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4 Jan

Valery Kavaleuski (Belarus)
Forbes, 1.10.2015

In Russia's Careful Expansion Game, Belarus Is Moscow's Next Target

Belarus must be seen as a low-hanging fruit that can be grabbed by Moscow, one without too many implications for Russia. (Photo by Alexander Vilf/Host Photo Agency/Ria Novosti via Getty Images)

While the world is watching in disbelief how boldly Russia establishes and puts into practice its military presence in Syria, Moscow is quietly advancing another initiative with far-reaching consequences—the deployment of an airbase in neighboring Belarus.

The major difference between the two countries in this case is that Russia cannot annex or occupy Syria, but it sees Belarus is a different light. Moreover, Russia in a distant and highly volatile Syria, with numerous actors and interests involved, will inevitably face serious threats and, very likely, material consequences. On the contrary, Belarus must be seen as a low-hanging fruit that can be grabbed by Moscow, one without too many implications for Russia.

Still, the intentions of the Kremlin in Belarus are even less obvious than they are in Syria. Russia’s military build-up in the Middle East is a rather situational and impromptu aiming to re-engage with the concert of nations. Kremlin’s plan for Belarus might be more complex, with more systemic consequences.

Russia plans to establish an airbase in Belarus

In early September Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev announced that he would suggest to President Vladimir Putin to sign an agreement establishing an airbase in Belarus. According to the Russian government, the airbase “agreement provisions will sustainably secure Russia’s military presence in the region and facilitate strengthening its security.” On September 18 Putin approved the start of negotiations with Belarus on the base. The Russians even opened the draft agreement to the public revealing a rather loose arrangement that imposed certain framework on Belarus.

Incredulously, no public reaction from the authorities in Minsk preceded or followed that announcement. Officials in the defense and foreign service ministries declined to comment on this—by all accounts—no small matter. They’ve instead suggested all questions be addressed to the Russians. The United States and European Union have also stayed quiet on the topic, although their officials privately acknowledge the issue demands careful consideration.

The manner in which Kremlin approaches the issue, and absence of public reciprocity from the government in Belarus, defines the initiative to establish the base as a unilateral endeavor by Russia. This decision is being imposed on the politically and economically vulnerable regime that is heavily dependent on Russia’s energy subsidies and its financial support.

The plan puts the country in the line of conflict 

However, the problem is that Belarusians do not want the Russian airbase, do not need it and do not invite Russians to bring in their advanced military capability.

From their point of view, the idea of a Russian airbase has obvious deficiencies. The Constitution of Belarus sets a goal to make the nation’s territory free of nuclear arms, and declares that the country seeks to be a neutral state. Obviously, the establishment of a Russian airbase contradicts the Constitution. In essence, Belarus is being drawn, against the will of its people, into closer military relations with a Russia that has become fully committed to a dangerous geopolitical agenda undermining international security. The presence of a major Russian military installation places Belarus in the line of conflict should tension between Russia and the West escalate further.

Another problem with the foreign airbase is that Belarus is ruled by the authoritarian regime of Alexander Lukashenko, whose international legitimacy has not been recognized by the West since the 1996 referendum. A decision whether to allow foreign military presence requires careful consideration by the state and society, which is possible when the state has a system of checks and balances and the society exercises an oversight over the policy formulation and implementation process. Both these conditions are absent in Belarus. Lukashenko, as the head of the executive branch, has amassed absolute power, and the society is cut off from decision-making.

An additional factor is that Belarus does not have any immediate security problems—other than unpredictable Russia itself—that would require the enhancement of its military capabilities. In spite of the authoritarian nature of the regime and continuous flagrant violations of human rights, the country has never been a direct threat to international peace and security. This is in part why the international community failed to accumulate enough political will to seriously confront Lukashenko’s practices. On the contrary, Belarus is perceived as an aide to international security. Most notably, the country voluntarily refused to own a nuclear arsenal, and together with Ukraine and Kazakhstan signed the now infamous Budapest Memorandum of 1994 on security assurances from Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Finally, Russia’s covert operation in Crimea last February demonstrated just how instrumental military bases on foreign soil can be when the Kremlin decides to interfere in the internal affairs of a sovereign neighboring state and annex foreign territories.

Belarus’ leash is very short

Russia sees Belarus through the same prism as Ukraine—a view of the world inherent only to Moscow: This is a former part of the empire that must be kept close and cannot bring forth surprises like domestic democracy, independent foreign policy and sound economic strategy. The contract that Russia insists on implies the reliance of Belarus and approval from Moscow of all meaningful political steps.

In Belarus’ case this leash is very short. Lukashenko, deeply dependent on Russia’s subsidies and loans, has traded sovereignty for the longevity of his rule, even if that required surrendering immediate national interests and long-term prospects of Belarus.

Nevertheless, since the annexation of Crimea, Belarusian president has treaded carefully. He’s tried to gradually normalize relations with the West while desperately trying not to give Putin any grounds to doubt his loyalty.

An upcoming election could leave the country with no choice

Belarus is facing obviously undemocratic presidential elections on October 11, which will most likely result in Lukashenko’s staying in power for a fifth consecutive term. Amid a severe economic crisis, a cash-strapped Lukashenko is vulnerable to Russia’s pressure to give up Belarus’s sovereignty and assets in return for yet another financial bailout.

This vulnerability—as well as Lukashenko’s cautious attempt to mend some bridges with the West that he deliberately and recklessly destroyed throughout his rule—have prompted Russia to make this decisive move and start implementing the idea of an advanced military capability in the country. The people of Russia also expect new victories by Vladimir Putin.

Russia has proven in Ukraine that it is ready and willing to disregard fundamental international norms and plunge neighboring countries into chaos and misery, jeopardizing their mere existence and shattering regional and global security.

In such undemocratic and non-transparent settings, any agreement with so far-reaching consequences, to be concluded under coercion with an aggressive power, cannot be recognized as legitimate. The West needs to look at this new unilateral initiative of Russia closely and prevent it from realization. It can lead to further escalation of tensions not just around Ukraine but the entire region of Eastern Europe, including its NATO member countries.

Originally published: http://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2015/10/01/in-russias-careful-expansion-game-belarus-is-moscows-next-target/