The decision of whether or not to host a new Russian airbase in Belarus will force Belarusian leader Lukashenko to declare either in favor of Russia or the West ahead of an upcoming presidential election.
A performance off Russia's SU-27 fighter aircrafts during an event in St. Petersburg. Photo: RIA Novosti
Russia's plans to deploy airbases in Belarus could be interpreted as another headache for the West and, in particular, for the Baltic states, at least, because it could fuel the arms race in Europe.
Last week Russian President Vladimir Putin instructed Defense and Foreign Ministries to hold talks with Minsk on the possibility of establishing a Russian airbase in Belarus.
Although Russian SU and MIG jets have yet to be relocated closer to Poland and Lithuania, a number of experts have correctly described Moscow's actions as a response to NATO's increased air reconnaissance in the Baltic States and Poland.
Yet the strengthening of Russia's western frontiers is only part of the Kremlin's self-appointed task. For Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, hosting Russian warplanes will significantly limit the ability to play Moscow and Brussels off against each other, which he has been repeatedly accused of by his Russian partners.
Meanwhile, the appearance of Russian fighters near the Baltic borders will no doubt prompt Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius to request another "air umbrella" from NATO. That raises the inevitable question: Will the westward deployment of Russian aircraft up the ante even further?
Putin's instruction to wrap up the talks with Minsk, which was picked up on by Russian and global media, was merely the logical conclusion to the open negotiating process that has been ongoing since 2009.
The nature of military ties between Moscow and Minsk
Let's start with the fact that Russia and Belarus are bound by two military alliances. Article 4 of the Collective Security Treaty signed in 1992 stipulates that an attack on one member state is an act of aggression against all.
Of greater importance for Moscow and Minsk, however, is the Treaty on the Creation of a Union State, Article 7, which explicitly states that the signatories shall ensure the integrity and inviolability of the territory of the Union State.
Hence, either way Belarus will be forced to side with Russia in the event of a hypothetical military conflict. It is, therefore, not surprising that for many years the country has been Russia's closest military partner. On a number of occasions since 2009, Belarus has hosted the large-scale "Zapad" (“West”) strategic exercises held jointly by the armed forces of Russia and Belarus.
In addition, the country is home to two important Russian military facilities: the "Volga" early warning radar system and the "Vileyka" communications hub of the Russian Navy. Not only that, but also the Russian Air Force already is stationed in Belarus. Since 2013 the borders of the Union State have been guarded on a rotating basis by Russian SU-27s based at the Baranovichi airfield in the Brest region.
It was for the purpose of protecting the air borders of the Union State that the transfer of Russian aircraft to Belarus was initially mooted back in 2009. However, Moscow and Minsk do not always see eye to eye on the issue.
Lukashenko would prefer to acquire new aircraft from Russia for his own armed forces, which, incidentally, are considered to be among the most combat-ready in the post-Soviet space. Perhaps that is one reason why the establishment of a Russian airbase in Belarus has been delayed for so long.
Minsk's straddling between Russia and the West
However, events in Ukraine and the rising confrontation between Russia and the West, dubbed by some as "Cold War II," has caused Moscow to force its ally into declaring where its allegiance lies.
Lukashenko effectively spent the past year and a half maneuvering between Moscow, Brussels and Washington as a kind of peacemaker. It was Belarus that mediated the so-called Minsk Agreements,and the policy bore fruit. That was over and above February's meetings with EU and U.S. senior representatives, plus an invitation to the Eastern Partnership Summit in Riga (which Lukashenko decided not to attend).
On the one hand, a green light to a Russian airbase could cancel out all of Lukashenko's efforts to normalize relations with the West. But on the other, it is clear that his consent would be rewarded with additional financial aid and energy discounts. And that is vital for him on the eve of November's presidential elections.
Furthermore, it would demonstrate to his pro-Russian electorate (up to two-thirds of Belarusians support closer integration with Russia, according to various polls, and they are also the most active voters) that he is making every effort to strengthen ties with the Kremlin.
Given the current military-political climate, it would be wise to resolve the airbase issue quickly. This time the Kremlin is unlikely to allow Lukashenko to limit his commitment to wordy declarations and play for time. Moreover, a lot of the groundwork for the proposed airbase has already been laid.
The Kremlin's airbase in Belarus: A threat to the West?
Back in June 2013, Russian military chiefs inspected potential Belarusian airfields and initially opted in favor of Lida in the Grodno region. However, Russian Air Force Commander Viktor Bondarev later stated that the Russian unit would be stationed at Baranovichi.
Then on Sept. 2 this year, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev announced that Bobruisk in the Mogilev region had been selected.
Interestingly, the Bobruisk airfield is closer to the Russian border than to the western frontiers of the Union State. It was perhaps selected for its decent infrastructure and runway capable of taking heavy bombers, plus the distance to the border.
In the event of a military conflict, this airbase would be harder to destroy with a blitzkrieg strike, because the flight time to it is longer than to Lida or Baranovichi. Russia still remembers how in the early hours of World War II Soviet border airfields suffered huge losses on the ground. By contrast, modern missiles and bombers give enemy planes just a few minutes to intercept them, which may not be enough for pilots stationed at airbases on the Polish or Lithuanian border.
So although Russia plans to deploy a permanent air regiment to Belarus in early 2016, the SU-27 fighters in question will hardly pose a threat to the West. The choice of Bobruisk, although still not final, demonstrates that Russia has opted for a defensive strategy and does not wish to provoke the West unnecessarily. But the Baltic countries will probably prefer to ignore this signal.
There is every likelihood that even before Russian fighters land at the Bobruisk airfield, Riga, Tallinn and Vilnius will ask NATO to reinforce its formation patrolling the Baltic skies to ensure parity. NATO's airbases at Amari, Estonia, and Siauliai, Lithuania, can indeed accommodate significantly more fighters than at present. Whatever the case, it is clearly more important for Moscow to bring Lukashenko to heel than to provoke more tension with the United States and Europe.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.