Russo-Belarusian defence cooperation has limitations

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November 28, 2016 8:43
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Thanks to close defence cooperation with Moscow, Minsk ensured freedom in foreign policy manoeuvre and a large-scale financial and economic support from Russia. However, this scheme is coming to an end, thereby boosting conflicts in bilateral relations and prompting the Belarusian authorities to improve transparency in communication with all their neighbours, including Russia.

Recently, the Russian Defence Ministry published plans of military rail transportation to Belarus and back, which could be an indirect evidence of the unprecedented scale of the Russo-Belarusian military exercise West-2017, unless there was an error (or an intended provocation). The Ministry is planning to send 4,000 railway cars to Belarus, which could transport at least one Russian division to the Belarusian landfills.

Amid Russia’s confrontation with the West, Minsk manages to secure some financial support from Russia due to periodic loyalty demonstrations to Moscow on the international arena, participation in the Russia-led integration projects and expansion (including demonstrative) of the Russo-Belarusian defence cooperation. This trend could not last indefinitely. Firstly, it already threatens Belarus with engaging into the confrontation with the West on the Kremlin’s side. Secondly, it alarms Ukraine, Belarus’ second most important trade and economic partner. Thirdly, the West regards it as a sign of Minsk’s critical dependence on Moscow, which weakens Belarusian positions in a dialogue with the West.

That said, Russia aims to use defence cooperation in order to establish her total domination over Belarus. The Kremlin puts forward new initiatives, which could call into question Belarus’ ability to control the national military capacity.

As economic recession deepens in Russia, she is less capable of supporting Belarus. In addition, Minsk’s desire to avoid being drawn into Russia’s confrontation with the West and Ukraine makes the Kremlin less eager to finance the Belarusian authorities. From a certain point, "payment" with military cooperation for the Russian financial and economic support may become unacceptable for Minsk: Moscow is likely to want to get more for less. For Minsk, preserving independence in foreign policy and continuing the dialogue with the West and cooperation with Ukraine is critically important. Russo-Belarusian military cooperation is nearing its "glass ceiling". Therefore, large-scale conflicts in bilateral relations are becoming virtually inevitable.

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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.

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