Kremlin pushes for Russian airbase in Belarus after presidential elections
Amid the presidential campaign in Belarus, when President Lukashenka is most vulnerable, the Kremlin is forcing the Belarusian authorities to sign an agreement to deploy a Russian military air base in Belarus. In the view of improved Belarus-EU relations and enhanced cooperation between Belarus and China, the Russian authorities are attempting to limit Belarus’ opportunities to counterbalance the Russian military-political and economic dominance. After elections, the Belarusian authorities might be prompted to make concessions to the Kremlin regarding the deployment of the Russian air base, which might be kept low profile in the public space.
At a cabinet meeting last week, the Russian government considered a draft agreement on deploying a Russian airbase in Belarus.
The Kremlin is aiming to hold talks with the Belarusian authorities regarding the deployment of the Russian airbase in Belarus during the Eurasian Intergovernmental Council meeting in Grodno on September 8th, 2015. There were no immediate comments by the Belarusian government regarding the Kremlin’s intentions. Until the end of the presidential campaign, the Belarusian authorities might attempt to withhold the information about the prospects of enhanced Russian military presence in Belarus.
Meanwhile, the Russian government stated that, “the signing of the agreement will facilitate the organisation of the joint air border protection of the Union State and the creation of joint regional air defence system for the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus. In addition, the provisions of the agreement will consolidate a long-term Russian military presence in the region and will contribute to enhanced security”.
So far, the Russian military presence in Belarus is limited to two military facilities, which are not considered as military bases: the Gantsevichi Radar Station and the Russian naval forces contact point near Vileika. In addition, Baranavichy airbase hosts Russian SU-27 fighter elements from time to time, which subordinate to the Belarusian command.
Until recently, the Kremlin has avoided official statements about the deployment of the Russian military air base in Belarus – sometimes there were comments by some Russian military officials about the prospects for such a move in the future. For instance, in October 2014 Air Force Commander Colonel General Vladimir Bondarev stated that in 2016 Russia would deploy its airbase for Su-27 fighters in Babruisk. The independent Belarusian media, however, reported that modernisation of the runway and ground infrastructure had already started in the Bobruisk airport.
The Belarusian authorities have been carefully avoiding being drawn into a confrontation between the Kremlin and Western capitals. Instead, they are attempting to normalise Belarus-EU relations and expand cooperation with China. Official Minsk worries that information about the plans to strengthen Russian military presence in Belarus could have a negative impact on the emerging positive trend in Belarusian-European relations.
Moreover, according to independent polls, the Belarusian population is not supportive of the hosting of foreign military bases. In addition, the opposition is using this unpopular idea of deploying a Russian airbase in Belarus to boost their ratings. For example, the only potential opposition candidate Tatsiana Karatkevich is attempting to intercept President Lukashenka’s thesis – which could be the key message in his campaign – that, the state has to ensure stability and safety for citizens.
The Kremlin will attempt to take advantage of the presidential campaign in Belarus in order to formalise the arrangements for the Russian military airbase deployment in Belarus in 2016. Official Minsk does not have sufficient mechanisms to deal with the Kremlin’s pressure and will be forced to agree to the strengthening of the Russian military presence in Belarus.
The Belarusian authorities regard the Catholic conference as yet another international event to promote Minsk as a global negotiating platform. Minsk’s proposal to organise a meeting between the Roman-Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church is rather an image-making undertaking than a serious intention. However, the authorities could somewhat extend the opportunities for the Roman-Catholic Church in Belarus due to developing contacts with the Catholic world.
Minsk is attempting to lay out a mosaic from various international religious, political and sportive events to shape a positive image of Belarus for promoting the Helsinki 2.0 idea.
Belarus’ invitation to the head of the Holy See for a meeting with the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church should be regarded as a continuation of her foreign policy efforts in shaping Minsk’s peacekeeping image and enhancing Belarus’ international weight. The Belarusian authorities are aware that their initiative is unlikely to find supporters among the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. In Russia, isolationist sentiments prevail.
In addition, for domestic audiences, the authorities make up for the lack of tangible economic growth with demonstrations of growth in Minsk’s authority at international level through providing a platform for religious, sportive and other dialogues.