By Joshua Kucera*
Russian officials have said that they want to deploy new missiles in Belarus in response to American missile defense deployments in Romania and Poland, a new test for Minsk’s precarious balancing act between Russia and the West.
The United States’s new missile defense site in Romania officially became operational earlier this month, and Russians (justifiably) see the new facility as targeted towards their country. Russian President Vladimir Putin has promised “strong countermeasures” to respond. There have been no official suggestions about what that might entail, but anonymous Russian officials have been saying that one measure could be to deploy Iskander-M missiles in Belarus.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited Minsk on May 16 and that proposal was reportedly on the agenda. A source “close to the Russian defense ministry” told the newspaper Kommersant that deploying Iskander-Ms to Belarus would be a “logical response” to the American missile defense installation and other NATO activity close to Russia’s western borders.
During Lavrov’s visit, his Belarusian counterpart Uladzimer Makey criticized the American missile-defense deployment and said that Belarus and Russia agreed to discuss taking “appropriate countermeasures together.”
But behind the cooperative public statements lie substantial differences in what the appropriate response might be. Belarus opposes the Iskander-M deployment, at least on Russia’s terms: while Minsk would be interesting in a donation or even purchase of its own Iskander-Ms, Russia is proposing the missiles be manned by Russian servicemembers, a demand that is apparently unacceptable to the Belarusian side, Kommersant’s source reports.
This follows a similar behind-the-scenes dispute, over the possible establishment of a Russian airbase in Belarus. That issue appears to be settled — for now — as Belarus at the end of last year finally publicly mentioned the proposal, and rejected it. That was a remarkable repudiation of Moscow’s interests in Belarus, which not long ago acted much like a Russian puppet state. But this discussion of the Iskander-M deployment suggests that the Kremlin is not done pushing.
Belarus opposes the system for two reasons, notes Belarusian military analyst Siarhei Bohdan: for one, the presence of Russian troops in Belarus could be used to interfere in Belarus’s internal affairs; and secondly, Belarus’s strategic position of guarding Russia’s western flank is a bargaining chip that it would lose if it were to allow Russians to defend that flank themselves.
Another Belarusian analyst, Alexander Alesin, identifies another reason: Belarus has recently won important diplomatic concessions from the West, including the lifting of sanctions, progress which would be reversed if it were to allow a Russian military facility in the country. (Although the sanctions relief was ostensibly a reward for Minsk making some steps on human rights, Alesin likely correctly identfies the real reason as Minsk’s recent attempts to resist Russia’s geopolitical ambitions.)