CSTO military officials watch a demonstration of a Russian military surveillance system at a meeting in Yekaterinburg. (photo: CSTO)
Russia is planning to create a unified air defense system with all of its allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization, senior Russian officials said during a meeting of the organization this week in Yekaterinburg.
Russia has talked about creating a joint system for years; the Commonwealth of Independent States formally agreed to work on it in 1995. Progress has been slow since then, but a joint system is in place between Russia and Belarus, there are bilateral efforts underway to work on joint systems with Armenia and Kazakhstan, while discussions with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have for the most part been just that.
But now Russia is getting serious, said retired Lieutenant General Alexander Gorkov, former head of Russia's air defense forces, in an interview with Svobodnaya Pressa. "We see that reports periodically appear in the media about the creation of air defense systems on a bilateral basis, in particular with Armenia and Kazakhstan, but clearly these are only announcements and intentions, they're only now starting to talk about practical steps."
A Russian Su-27 fighter, soon to be based permanently somewhere in Belarus. (photo: mil.ru)
Russia has chosen a new location for its air base in Belarus and pushed back the date of its establishment by a year.
Russia has been talking about establishing an air base in Belarus since last year, which would be its first post-Soviet military facility in the country, but the details keep changing. In June 2013, Russia said it would set up the base near Lida "within months." In August 2014, Russia's air force chief Lieutenant General Viktor Bondarev said that the base would be located instead in Baranovichi (and denied that Lida had ever been the plan), and would open in 2015.
But this week, Bondarev again addressed the question of the base, and said it would now open in 2016 and would be in Babruysk, in eastern Belarus. (Lida and Baranovichi are both in the western part of the country.) “The airbase of the Russian and Belarusian Air Force will be created in 2016. Su-27 fighter jets will be based there,” Bondarev told reporters.
Russia has settled on a location for its planned air base in Belarus scheduled to start operating next year, the head of the air force has said.
The base will be located in Baranovichi, in western Belarus, said Lieutenant General Viktor Bondarev. “We will set up a base in Baranovichi. We are only waiting for an intergovernmental agreement to be signed,” he said.
The base will host Russian Su-27 aircraft, four of which were deployed to Baranovichi in December. But it hadn't been clear where the base would ultimately be located. When Russian officials announced plans for the base last summer they said it would be at a base in Lida; by November they were saying that "several potential locations have been identified in Belarus, but that further consultations were needed with the neighboring former Soviet nation's authorities."
"We never planned this in Lida, everything will be in Baranovichi," Bondarev said Monday, despite the fact that it was Bondarev himself who had originally identified Lida as the site.
Perhaps the most prickly question about the Eurasian Union -- the new, Russia-centric trade club -- is whether or not its members can bring to this neo-Soviet party their significant others. In other words, associated separatist dependencies.
Like with many Moscow clubs, there is face-control in the Eurasian Union. For now, Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus have it all to themselves. Disputed breakaway formations like Nagorno Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, though, are also keen for inclusion.
But getting the separatist territories in would cause a wave of bad blood between the Eurasian Union members and the countries (Azerbaijan and Georgia, respectively) who demand these territories back. Leaving them out, in turn, may hamper the territories' ability to get economic sustenance from club-founder Russia and prospective member Armenia.
This is a pain in the neck, in particular, for Armenia, which already has been requested by the club to leave its own protégé, Nagorno Karabakh, in the cloakroom.
Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev last week quite curtly told his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sargsyan, that none of the founding members have any desire to aggravate Azerbaijan. You only get in "within the boundaries recognised by the United Nations," he advised at an Astana roundtable.
Sargsyan, a Karabakh native, later said that Armenia never intended to slip the mountainous territory (which Yerevan essentially views as a separate country) into the club.
Presidents of Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan watch a military exercise from the Kremlin. (photo: kremlin.ru)
Russian President Vladimir Putin convened an "informal" summit of his allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization last week as Moscow faced continued international isolation over its role in the Ukraine crisis. But the event only highlighted the misgivings of Russia's foreign policy direction, even among its closest allies.
For one, there was the absence of Nursultan Nazarbayev, president of CSTO member Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan is the CSTO member with the most international stature (outside of Russia); with Kazakhstan the group hardly presents an impressive front; without it, remaining CSTO allies Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are an even more motley crew.
And Nazarbayev's excuse was one unlikely to elicit understanding from the Kremlin: he had to stay in Astana to meet with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns. And Burns, after meeting with Nazarbayev, told the local press that he had brought the message from Washington that "so long as Russia continues down its current dangerous and irresponsible path, we will continue to work with our international partners to apply steadily increasing counter-pressure." The jilted CSTO allies continued on undaunted; It seems the words "Nazarbayev" or "Kazakhstan" were not uttered at the meeting, in public anyway, and the Kremlin account did not mention the fact that it was called under the auspices of the CSTO (though the CSTO itself did).
Belarus has been increasing its military cooperation with Russia during the period of the crisis in Ukraine, but analysts argue that is as much as a way to keep Moscow at arm's length as a desire for closer ties.
Earlier this month, Russia sent six Su-27 fighter jets to Belarus's Babruisk airfield, which Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said was prompted by the U.S. sending its own fighter jets to neighboring Poland and Lithuania. “We reacted calmly until large-scale exercises began ... in Poland,” Lukashenko said. “There is a clear escalation of the situation near our borders.”
