By Tony Rinna
The Republic of Belarus is currently the only state in east-central Europe which is a member of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), allowing the organisation to border three members of the European Union and NATO. As military ties between Belarus and Russia continue to grow against a backdrop of rising geopolitical tensions with NATO, it is increasingly important to understand the role that Belarus plays in Russia’s military thrust into Europe.
Belarus plays an important role as the CSTO’s flank against Europe and NATO in particular, which has broad security implications as the CSTO is primarily a defensive and military alliance designed to act as a counterbalance to NATO. Belarus-Russia military relations date back to the signing of the agreement in Tashkent, Uzbekistan in 1993 which established the CSTO, and in 1997 the two countries signed a bilateral agreement on mutual defence and security with the aim of strengthening the legal, strategic and technical ties in the two countries’ defence sectors. In 1995 Belarus and Russia began working towards a common air defence system, which they finalised in 2009. Today, key areas of Belarusian-Russian military cooperation include increasing troop interoperability, increasing mutual border defence measures, and developing military technology exchange. A large amount of Russian military hardware and equipment is positioned on Belarusian soil, although Russian nuclear weapons were removed from Belarus.
Recently, Belarus-Russia defence relations have demonstrated their implications for European security in the form of joint military exercises. From September 20th to 25th 2013, exercises involving troops from the CSTO’s Collective Rapid Reaction Force known as Interaction-2013 (Russian: Взаимодействие-2013) took place in Belarus. The exercise involved 600 troops from various divisions of the CSTO member states’ respective national militaries, including Kazakhstan’s 37th special airborne brigade and Belarus’s 103rd mobile special operations brigade.
It would seem more logical that the CSTO would want to hold exercises in a location where there is a greater and more immediate threat to Russian national security. Indeed, the majority of the threats such as terrorism, extremism and separatism emanate from Central Eurasia, and holding the exercises on the territory of CSTO member states Tajikistan or Armenia would not only be logistically easier, but would better prepare troops for collective mountain warfare or regional counter-terrorism operations. There is the possibility that the choice of Belarus as a venue for military exercises was taken as part of a larger effort to bring together the otherwise disparate members of the various Eurasian integrationist projects. Indeed, Belarus and Kazakhstan have been developing strong bilateral ties in the fields of trade, security and cultural exchange, within the broader context of Eurasian integration. Nevertheless, the implications for European security cannot go unnoticed, as Russia is clearly preparing to be able to operate in the Eastern European theatre, either in an offensive or defensive position.
The choice of Belarus as a venue for the exercises clearly demonstrates that Russia still places great importance on the Eastern European theatre, and wants to be fully prepared to do battle in that region. Belarus plays a critical role in the defence of Russia’s territory, leading to the prioritisation of Belarus-Russia military ties, not only in the context of the CSTO and other Eurasian integration projects, but specifically in the context of bilateral relations between Belarus and Russia. General Leonid G. Ivashov of the Academy of Geopolitical Issues has compared Belarus to a wedge separating Russia from potentially hostile states.
In addition to CSTO exercises, joint military exercises are regularly held between Russia and Belarus alone, the most recent one known as Zapad-2013. Officially, Zapad-2013 was billed as an exercise to prepare participating forces to combat rogue forces such as terrorists, and Russia insisted this was not an anti-NATO exercise. The participation of missile and naval units in the exercise, however, raises questions as to the veracity of the statement that this was not an anti-NATO undertaking, especially given the issue of a proposed US-led missile defense system in the region as well as the strategic vitality of the Baltic Sea. Zapad-2013 was the biggest Belarusian military exercise in at least 20 years, which involved around a quarter of the country’s forces. While Zapad-2013 has drawn consternation from NATO, some experts insist that Russia has no intention of increasing tensions with NATO, and Deputy Defence Minister Anatoly Antonov has even stated that NATO officials would be invited as observers.
Major General Piotr Tikhonovky, head of Belarus’s general staff, stated that Zapad-13 would take place at training areas near the Belarusian cities of Osipovich, Brest and Obuz-Lesnovsky; the latter two are close to the Polish border. Prior to the commencement of the exercises, Russia announced the opening of a Russian air force base near Lida, Belarus, close to the Polish and Lithuanian borders. Lt. Gen. Vladimir Bondarev, who serves as the chief of Russia’s air force, specifically cited NATO expansion as the impetus for the construction of the base. Zapad-13 may be a reaction to NATO’s Steadfast Jazz training exercise to take place in November in the Baltic states and Poland. The exercises have been described by Russia as something out of the Cold War, and Viktor Litovkin, editor-in-chief of the Russian journal Independent Military Review (Russian: Независимое Военное Обозрение) considers that the exercises are almost a provocation for Russia.
Of all the new NATO members in Central and Eastern Europe, it is Poland that represents the most vulnerable as well as strategically important for both Russia and Europe, given its large size and history as a key battleground and buffer zone for Europe and Russia over the centuries. Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza revealed that NATO has instated contingency plans to defend Poland against an undefined enemy – an enemy which, no doubt, would be Russia. While the details of this plan are top secret in nature, Gazeta Wyborcza did glean that defensive measures would engage nine military divisions – four Polish, and five from nations such as Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Defensive measures would be taken in the air, land and sea theatres. In the case of the latter, the port of Świnoujście is designated as being of critical strategic importance, which is telling given that Świnoujście is the site of a planned receiving port for liquefied natural gas imported from abroad.
Although Belarus has taken a back seat in the current US foreign policy, particularly in regards to the decreased importance the US has placed on Eastern Europe in its foreign policy, Belarus stands to become more than just a political oddity and the “last dictatorship in Europe”. It may likely become a staging point for Russian and CSTO offensive measures against Central and Eastern Europe, and at the very least clearly demonstrates the potential for Russia’s strategic military thrust into Europe. Thus, the EU, NATO and the US would do well to monitor Belarus’s defence ties with Russia to ensure European security and to eventually achieve the goal of a “Europe whole and free”.