Belarus loses military independence to retain independent foreign policy
Belarus remains neutral as regards events in Ukraine and makes some concessions to the Kremlin. President Lukashenko gives way to pressure from Moscow and assumes increased Russian military presence in Belarus. At the same time, the authorities do not doubt the need to preserve Ukraine’s territorial integrity so as not to spoil relations with the West and the new Ukrainian leadership.
On March 13th, six Russian Su-27s and three military transport planes, including technical support staff from Russia’s Western Military district, landed in Bobruisk airfield in Belarus.
While taking part in the Security Council meeting on March 12th, which reported about the Armed Forces’ combat readiness, President Lukashenko offered Russia to deploy additional fighter jets to Belarus. He explained it by the NATO increasing its military presence at the Belarusian borders. The day before, President Lukashenko had a telephone conversation with President Putin. The next day, six Su-27 fighters and three military transport aircrafts landed in Bobruisk.
The pace at which Russian aircrafts were deployed to Bobruisk near the border with Ukraine (not Poland or Lithuania), implies there has been a preliminary agreement on the matter between Minsk and Moscow. Despite concessions to the Kremlin in the military sphere, President Lukashenko attempts to retain his positions in the public domain. Overly dependent on the Kremlin, Minsk cannot take an official stance on the crisis in Ukraine which would differ from Moscow’s.
Meanwhile, Belarus’ Foreign Ministry has repeatedly issued statements about the events in Ukraine which could irritate Moscow. Belarusian diplomats have reiterated Belarus’ commitment to preserving Ukraine’s territorial integrity. President Lukashenko confirmed that the Belarusian Foreign Ministry’s position had been coordinated, “this position has been consolidated, and this is a single stance. Moreover, the Foreign Minister had been instructed to convey our position to the international community and leaders of other states, which has been done. Today our position remains unchanged”. It is noteworthy that the state news agency BelTA has published an article ‘Whether Russians want war’, expressing strong opposition to Russia’s actions in Crimea.
In recent years, military cooperation between Belarus and Russia has increased considerably. Taking advantage of the weakening state and defence capabilities of Belarus, the Kremlin has increased its military presence there. Currently, Belarus hosts four Russian military facilities: military radar and missile detection systems in Gantsevichi, Russian Navy’s communication post in Vileika, and Russian fighter jets in Baranovichi and Bobruisk. Moreover, Minsk’s military dependence on the Kremlin has increased sharply. In late 2013, four Russian Su-27s were deployed in Baranovichi and in March 2014 – six Russian Su-27s and three military transport aircrafts in Bobruisk.
Belarus is gradually losing her sovereignty in the military sphere to Russia, despite President Lukashenko’s attempts to keep up his appearances as an independent figure. Nevertheless, Belarus will remain neutral over the crisis in Ukraine.
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.