Jun 23, 2015 | 16:43 GMT

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The Significance of a Russian Air Base in Belarus

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The Significance of a Russian Air Base in Belarus

Belarus is caught in the middle of the Russia-West standoff and the military buildup associated with it. Strategically aligned as it is with Russia, 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.

Belarusian Defense Minister Andrei Ravkov said the opening of 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 would 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 Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko's reservations about 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 the 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 in the military buildup and in the broader competition between Russia and the West.

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