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.
Over the past year, military-political relations between Minsk and Kyiv have become complicated. Due to their high inertia and peculiarities, this downward trend would be extremely difficult to overcome.
The root cause of the crisis is the absence of a common political agenda in the Belarusian-Ukrainian relations. Minsk is looking for a market for Belarusian exports in Ukraine and offers its services as a negotiation platform for the settlement of the Russo-Ukrainian war, thereby hoping to avoid political issues in the dialogue with Kiev. Meanwhile, Ukraine is hoping for political support from Minsk in the confrontation with Moscow. In addition, Ukraine’s integration with NATO presupposes her common position with the Alliance in relation to Belarus. The NATO leadership regards the Belarusian Armed Forces as an integral part of the Russian military machine in the western strategic front (the Baltic states and Poland). In addition, the ongoing military reform in Ukraine envisages a reduction in the number of generals and the domestic political struggle makes some Ukrainian top military leaders targets in politically motivated attacks.
Hence, the criticism of Belarus coming from Ukrainian military leadership is dictated primarily by internal and external political considerations, as well as by the need to protect the interests of generals, and only then by facts.
For instance, initially, the Ukrainian military leadership made statements about 100,000 Russian servicemen allegedly taking part in the Russo-Belarusian military drill West-2017. Then the exercises were labelled quazi-open and military observers from Ukraine refused to provide their assessment, which caused a negative reaction in Minsk. Further, without citing specific facts, it was stated that Russia was building up its military presence in Belarus.
Apparently, the Belarusian and Ukrainian Defence Ministries have entangled in a confrontational spiral (on the level of rhetoric). Moreover, only a small part of the overly hidden process has been disclosed. That said, third states are very likely to take advantage of the situation (or have already done so). This is not only about Russia.
The Belarusian Defence Ministry officials are restrained in assessing their Ukrainian counterparts. However, such a restraint is not enough. Current military-political relations between Belarus and Ukraine are unlikely to stabilise without the intervention of both presidents.