In a visit to Moscow last week, Belarusian Minister of Defence, Viktor Khrenin, discussed a number of matters with his Russian counterpart, mainly dealing with the current issues of the bilateral defence agenda – including the Strategic Partnership Programme (SPP) – aimed at boosting defence cooperation.
The much-anticipated meeting was a follow-up to the signature of the five-year SPP by the Defence Ministers of both nations on 2 March. This was, in turn, preceded by the talks between President Putin and his Belarusian counterpart, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, in Sochi at the end of February.
The 5 March Khrenin-Shoygu talks in Moscow were fruitful, resulting in a decision to establish three joint combat training centres, two in Russia and one in Belarus. The Ministers also discussed the 2021 joint military cooperation activities plan, including those related to the collective Russo-Belarusian air defence system.
The wording used to describe those centres is worthy of note. Normally, in Russian, ‘training centre’ or ‘military training centre’ is used to describe a military training facility. However, in this case, ‘combat training centres’ are mentioned, prompting us to speculate a little.
For instance, it remains unclear whether these centres will be used only for joint training, or for joint permanent or rotation-based deployment, thus constituting some sort of joint military units? In which case, we should take note of the increased real military Russian presence in Belarus. Currently, that presence is quite small, limited to the 70M6 VOLGA-type early warning radar station in Hantsavichy, run by the Russian Space Forces, and the Russian Navy’s 43rd Communications Centre, located near Vileyka and used to transmit orders to nuclear submarines in the low-frequency range. It is noteworthy that, prior to these talks, Lukashenka speculated about possible deployment of the Russian Air Force to Belarus, but this seems to have been postponed for now.
In last August’s contested presidential election in Belarus, Lukashenka managed to retain power. However, fraud and repression have narrowed his foreign policy options, and complicated relations with the West that were already difficult.
The joint combat training centres will be established in Kaliningrad and Nizhni Novgorod oblasts in Russia and in Belarus’ Grodno region. Given that two of them are in immediate proximity to the borders with Poland and Lithuania – both being NATO and EU members – this is hardly likely to improve an already tense regional security climate.
Belarus is the most integrated country with Russia in the post-Soviet era, being a part of all Moscow’s integration initiatives ranging from the Union State and the Collective Security Treaty Organization to the Eurasian Economic Union.
Denys Kolesnyk in Paris for MON