Talks about Russian air base deployment in Belarus continue
On June 5th, during the Council of CIS Defense Ministers meeting in Minsk, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu reiterated that Russia was planning to establish a military commander in Belarus in 2013 and deploy a joint air base in the future.
Belarus has not yet officially confirmed the deployment of Russian air base in Belarus, implying that negotiations are still ongoing. High political risks force Belarusian military officers to refrain from comments on the matter.
Over the past month and a half Minister Shoigu has twice declared that Russia was planning to deploy its Aviation Regiment in Belarus. However, his statements should be treated with a degree of skepticism since there was no clear official confirmation of this information by Belarus until now.
Belarusian media quoted Shoigu in terms of Russia’s plans to deploy a Russian air base in Belarus (this time they referred to ‘a joint Belarusian-Russian airbase’). It is also know that Chief Russian Air Force arrived in Belarus to look for a suitable airfield for the airbase.
So far, the information about the airbase is only coming from Russia, which implies that Belarus treats the issue rather as a plan, not a final agreement and wants to use it as a stake in the ongoing negotiations ‘clarifying’ these arrangements (in April 2013 President Lukashenko said that the agreement was mainly about Russian fighter jets supply to equip the Belarusian army, and that the Air base deployment was only a plan).
Potentially, the political uncertainty keeps Belarusian military officials from comments on the issue: neither of them wants to risk taking responsibility. In addition, during the past two years Belarus’ Air Force and Air Defense command was subjected to harsh personnel purges (especially after the ‘teddy bear’ drop in July 2012), which also affected their attitudes.
On June 3rd, just before the Minsk Summit, Belarus’ Deputy Chief of Staff for Research Oleg Krivonos made a sleek statement that in the future Belarus was planning to host the ‘modern combat aircraft means and air defense systems in response to the defense missile deployment in Europe’. However, the plan’s details - what kind of missiles, deployment terms, timing and place - were not disclosed.
Thus, the Russian Ministry of Defense statements should be treated as “dissenting opinion”, residing on certain bilateral agreements however the final decision is yet to be made on the political level and will depend on the success of Russo-Belarusian negotiations on economic cooperation between Putin and Lukashenko.
The cornerstones of these negotiations are privatization in Belarus and oil supply in Q3 and Q4 2013. In addition, Belarus is interested in obtaining modern Russian weapons on favorable terms, which was mentioned by President Lukashenko on June 5th.
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.