What Does Putin Have Planned For Belarus?

Putin and Lukashenko
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko make a statement after a session of the Supreme State Council of Russia-Belarus Union State in Minsk, Belarus, February 25, 2016. Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik/Kremlin/Reuters

Russia has announced that it has set up a joint air defence system with Belarus.

As with so many joint projects between Moscow and Minsk, this appears to be a Russian idea that could remain largely on paper without Belarusian cooperation. But it does create an opportunity that Russia could exploit if relations with NATO and the West deteriorate further.

The significant point is not the announcement, but whether and how it is implemented. A notional joint air defence system between Russia and Belarus is a very old idea, and plans for the current incarnation date back to 2009. It's not unique: previous announcements like this have been made with respect to Kazakhstan, for instance. So while it is tempting to see this development as a Russian response to a recent US senior defence visit to Belarus, in fact it had been scheduled for a long time beforehand.

But in the context of current relations between the two countries, every new move takes on additional significance. Russia will be watching with concern Belarus's improving relations with the West for any sign that this means loosening ties with Russia.

President Lukashenko has built on his consistent position that Belarus is a neutral power, by setting up Minsk as the site for negotiations on the Ukraine crisis, and by demonstrating political distance from Moscow on controversial issues—most notably Russia's conflicts with Georgia, Ukraine and Turkey. Small initial steps in the direction of political liberalisation at home have combined with this ostensible neutrality in foreign policy to make Belarus a more acceptable prospect for the EU and the United States.

Some Belarusian commentators are fearful that this process could lead to a Russian intervention along the lines of Ukraine, to ensure Belarusian obedience and if necessary to remove President Lukashenko and replace him with another figure more acceptable to Moscow. But Russia will have little interest in destabilising Belarus, with consequent expensive unrest on the Russian border, if more subtle ways of reining in Lukashenko's independence can be found. In fact, the current president may be the least worst option for Russia. After decades of persecution by the Belarusian authorities, the political opposition there is small and marginalised—but it is entirely pro-Western, and there is no recognised figure within the country who would make a credible pro-Russian replacement for Lukashenko.

The position of Belarus's Armed Forces in all this is ambiguous. Military cooperation with Russia is close, and joint exercises and other joint events are normal. Russia's major Zapad manoeuvres, for instance, ordinarily include Belarusian troops, as well as regular smaller exercises taking place in both countries. In May, Belarusian paratroopers are scheduled to join their Russian counterparts jumping at the North Pole. But the perception of the two armed forces as closely integrated is misleading, despite the fact that a so-called "Union State" of Russia and Belarus has been in existence for 20 years.

Belarus resists Russian attempts to take over provision of its security. When Belarus needed to purchase modern fighter aircraft to upgrade its ageing air force, Moscow announced instead that Belarus would be hosting a Russian airbase. President Lukashenko faced down pressure from Russia, and successfully insisted on the aircraft purchase.

In fact there is a consistent pattern of Russia announcing "joint" initiatives which are not endorsed by Minsk. Just as in the case of the airbase, last week's announcement of a joint air defence system was made in Russia, and Belarus has not publicly commented. At the weekend, Belarusian TV even showed an extended feature on the country's Air Defence Troops without once mentioning the supposed agreement with Russia. True, the general in charge of the Belarusian air force has been nominated as the commander for the "joint system"; but this may be little more than a face-saver for Minsk.

Russia has even announced that a "joint military organization of the Union State" will be created starting this year, including notional unification of the two countries' armed forces. But once again, this statement was made by Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoygu, with no comment from Belarus.

Where Russian air defence systems are located, and how much their operations are integrated with Belarusian systems, is of course important. If Belarus should decide, or be persuaded, to host advanced Russian air defence systems, this greatly extends their range into NATO airspace. But even before that, if Russia exercises what it sees as its right to defend Belarusian airspace, that pushes Russia's air defence zone forward by hundreds of kilometres. It would then directly border NATO members Lithuania and Poland, previously separated from Russia by notionally neutral Belarus, and deepen the isolation of the Baltic states from the NATO "mainland".

So the points to watch over the coming months are whether Belarus allows this announcement to turn into real integration with Russian air defence, or whether—like many other Russian claims before it, and the "Union State" itself—it remains largely a formality with little impact in real life.

Keir Giles is an associate fellow at Chatham House in London, and a senior researcher at the Conflict Studies Research Centre.