Alexander Lukashenko could have gone down in history as the father of the Belarusian state. Now “Europe’s last dictator” is on his last leg. A rigged election has unleashed unprecedented protests.
Desperate, Lukashenko has turned to his ally, Vladimir Putin, for help. Belarusian state media report that Russia has promised to provide military assistance if Lukashenko asks for it. This has sparked speculation that Russia might intervene in Belarus much as it did in Ukraine when its Russia-friendly president, Viktor Yanukovich, was ousted in 2014.
Tensions between Belarus and Russia prompted American secretary of state Mike Pompeo to pay Alexander Lukashenko a visit this weekend. He told the Belarusian leader that the United States could fulfill all of his country’s oil needs if he wants to become “independent” from Russia.
This shouldn’t be taken seriously. Besides the hypocrisy — how “independent” would Belarus be if it traded its dependence on Russia for a dependence on the United States? — it would be logistically and financially almost impossible for America to meet the complete oil needs of Russia’s closest ally.
Earlier this month, the presidents of Belarus and Russia met in Sochi to discuss a merger of their two states. Nothing came of the meeting. Another is due on Friday. It is unlikely to produce results either.
At this rate, the annual talks about closer integration are becoming a tradition without meaning.
On Monday, the EU decided to put an end to a set of sanctions, in place for five years, against Belarus. Travel restrictions, the freezing of personal assets and sanctions on state-owned firms were in place since the repression of political opposition following the 2010 presidential elections. Read more “Belarus Caught in the Middle Between EU and Russia”
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.
Belarus and Russia are due to hold their joint Zapad (“West”) 2013 military exercise next week, a combined operational training involving nearly 13,000 personnel, 350 combat vehicles, including seventy tanks, over fifty artillery units, Multiple Launch Rocket Systems as well as over fifty aircraft and ships, including the Azov amphibious support vessel to rehearse and test rapid reaction capabilities across Belarus and Russia’s Western Military District. The majority of activity will be concentrated around Russia’s Kaliningrad Oblast and at six Belarusian firing ranges, along with limited naval components in the Baltic and Barents Seas.
This mobilization marks an upgrade from the last Russian-Belarusian exercise, Zapad 2009, which involved only two hundred vehicles. The 2009 exercise was centered around missile defense, including a controversial hypothetical nuclear strike on a neighboring country. Read more “Belarus, Russia to Stage European Defense Exercise”
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.
Diplomatic relations between Belarus and the European Union have been deteriorating with the latest news of European ambassadors leaving Minsk for home. EU states have recalled their top diplomats in solidarity with Brussels and Warsaw whose envoys were kicked out by Belarus. For the EU ambassadors to return to work, condition is that Belarus will have to release and rehabilitate its political prisoners. The news has been that Belarusian regime is now preparing to ban one hundred or so leading opposition figures.
The European Union finds Belarus once again on top of its political agenda with new tit for tat measures taken against each other.
Both sides are preparing fresh countermeasures against each other, with Belarus threatening to limit the presence of EU embassies and companies operating in Belarus while the EU is preparing to add one or more Belarus oligarchs to its blacklist in March. This week’s events have a precedent in the so-called Drazdy dispute of 1998 when President Alexander Lukashenko confiscated the homes of Western diplomats. Read more “Belarus, Europe Preparing Diplomatic Countermeasures”