Belarusian leader faces tough choice: Shield for Moscow or bridge to Europe

By Alyaksandr Alesin
The leaders of Belarus and Russia agreed on August 19 to sign an accord on the establishment of a single air defense system this fall.
Russian Ambassador Aleksandr Surikov told reporters two days after the talks that the accord may be signed at the next session of the Union State Supreme State Council. Its date has not yet been set. It is unclear whether the draft was rewritten in connection with the US plan to deploy a missile shield in Europe. A US deal with Poland to site interceptor missiles in that country might have prompted Russia to speed up talks on the agreement with Belarus.

Russia originally intended to establish three regional air defense systems in the CIS, in particular in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia. The regional air defense commands would be in charge of missile, air, electronic intelligence, radar and communication units in the respective territories.

The Belarusian-Russian single air defense system, if created, would be the first regional system established in the CIS. It would be the cornerstone of the CIS Integrated Air Defense System.

Russian generals believe that the deployment of NATO tactical aircraft to Poland, the Czech Republic and the Baltic states considerably expanded their range and poses a threat to military bases in Russia. They argue that fighters can fire cruise missiles to attack Russia's silo-based long-range missiles and, in the future, ground-based mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles.

From Poland, Russian military experts say, tactical aircraft would be able to attack strategic missile bases in Kozelsk, Vypolzovo, Teykovo and Kostorma. Fighters based in Estonia can threaten bases in Yuria, Yoshkar-Ola and Tatishchevo.

The Kremlin hopes that a possible single air defense system with Belarus would be an example of mutually beneficial military cooperation for other CIS countries wary of Russia after its invasion in Georgia.

Negotiated since 1999, the accord has been held up by Belarus' reluctance to place its air defense forces under the Russian central command.

Defense officials repeatedly said that the single air defense system was actually functioning as the countries' air defense units worked closely with each other and shared intelligence. The agreement was necessary to codify the system's structure and operation procedures.

Some commentators speculated that the two governments could not agree on a price of the deal. The Kremlin considered that Minsk asked too much for its role of a shield for Moscow.

The negotiations on the single air defense system may be closely linked to tensions between Belarus and Russia over gas pricing and market access.

Alyaksandr Lukashenka appears to believe that former Russian President Vladimir Putin backed out of a deal that he struck with his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, whereby Minsk agreed to honor Russia's military and geopolitical interests in Belarus in return for preferential treatment in the economy.

After Russia doubled the gas price in 2007, the Belarusian leader probably thought that he was free from earlier obligations and put forward new conditions.

The negotiations on the air defense shield that Moscow wants to have in the west are far from over. It will not be easy for Russia to reach the much-desired deal as Minsk is also interested in improving ties with the European Union and the United States.