Military cooperation with Russia as guarantee of Kremlin’s support for Lukashenko in 2015 presidential election
On September 20th – 26th, a joint Russo-Belarusian strategic military exercise ‘West – 2013’ will be held.
Russo-Belarusian military cooperation aims to achieve primarily domestic political objectives set by Russian and Belarusian leaders. Despite the number of joint Russo-Belarusian military projects which have been announced, the countries lack resources to support them in full. For Lukashenko, the expansion of Belarusian-Russian military cooperation is a guarantee of the Kremlin’s support during the 2015 presidential election.
National defence is not the ultimate priority for Belarus, since Lukashenko sees no real threat from NATO countries. Russia also does not believe that the West poses a serious military threat. Russia is increasingly concerned about its Eastern and Southern borders.
Since 1995, Belarus has been consistently expanding its cooperation with NATO in the framework of the ‘Partnership for Peace’ Programme. As a result, in April 2013 Belarus announced its readiness to send its peace-keeping company to participate in the programme.
The ongoing joint Russo-Belarusian military exercises ‘West – 2013’ are much smaller than exercises held in Eastern and Central Russian military districts. In the ‘West – 2013’ exercise, 12,900 soldiers and 350 armored vehicles will take part. Recent exercises in two Russian military districts involved about 160,000 soldiers, 1,000 tanks and armored vehicles, 130 long-range aircrafts, military transport, fighters, bombers and the Army Air Corps, as well about 70 Russian Navy ships.
Domestic political interests of elites in both states are the driving force behind the military exercise. Alexander Lukashenko allows Russian military presence in Belarus in exchange for Russia’s political and economic support. Back in 1996, Belarus and Russia adopted a package of documents, according to which Russia was provided military facilities for rent in Vileika and Gantsevichi, and, if necessary, access to Belarusian military infrastructure. In return, Russia supported Alexander Lukashenko during the 1996 political crisis, and subsequently provided free access for Belarusian goods on the Russian market. Even when Russo-Belarusian relations deteriorate, the Belarusian president avoids raising the issue of Russian military presence. During the recent ‘potash conflict’, Lukashenko remained Russia’s loyal military ally and on August 29th appointed Dvigalev as Unified Air Defence Commander.
Establishing an airbase in Lida, Western Belarus, is a necessary move to ensure domestic political effect in Russia, where Vladimir Putin’s position in recent years has significantly weakened. Integration projects and military cooperation in the post-Soviet space are old methods the Kremlin uses to play on the Russian population’s post-imperial sentiments.
Simultaneously, Russia lacks the resources to maintain its military presence in Belarus, or provide assistance for Belarusian Army in its efforts to modernize. Plans to build an air base in Belarus or upgrade the aircraft fleet have been discussed for a decade. Aircrafts in service in Belarus date back to 1970-1980s and are unable to provide full protection. The ‘Teddy bear drop’ last summer confirmed the vulnerability of Belarus’ airspace.
The Russian air base in Belarus should be deployed by the 2015 presidential elections. For Alexander Lukashenko, this would be a guarantee of the Kremlin’s support. Most opposition leaders have traditionally opposed Russia’s military presence in Belarus, which is unacceptable for the Russian leaders. Polls say that over one-third of the Belarusian population opposes Russia’s military presence in Belarus. The campaign against Russian airbase deployment launched by some oppositional parties plays into the hands of Lukashenko. Lukashenko becomes a guarantor of the Russian military presence in Belarus.
Thus, despite the close military cooperation between Russia and Belarus which has been declared, it is still far from being put into practice. Both Russia and Belarus lack funds to develop this cooperation in full. Establishing a Russian airbase in Lida, as well as greater military cooperation with Russia are Lukashenko’s priorities in the coming years. This will allow the Belarusian president to enlist the Kremlin’s support during the upcoming presidential election. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that the military cooperation agreement will be implemented in full by 2015.
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.