Meanwhile, however, Belarus's government has been noticeably reluctant to toe Moscow's line on Russian policy in Ukraine. Its foreign ministry has not endorsed the Crimean annexation, unlike many of its fellow Collective Security Treaty Organization members like Armenia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan.
As the Belarus Security Blog argued, Belarus considers its military to be a low priority. "In this case, official Minsk decided to demonstrate its loyalty on defense issues in order to neutralize the effect from refusing to follow Russian policy," a recent post said.
Officers taking part in joint Russia-Belarus military exercises in 2013. (photo: mil.ru)
Russia has taken the first steps toward establishing its first air base in Belarus, but questions remain over how much Moscow will have to pay for the privilege.
Last month, four Russian Su-27 fighter jets and their support personnel arrived at the Baranovichi air base, near Belarus's borders with Poland and Lithiania (both NATO members). The move is part of a plan to set up a Russian fighter jet regiment, likely at another base in Belarus, by 2015. RIA Novosti writes that the new base would be "Russia’s first on Belarusian territory in modern times."
The terms of the base agreement, however, are yet to be worked out, which holds the promise of some interesting times ahead in Russia-Belarus relations. At the end of December, Russia's ambassador to Minsk said that the two sides would work out the terms together, saying that "these things don't happen for free."
RIA Novosti sums up the international implications of the new Russian base:
Plans for the airbase come amid continued irritation in Moscow over combat air patrols from NATO members states Latvia and Lithuania, which lie near Belarus, wandering into areas close to Russian airspace.
European defense officials have bristled at evidence of Russia’s increased military deployments close to NATO’s border, arguing that it fuels tension with former Communist bloc countries in Central Europe and the Baltic States.
Presidents Alexander Lukashenko and Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov in Ashgabat. (photo: press service of the president of Belarus)
Belarus will help build a factory for drone aircraft in Turkmenistan, the two countries announced during a visit by President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko to the Central Asian country:
The unmanned aerial vehicles are needed for Turkmenistan “to monitor its territory, its borders and drug-trafficking,” Lukashenko said after a meeting with his Turkmen counterpart, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.
From Belarus's perspective, this would appear to be part of a recent effort to take advantage of its substantial defense insustry to set up joint ventures in other countries, including Vietnam, Laos, Indonesia, and Bangladesh.
This is not Turkmenistan's first acquisition of drones: in 2009, it bought a number of small tactical UAVs from Russian company Zala Aero to be "operated by special units of Ministry of Internal Affairs of Turkmenistan to provide support in surveillance missions and on counterterrorist operations." But this new venture would appear to be the first time that Turkmenistan itself is building drones -- and indeed, almost any defense equipment at all. Turkmenistan has no defense industry to speak of, and the fact that it is trying to start out with something so flashy as drones is suggestive of a tendency that some have noticed in Turkmenistan's military buildup, that it is motivated as much by a drive for prestige as by genuine operational needs.
Demonstrators in Bishkek, furious that Minsk is ignoring demands to extradite the brother of the former president to face murder charges, roughed up the Belarusian Embassy on August 28, local news agencies reported.
Many in Kyrgyzstan are livid that Janysh Bakiyev popped up in Belarus earlier this month a free man. A Belarusian activist said he posted photos of ex-President Kurmanbek Bakiyev's hated little brother on August 17 because he was tired of seeing his country become “a scrapheap for escaped dictators.”
The Bakiyevs were ousted in bloody street riots in April 2010, when Kurmanbek fled to Belarus. Bishkek has repeatedly requested his extradition, though the ex-autocrat is said to have scored Belarusian citizenship and a $2-million home in the capital.
Upwards of 50 people, including relatives of those who died on April 7, 2010, attacked the embassy, Radio Azattyk reported, breaking windows and destroying furniture. Janysh, his brother's security boss, is accused of giving orders to fire on the crowd as Bakiyev clung to power, resulting in about 90 dead and hundreds wounded. Bishkek is trying the brothers in absentia.
Charter 97, a Belarusian news site critical of President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime, reported that Ambassador Viktor Denisenko met protestors and made some vague promises.
Despite the violence, Minsk says it has no plans to recall its ambassador from Kyrgyzstan.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has given a high five to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili for their support for Minsk amid growing European Union pressure for Belarus to clean up its human rights act. Both countries opposed a scathing declaration from the EU about harassment of political opposition and independent media in Belarus.
“They [the Europeans] thought that we would bang our heads against the door, that we would cry and beg… but no!,” Lukashenko said, after Belarus withdrew from a September 29-30 summit in Warsaw, where ties between the EU and its ex-Soviet neighbors were discussed,
Ukraine, Moldova and Armenia also stopped short of supporting the EU statement, but Georgia and Azerbaijan received special thanks as the most avid Belarus supporters.
But this support is caused by very pragmatic considerations. Georgia views Belarus as the weak link in ex-Soviet countries’ support for Georgia’s territorial integrity in the face of Russian pressure to recognize breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.
Azerbaijan, a potential energy partner which also knows what it's like to be summoned to the international woodshed on human rights issues, obviously chose to avoid what could arguably be called a case of the pot calling the kettle black.
In a conclusive message to the world, Lukashenko said his enemies will not take Belarus away from him and that he will live a long life to spite all ill-wishers.