus." In turn, Belarus has launched a series of exercises near its southern border with Ukraine, and the head of the State Customs Committee of Belarus said that customs controls would be tightened at the Ukrainian border in order to prevent weapons smuggling from Ukraine into Belarus.

Consequently, Belarus has strengthened its relationship with Russia even more. Belarusian Defense Minister Andrei Ravkov said that Russia will station four S-300 missile systems in Belarus by the end of the year, and that discussions are being held on the potential delivery of S-400 systems. Ravkov also said that the opening a Russian air base in Belarus, which was first mentioned last year, is "being considered in the political dimension." The air base, which would be located in Babruysk and station Su-27 fighter jets manned by Russian pilots, would be a significant asset to Moscow in its bid for superiority in the former Soviet periphery.

However, the base has not yet materialized because of Lukashenko's reservations over stationing Russian military personnel in Belarusian territory, which would make the country an even greater target for NATO. The Belarusian leader has insisted instead on the deployment of the aircraft without Russian pilots, or at least a temporary, rotational Russian presence as specified in the legal framework of the common regional group of forces and the common air defense system.

But several factors may change Lukashenko's position on this issue. First is the greater NATO military presence and the increased threat it poses to Belarus. Second is the poor economic situation in Belarus, which Russia is more capable and willing to alleviate than the European Union is. Finally, there is the Belarusian presidential election in September, in which Lukashenko is seeking to win a fifth consecutive term.

The Russian air base will be an important bargaining tool for Lukashenko, one that could earn the president sizable economic support from Moscow. An uptick in negotiations could occur in the next few months, culminating in an agreement on the air base. Such a development would be a notable component to the military buildup and broader competition between Russia and the West. 

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