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.
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.