Belarus loses military independence to retain independent foreign policy
Belarus remains neutral as regards events in Ukraine and makes some concessions to the Kremlin. President Lukashenko gives way to pressure from Moscow and assumes increased Russian military presence in Belarus. At the same time, the authorities do not doubt the need to preserve Ukraine’s territorial integrity so as not to spoil relations with the West and the new Ukrainian leadership.
On March 13th, six Russian Su-27s and three military transport planes, including technical support staff from Russia’s Western Military district, landed in Bobruisk airfield in Belarus.
While taking part in the Security Council meeting on March 12th, which reported about the Armed Forces’ combat readiness, President Lukashenko offered Russia to deploy additional fighter jets to Belarus. He explained it by the NATO increasing its military presence at the Belarusian borders. The day before, President Lukashenko had a telephone conversation with President Putin. The next day, six Su-27 fighters and three military transport aircrafts landed in Bobruisk.
The pace at which Russian aircrafts were deployed to Bobruisk near the border with Ukraine (not Poland or Lithuania), implies there has been a preliminary agreement on the matter between Minsk and Moscow. Despite concessions to the Kremlin in the military sphere, President Lukashenko attempts to retain his positions in the public domain. Overly dependent on the Kremlin, Minsk cannot take an official stance on the crisis in Ukraine which would differ from Moscow’s.
Meanwhile, Belarus’ Foreign Ministry has repeatedly issued statements about the events in Ukraine which could irritate Moscow. Belarusian diplomats have reiterated Belarus’ commitment to preserving Ukraine’s territorial integrity. President Lukashenko confirmed that the Belarusian Foreign Ministry’s position had been coordinated, “this position has been consolidated, and this is a single stance. Moreover, the Foreign Minister had been instructed to convey our position to the international community and leaders of other states, which has been done. Today our position remains unchanged”. It is noteworthy that the state news agency BelTA has published an article ‘Whether Russians want war’, expressing strong opposition to Russia’s actions in Crimea.
In recent years, military cooperation between Belarus and Russia has increased considerably. Taking advantage of the weakening state and defence capabilities of Belarus, the Kremlin has increased its military presence there. Currently, Belarus hosts four Russian military facilities: military radar and missile detection systems in Gantsevichi, Russian Navy’s communication post in Vileika, and Russian fighter jets in Baranovichi and Bobruisk. Moreover, Minsk’s military dependence on the Kremlin has increased sharply. In late 2013, four Russian Su-27s were deployed in Baranovichi and in March 2014 – six Russian Su-27s and three military transport aircrafts in Bobruisk.
Belarus is gradually losing her sovereignty in the military sphere to Russia, despite President Lukashenko’s attempts to keep up his appearances as an independent figure. Nevertheless, Belarus will remain neutral over the crisis in Ukraine.
The Belarusian authorities regard the Catholic conference as yet another international event to promote Minsk as a global negotiating platform. Minsk’s proposal to organise a meeting between the Roman-Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church is rather an image-making undertaking than a serious intention. However, the authorities could somewhat extend the opportunities for the Roman-Catholic Church in Belarus due to developing contacts with the Catholic world.
Minsk is attempting to lay out a mosaic from various international religious, political and sportive events to shape a positive image of Belarus for promoting the Helsinki 2.0 idea.
Belarus’ invitation to the head of the Holy See for a meeting with the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church should be regarded as a continuation of her foreign policy efforts in shaping Minsk’s peacekeeping image and enhancing Belarus’ international weight. The Belarusian authorities are aware that their initiative is unlikely to find supporters among the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. In Russia, isolationist sentiments prevail.
In addition, for domestic audiences, the authorities make up for the lack of tangible economic growth with demonstrations of growth in Minsk’s authority at international level through providing a platform for religious, sportive and other dialogues.