Belarus-Russia Relations Aren’t As Close As They Seem

While hosting a Russian air base, Belarus is also taking steps to distance itself from Vladimir Putin.

Russian president Vladimir Putin on Saturday gave the go-ahead for the construction of an air base in neighboring Belarus, deepening security ties with his nation’s closest ally.

But the relationship has also suffered as a result of Russia’s occupation and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine, another former Soviet republic, in 2014.

Russian defense officials say the new base will be used to station Su-27 fighter jets which could menace the airspace of NATO members Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.

The Financial Times characterizes the decision to build it as “the latest example of Moscow’s determination to assert its influence beyond Russia’s borders and rebuild its military capacities which have been severely eroded since the collapse of the Soviet Union 24 years ago.”

The newspaper also reports that the regime in Minsk dragged its feet on the air base proposal despite previously taking steps to integrate its armed forces with Russia’s.

In 2009, the two countries started a joint military training program. They also carry out joint military exercises each year. Russia’s military doctrine states that the country would consider an attack on Belarus an act of aggression against Russia as well.

Yet Belarus’ Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power for two decades, cannot always be relied upon to toe the Kremlin’s line.

The crisis in East-West relations that Russia’s aggression in Ukraine triggered last year has given him more leeway to pursue something of a middle path.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Brian Whitmore reported earlier this month that the Belarusian leader has refused to recognize Crimea as part of Russia and even ridiculed the ethnic basis for the annexation, saying that Mongolia could just as easily lay claim to large swaths of Russian territory.

He has carved out a neutral stance on the conflict in the Donbas, has said he would never allow Belarusian territory to be used to attack another state and has made it clear that Belarus isn’t interested in being part of Putin’s so-called “Russian world.”

Whitmore cautioned at the time that Lukashenko couldn’t distance himself from Putin’s Russia altogether, if only because his government depends on Russian energy and subsidies. Europe, preoccupied with the Greek euro crisis, migrants and Russia’s security threats on NATO’s border, is also less interested in dialogue than before. So Lukashenko couldn’t say “no” to the air base. But Russia cannot always count on a “yes” from him either.