NATO-Russia Tensions Lie behind S-400s for Belarus

By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst
Russia hopes to deliver its first S-400 state-of-the-art anti-aircraft interceptor missiles to Belarus as soon as next year.

Lt. Gen. Vadim Volkovitsky, the first deputy commander of the Russian air force, was careful not to commit the Kremlin to an exact delivery schedule for the S-400s when he spoke publicly on April 9. However, a report from RIA Novosti covering his remarks said that Russia hopes to deliver the first S-400s to Belarus as early as 2010.

That looks like an ambitious deadline to meet, for the Russian defense aerospace industry has only just managed to deliver enough S-400s to equip a second air-defense regiment of their own air force. Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov announced its activation on March 17.

Therefore, Volkovitsky was careful to avoid committing himself to any hard date for the S-400 deliveries to Belarus. "We are still discussing the dates for delivery of the S-400 systems, but I am certain that it will happen as part of our efforts to develop an integrated air-defense network," he said, according to an April 9 report from RIA Novosti.

However, even if the first S-400s for Belarus are not delivered on time, the willingness of Russian officials to try to do so reflects the primary importance they give to strengthening Russia's Western air defenses and the historic invasion route to Moscow across Belarus and directly from the West. It was the route taken by Napoleon's Grande Armee in 1812 and by the Nazi Wehrmacht that occupied all of the territory of Belarus mercilessly for three years during World War II, which Russians call the Great Patriotic War.

Today, no one in the United States or any of its European NATO allies dreams of invading Russia. But tensions between Russia and the West have been growing dramatically, and they broke surface last August when the Russian army invaded the former Soviet republic of Georgia in the Caucasus, which had been seeking to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Russian ground forces occupied one-third of the territory of Georgia in less than five days.

The willingness of the Kremlin to use its armed forces against a former Soviet republic, and one that had close ties to the Bush administration in the United States at the time, made clear that Russia's rulers have certainly not ruled out the possible use of force as a last resort to maintain their national security and achieve their political goals.

Relations between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization remain tense. Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's ambassador to the U.S.-led Alliance, on April 14 angrily protested NATO plans to hold new military exercises in Georgia.

The Cooperative Longbow/Lancer 2009 exercise is scheduled to be carried out at Georgia's Vaziani military base from May 3 to June 3. The ambitious maneuvers will involve no fewer than 900 troops from 23 of NATO's 28 nations, and they will be conducted as part of NATO's Partnership for Peace program.

But Rogozin accused the alliance of meddling in Georgia's internal affairs. "NATO is trying to interfere in Georgia's affairs in this way," he told RIA Novosti. The news agency said Rogozin also warned Russia would feel forced to retaliate in reaction to the exercises.

Supplying S-400 anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems to Belarus therefore has to be seen in the context of the continuing suspicion by Russia's leaders about NATO and the United States, even though U.S. President Barack Obama is eager to improve ties and negotiate a new strategic arms-reduction agreement with the Kremlin.

Significantly, the S-400 deployment would not come under the definition of the kind of strategic nuclear systems that would be negotiated under such a treaty. But in the event of any future hostilities between Belarus and Lithuania or even Poland, those S-400s could prove of real tactical importance.

Russia's plans to send its S-400s to Belarus, along with NATO's planned exercises in Georgia, teach the harsh reality that new divisions in Europe are emerging to replace the old ones.