Russian troops’ movement to Belarusian border increases risk of confrontation between Moscow and NATO
Military build-up in the western regions of Russia is both a consequence and a symptom pointing to the fact that ‘hawks’ have taken over in the Kremlin. This means, the Russian government is preparing for a long-lasting confrontation with the West. Evidently, it is going to complicate the environment for all countries in the region, especially those on the ‘confrontation line’: Ukraine-Belarus-Moldova.
The news about the relocation of the 28th Motorised Brigade of the Russian Ground Forces from Urals to the Bryansk region has raised concerns in Belarus. That said, apparently, the actions of the Russian military leadership are not connected with the Belarusian-Russian relations in any way. Moreover, their connection with the Russian-Ukrainian war is rather indirect.
It should be recalled, that during the reform held by former Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, military units have been drastically reduced and division level units abolished (except for the one in the Far East). Priority districts included South (Caucasus region) and Centre (formerly Soviet Central Asia). The former Russian Defence Ministry leadership regarded Western Military District as the support area. Of the 50 armoured and mechanized infantry battalions of the Russian Ground Forces in 2008 by late 2010, only 22 battalions were scattered from Murmansk in the north to Belgorod the south and from Kaliningrad in the west to Komi in the east.
Russian generals, who negatively perceived NATO’s eastward expansion, have criticised a sharp reduction in the military forces in the west. Military experts pointed to the mismatch between the territory size and its defence capacity. In 2009, Russia planned to place an Airborne Brigade and the Smolensk region. But the plan has never materialised. Appointed in late 2012, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu started recreating large military formations. For instance, in May 2013, based on Kantemir and Taman Division teams, truncated divisions were recreated, which were later incorporated into the newly formed 1st Tank Army. In November 2014, the Russian Defence Ministry announced its intention to place Motorized Infantry Brigade in Yelnya (Smolensk region), which was stationed there before the Serdyukov’s reform.
In addition, the local administration played an important role in the Ministry’s decision: due to the closure of the military unit, unemployment had increased so as the burden on the local budget to maintain facilities previously used by the military, as well, already drastic socio-economic situation in the region has worsened. In January 2016, the Ministry said it would reinforce the brigade in Yelnia into a division. Overall, in 2016, the Russian military leadership is going form three divisions on the ‘western front’. In addition, several teams will relocate from the Russian hinterland to the western border. One of them has relocated to Klintsy.
Official reason for the relocation was NATO activity. However, the new units have been deployed quite far from the Russian border with the Alliance member-states, which means that Russia had to come to terms with the need to enhance its defence against NATO without Belarus.
Meanwhile, the fact that motorised infantry and armoured divisions are shock-purpose compounds designed for offensive operations raise concerns. The Kremlin has thereby demonstrated its willingness to escalate the confrontation with NATO. The Russian command is unlikely to be serious about invading a NATO country. The fact that new units have been placed near Belarusian and Ukrainian borders points to what regions Russian generals regard as the most likely for ‘harsh’ confrontation with the West. Such an approach is in full compliance with Russia denying the independence of Ukraine and Belarus, particularly noticeable in recent years. Apparently, the Kremlin has adopted a vision of Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova as a theatre for the struggle with the West for geopolitical influence.
Enhanced Russia’s military presence in the west, coupled with Moscow’s belligerent rhetoric has demonstrated that the ‘war party’ has taken over in the Kremlin. Their main ideological attitudes include: uncompromising confrontation with the West and the United States in particular, reducing the threshold for the use of armed force in international relations, denying the independence of the post-Soviet states and the inviolability of their borders. Evidently, there are no grounds to believe that the confrontation should reduce in the near future; the ‘Second Cold War’ has begun in the region. And it is becoming the new ‘normal’ for many years to come.
The Belarusian authorities have launched a discussion on the moratorium or abolition of the death penalty under the pressure of Belarusian human rights activists and international community. Apparently, the authorities are interested in monitoring public sentiments and response to the possible abolition of the capital punishment. The introduction of a moratorium on the death penalty would depend on the dynamics in Belarusian-European relations, efforts of the civil society organisations and Western capitals.
In Grodno last week, the possibility of abolishing the death penalty in Belarus or introducing a moratorium was discussed.
The Belarusian authorities are likely to continue to support the death penalty in Belarus. During his rule, President Lukashenka pardoned only one person, and courts sentenced to death more than 400 people since the early 1990s. Over the past year, Belarusian courts sentenced to death several persons and one person was executed.
There are no recent independent polls about people’s attitude about the death penalty in Belarus. Apparently, this issue is not a priority for the population. In many ways, public opinion about the abolition of the death penalty would depend on the tone of the state-owned media reports.
That said, the Belarusian Orthodox Church and the Roman-Catholic Church stand for the abolition of the capital punishment, however their efforts in this regard only limit to public statements about their stance. Simultaneously, the authorities could have influenced public opinion about the death penalty through a focused media campaign in the state media. As they did, for example, with the nuclear power plant construction in Astravets. Initially unpopular project of the NPP construction was broadly promoted in the state media, and eventually, according to independent pollsters, was accepted by most population.