Russian President Vladimir Putin has backed the establishment of an airbase in neighboring Belarus. This marks Moscow's latest move to project its military power abroad.
President Vladimir Putin has signaled his intention to establish a Russian military airbase in neighboring Belarus - a move that could likely unnerve Poland and the Baltic nations.
Belarus has made it clear that it would not welcome a Russian base, but the former Soviet republic remains dependent on Moscow for credit and energy. Russia already has radars and a navy communications facility in Belarus, as well as a number of fighter jets, but this would be the first military base. Russian defense officials said the base would be used to station SU-27 fighters.
Putin ordered the Russian Defense Ministry, with the participation of the Russian Foreign Ministry, to hold talks with their Belarusian counterparts and sign the eventual agreement. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has not commented on Putin's initiative.
Belarus has only few options: expert
Russia already has military bases in ex-Soviet neighbors Kyrgyzstan and Armenia, which like Belarus are also members of the Eurasian Economic Union that Putin sees as the embryo of a new geopolitical bloc. But Belarus is another desirable location for Russia, as it borders Ukraine and three members of the European Union and NATO: Lithuania, Latvia and Poland.
Analyst Valery Karbalevich, with the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS), said that against the background of the Ukraine crisis the stationing of a permanent Russian military contingent in Belarus would "upset the balance of forces and facilitate an increase in tension in the whole region.
"It is obvious that the Kremlin really twisted Lukashenko's arm," Karbalevich told the Associated Press. "Belarus is totally dependent on Russia and has to pay somehow for the cheap Russian oil, gas and credits."
As part of an effort to improve Belarus' relations with the West, President Lukashenko has remained neutral on the conflict in Ukraine between the Western-aligned government in Kyiv and the Russia-backed separatists in the east. Nonetheless, Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus since 1994, has long been regarded as a key Russian ally and is often criticized by his opposition as well as the West for his record on human rights.
Russia's sphere of interest
The idea of setting up an airbase in the ex-Soviet republic had initially been revealed by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in 2013, and followed a 2009 agreement under which Russia and Belarus agreed to defend their common external frontier and airspace.
Russia has scaled back its military presence abroad, closing bases in distant Cold War allies such as Cuba and Vietnam. However, a naval base at Tartus in Syria has recently become the focus of worldwide attention as Russia has boosted its troop presence there in a move seen as bolstering its diplomatic influence in the region.
The creation of a base in Belarus may also serve as a signal to the West that Russia will not tolerate intrusion in its traditional sphere of influence.
ss/cmk (AP, Reuters)