Tensions on the Rise between Belarus and Russia

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 220

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka

After several weeks of ostensible silence, discussions over a potential Russian airbase in Belarus have taken on new vigor. As early as September, President Vladimir Putin of Russia asked his government to sign the airbase agreement with Belarus. The initial public reaction of Putin’s Belarusian counterpart, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, was predictable in the spirit if not in the letter of what he said. Specifically, he claimed that he had never even heard about the issue: “I do not know anything about it.” During the October 11 presidential election, Lukashenka toughened his stand, suggesting that Belarus does not need a Russian airbase, period (see EDM, September 23, October 7, December 2).

Apparently, Moscow understood Lukashenka’s domestic predicament, realizing that a Belarusian electorate mobilized around the idea of independent statehood, coupled with growing economic problems, were hardly compatible with Minsk allowing a foreign airbase on Belarusian soil. So at last October’s Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) summits in Astana, Kazakhstan, the airbase issue was not even touched. Moreover, on October 22, Belarus’s Defense Minister Andrei Ravkov echoed Lukashenka’s earlier statement and several days thereafter Vladimir Makei, the foreign minister, also said the airbase does not make sense. Nevertheless, during the run-up to Lukashenka’s now canceled first post-election international trip, to Moscow, it turned out that Russia has not backtracked on its plans (see EDM, September 23, October 7, December 2).

Why this tenacity from the Russian side? The reputed Belarusian military analyst Alexander Alesin believes Moscow is pursuing several goals at the same time. The most important one is boosting the defense of its western borders, in particular of its Kaliningrad exclave, which is “across the fence” from Poland and Lithuania. The second goal is counterbalancing Poland’s air force and, possibly, an Aegis Ashore interceptor site in Rędzikowo, Poland, which is planned for full deployment in 2018. The Barack Obama administration had not abandoned its missile defense plans after an agreement was reached with Iran on its nuclear program. Consequently, this made the White House’s explanations of its plans even more suspect in the eyes of the Kremlin. Alesin believes it is highly likely Putin will succeed in cornering Lukashenka, who is in dire need of Russian financial infusions and cheap energy imports (Naviny.by, December 2).

According to Alexander Klaskovsky of Belapan, a non-state press agency, the Kremlin’s wrath goes beyond Lukashenka’s intransigence on the airbase. For example, Eugeny Satanovsky, the president of the Moscow-based Institute of the Middle East, published an article lambasting Belarus for its export of weaponry to Qatar on the grounds that it ends up in the hands of Syrian Islamists, militants on the Sinai Peninsula, and Syrian supporters of the Islamic State. The reason behind Satanovsky’s suspicion is that the Qatari army is routinely supplied by weaponry from the United States and, consequently, does not actually need Belarusian arms imports. Multiple voices in the Russian media have urged the Kremlin to test the loyalty of its Belarusian ally. In this regard, the title of Satanovsky’s article speaks volumes—the “Commonwealth of backstabbers”—implying that none of Russia’s actual allies has taken a firm pro-Russian stand. Furthermore, Klaskovsky quotes another leading Belarusian military analyst, Andrei Porotnikov, who claims that as long as Russia is immersed in a conflict with Turkey and the Arabian monarchies, Russia will be increasing its pressure on Belarus. Aside from that, the mushrooming predictions that oil prices are going to stay low for quite a while do not bode well for Belarus’s export revenues (as refined oil is cheap as well) and for Russia’s ability to financially prop up the Belarusian economy. On the one hand, Vice Premier Vladimir Semashko of Belarus confirmed the creation of a taskforce aimed at convincing Russia to lower the price of its oil sold to Belarus so as to boost the profit margin of Belarusian refineries (Naviny.by, December 3). On the other hand, the negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) about the possibility of borrowing $3 billion with an interest rate of 2.28 percent for the period of ten years are in full swing (Tut.by, December 1).

Besides the airbase-related tensions, there are other signs of worsening relations with Russia. Thus, beginning on December 7, Russia introduced a special phytosanitary border control over food imports from Belarus. This measure was attributed to the allegedly expanding re-export of banned agricultural products from Europe via Belarus, such as apples, pears and persimmons (Tut.by, December 1).

An even more serious sign of worsening bilateral relations was reflected in the article “What is wrong with the Russian version of trade relations between Turkey and the IS [Islamic State]?” written by the political scientist Yury Tsarik for the major Belarusian daily Belarus Segodnya. According to Tsarik’s article, the Russian Ministry of Defense believes that oil extracted by the Islamic State makes it to Turkey along three routes: the central one (via Kamishli, Turkey), the eastern one (via Gizra, Turkey) and the western one (via Reyhanli, Turkey). However, Tsarik notes that none of these corridors is under the Islamic State’s full control. In contrast, a fourth land corridor, via the border crossing at Jarābulus, that is, through the province of Aleppo, is indeed under IS’s full control. The paradox is that this transit corridor is currently entirely protected by Russia’s S-400 missile defense system. So Russia could soon start bombing the infrastructure of that specific area, thus demonstratively repudiating Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has accused Russia of trading with the IS, as well as the US State Department, which rejected the idea of Erdoğan’s own ties to the extremist militant group. Or, alternatively, Tsarik asserts, things could take an entirely different turn (Belarus Segodnya, December 4). An ellipsis following this statement and the article at large, plainly suggests the potential veracity of Erdoğan’s accusation as opposed to Moscow’s.

Considering how intertwined Russia’s and Belarus’s security apparatuses are rumored to be, it would be unwise to make far-reaching conclusions on the basis of this seemingly bombshell article. Nevertheless, coupled with other signs of tensions between the two countries, it may not be an exaggeration to claim that their relationship is entering uncharted waters.