On Wednesday, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko landed in Russia, where he will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin today to discuss myriad topics, including trade and economic cooperation. Among the most important issues likely to come up is defense integration. It’s an area in which Moscow has pushed for more cooperation ever since the founding of an organization called the Union State, which encourages political and economic integration between the two countries.
Since the 1990s, Moscow has tried to develop a political, economic, military, customs, monetary, legal and cultural unity with Belarus through the Union State. Little progress has been made in this regard, but Russia and Belarus have managed to find several areas of cooperation. By November, they’re expected to sign about 10 integration agreements relating to industry, agriculture, transport, customs, taxes and finance. And according to Russian Minister of Economic Development Maxim Oreshkin, the Russian Central Bank and the National Bank of Belarus are in talks on the possibility of introducing a single currency, though the negotiations are still in the early stages. The most intense cooperation has come in matters of defense, a critical issue on which Moscow needs all the support it can get right now.
But Russia isn’t satisfied with the current level of cooperation, and its patience is wearing thin. It’s worried about NATO’s eastward expansion, as Poland continues to build up its military to counter the Russian threat. In June, the United States and Poland agreed to the deployment of U.S. reconnaissance drones on Polish territory and the increase of U.S. troops stationed in Poland to 4,500. Warsaw is also in talks to buy 32 U.S.-made F-35 fighter jets to replace Soviet-era Su-22 bombers and MiG-29 fighters. The Baltic states are another security concern for Russia. The annual BALTOPS military exercises were held last month in the Baltic Sea. Some 8,600 troops – an increase of over 3,000 from last year – from 18 NATO countries and allies took part. The Baltic Protector exercises in Estonia were also recently completed.
Lukashenko has promised that Belarus will respond jointly with Russia to any security threats, but Belarus doesn’t seem particularly interested in increasing military cooperation beyond the current level. The Kremlin ultimately wants greater access to Belarusian territory, which includes new Russian military bases on Belarusian soil. It also wants to restructure the military alliance between the two countries to suit its own interests. But so far, Minsk has refused Russia’s demands, and Russian access to Belarusian territory remains fairly limited. The Union State’s current military doctrine, which was established in 2001, and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, of which both countries are signatories, obligate member states to come to the defense of another member under attack, but there is no agreement currently in place that would allow Moscow access to Belarusian territory without first having to ask the Belarusian government for permission. Hence the push for more progress on the Union State.
The alternative, of course, is to simply annex Belarus. But Russia doesn’t consider this a real possibility for two reasons. First, it’s much easier for Russia to keep Belarus as a buffer state than to invade its neighbor. Second, Russia doesn’t want to incur new sanctions from the West, which would certainly result from the annexation of a sovereign European country.
Russia has, therefore, chosen to focus on tightening military integration. To that end, Putin has already approved a draft copy of an updated military doctrine for the Union State. Lukashenko, on the other hand, has yet to give his own seal of approval, something Putin is hoping he can get by the end of 2019. The draft hasn’t been made public, but it reportedly discusses the top sources of military threats, and on this point, Russia and Belarus have somewhat different views. Russia’s own military doctrine, updated in 2015, refers to NATO as the country’s primary threat; Belarus’ military doctrine, revised just one year after Russia’s, does not.
Their differences don’t end there. While Belarus wants to strengthen ties with Moscow, it wants to do so as a sovereign state. Lukashenko, therefore, is trying to maintain control over Belarus’ foreign and military policy – which might explain why he’s resisted approving the joint military doctrine. For him, the best approach to security for Belarus is maintaining neutrality (or, at least, as much as that’s possible for Russia’s closest ally). He has, as a result, discussed military cooperation with Ukraine and Poland. He has also worked to strengthen the Belarusian military, even making public comments about Belarus needing to defend its own sovereignty and not relying on Russia or NATO for defense. In June, the Belarusian Parliament passed a law that tightened conscription rules, allowing Belarusians to defer military service to pursue post-secondary education only once. Lukashenko is also resisting Russian plans to build a military base in Belarus, proposing instead to boost the Belarusian component of the Union State deployment. While Belarus is willing to buy Russian weapons and conduct joint military exercises with Russia, it’s not willing to give up its sovereignty to help protect Russian interests.
As he arrives for talks with Putin, Lukashenko knows that Russia will demand deeper military cooperation in exchange for any compromises on other issues. Russian Minister of Finance Anton Siluanov has repeatedly stressed that Belarus will be compensated for its losses resulting from changes to the oil sector tax system – a particularly sensitive issue for Lukashenko and the Belarusian economy – only after further integration between the two countries. Russia has also linked the provisions of a $630 million state loan to refinance Belarus’ debt to Russia with the integration process. But Belarus has already managed to find an alternative: In June, it secured a 3.5 billion-yuan ($500 million) loan from the Chinese Development Bank.
If Moscow wants deeper military integration with Belarus, it too will have to make some concessions. It might offer more loans or military supplies, for which Belarus has little use. But Lukashenko will likely continue to negotiate better terms for Belarus on other issues and carefully side-step Moscow’s demands on military integration, as it has done fairly skillfully so far.