Russia’s defense minister, General Sergei Shoigu, said on Tuesday his country is in talks with neighboring Belarus to permanently deploy fighter jets to the former Soviet republic.
“We hope that in 2015 there will be a regiment of warplanes which will serve to defend our borders,” Shoigu said during a meeting with Belarus’ president, Alexander Lukashenko, in Minsk.
Russia agreed in 2009 to establish a joint air defense with its ally. The deployment of fighter planes would boost Russia’s military presence in a country that is seen in Moscow as a buffer between it and the West.
Despite growing trade relations, ties between authoritarian Belarus and the rest of Europe have been strained. European Union member states are especially uncomfortable about their energy dependence on Russia which exports oil through the Druzhba pipeline network, a branch of which runs through Belarus, on which Poland and Germany rely for respectively 90 and 20 percent of their petroleum imports.
Belarus is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a military pact between former Soviet states, and part of Vladimir’s Putin’s Eurasian Union scheme, a proposed customs union and free-trade area that should also pull in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Russia, for its part, regards warily NATO plans to erect a missile shield in Eastern Europe. The Western alliance says the system is designed to deter Iran, a country it suspects of developing the capacity to build nuclear weapons.
Shoigu’s remarks coincided with a meeting in Brussels where Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, told the West he still wants guarantees that the missile system will not be used against Russia, despite a recent decision to scale it back.
The United States said last month they will not deploy missile interceptors in Poland and Romania. Instead, the country intends to add fourteen such interceptors to the 26 already deployed in Alaska to defend against a possible North Korean attack.
While the change was not announced as a concession to Russia, it followed previous steps to soothe its concerns.
Late last year, President Barack Obama was overhead promising his Russian counterpart more “flexibility” on an issue that frustrated American-Russian relations through his first four years in office.
Obama first canceled parts of the NATO system in 2009 as part of an attempt to “reset” relations with the Kremlin when he withdrew plans to build a radar installation in the Czech Republic. He also replaced missile interceptors that were supposed to be placed in Poland with less potent systems that didn’t threaten Russia’s defenses.
Russia, however, remains unconvinced that the missile shield won’t undermine its deterrence.
Lukashenko reminded the West on Tuesday that it “should understand that if they look at us with ill intentions, we will react,” the state news agency reported.