Lukashenko bargains over Russian air base deployment in Belarus
On August 20th, President Lukashenko held a meeting about prospects for Belarus’ Armed Forces development.
Belarus’ ruling group is divided over the Russian military air base deployment issue. The President is committed not to take responsibility in this matter and is interested in procrastinating negotiations with Russia, hoping to win economic preferences instead.
During the meeting concerning military cooperation with Russia, the President instructed the Defense Ministry “to proceed to the practical implementation of the reached agreements with Russia about aviation and air defense systems in the light of recent meetings with Russia’s Defense Minister and agreements with Russian President Putin”.
Some Belarusian media have prematurely interpreted this statement as President’s carte blanche for Russian air base deployment in Belarus. In reality, Lukashenko’s statement is intentionally ambiguous: it saves confusion over the air base deployment and leaves room for maneuver for the ruling group to continue bargaining with the Kremlin about the interrelated issues of economic and military-technical cooperation.
In fact, the spectrum of military-technical issues discussed with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and with President Putin was not limited solely to the Russian air base. Basically, the package of agreements, in addition to air base deployment, includes preferential terms for modern fighters, air defense systems and other arms supply to Belarusian armed forces, as well as other not disclosed agreements. Therefore, what arrangements Lukashenko had in mind by his statement is difficult to understand.
In any case, the Belarusian president considers the airbase deployment issue too “valuable” to end the protracted negotiations. It is also likely that within the ruling group, there is no consensus about the air base issue. On the one hand, the military elite are generally supportive of the intensification of cooperation with Russia, since it gives them additional leverage to increase spending on the Belarusian army. On the other hand, political leadership is interested in “selling” its agreement to deploy the air base with the maximum advantage. This explains President Lukashenko’s avoidance to confirm the airbase deployment, moreover, in April he publicly refuted this information.
Tensions in the economic relations between Belarus and Russia (the BPC breakup), as well as the approaching negotiations about the quarterly oil supplies to Belarus (in mid September), reduce chances for a positive decision about the Russian air base deployment. Most likely, negotiations will continue and Belarus will put forward counterclaims, albeit not formally associated with the military-technical issues. Conventionally, such issues relate to Russian energy supply to Belarus and trade preferences on the Russian market.
President Lukashenka has met with the head of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov, who visited Minsk and the Minsk Automobile Plant. Minsk has always sought to have independent links with Russian regional elites, partially, to compensate for the Kremlin's diminishing interest in Belarus. In recent years, Belarus’ contacts with the Russian regions have been extremely intense. However, with some leaders of Russian regions, primarily heads of large republics, communication was more difficult to build. As many analysts in Minsk suggested, Minsk could regard contacts between President Lukashenka and the head of Chechnya as an additional communication channel for relieving tension in relations with the Kremlin. However, most likely, a trusting relationship with Kadyrov is a value for Minsk as such, provided Kadyrov’s broad business and political interests, and a high degree of autonomy for the Chechen leader from the Kremlin.