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.
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.