- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 5, 2009

MOSCOW | Russia and Belarus will create a new military system to monitor and defend their airspace, the Kremlin said Tuesday - strengthening cooperation between the two uneasy allies who are deeply suspicious of U.S. plans to put a missile defense shield in Europe.

The deal reflects the former Soviet neighbors’ mistrust of Western intentions. It also reflects their shared opposition to NATO’s expansion into former Soviet turf and U.S. efforts to build missile defense sites in Belarus’ neighbor Poland and the Czech Republic.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said he and his Belarusian counterpart, Alexander Lukashenko, had brokered a deal that “will significantly increase the defense capability of Russia and Belarus.”

The joint system — to include five air force units and 10 air defense missile units — will improve the two countries’ ability to monitor their airspace, Russian air force chief Gen. Alexander Zelin was quoted by Russian media as saying.

But it is not clear whether the force would have any sort of deterrent or offensive nature, possibly to attack or counter the U.S. missile defenses.

The U.S. missile defense plan was pushed hard by the Bush administration, which said it would help protect Europe from ballistic missiles fired from Iran, for example. But Moscow said it would reduce Russia’s missile deterrent capability, and it threatened to put medium-range missile in a region near Belarus’ borders.

The fate of the U.S. project is less certain now that President Obama, who has signaled less enthusiasm for it, has taken office.

Belarus and Russia have been negotiating their joint air defense system for years, with Belarus reportedly lobbying for better terms and more generous Russian aid. The business daily Kommersant said Mr. Lukashenko had demanded new Russian weapons at subsidized prices and Russian orders from Belarusian defense industries.

Mr. Lukashenko appeared to corroborate that report, saying Tuesday that creating the joint air defense field should be part of a package toward “deepening military-technical cooperation.”

Independent military analyst Alexander Golts said the deal carries little military meaning and is most likely aimed at adding substance to a weakening Russia-Belarus alliance.

Mr. Lukashenko also may use the deal to push the Kremlin for more aid, he said.

“When Russia demands that Belarus pays off its debts, Mr. Lukashenko may point at this deal and say: ‘How can you talk about money with us who protect you?’ ” Mr. Golts told the Associated Press in a telephone interview.

The Kremlin has been a key sponsor of Mr. Lukashenko - dubbed “Europe’s last dictator” by the United States and the European Union for his relentless crackdowns on dissent. But the Belarusian leader made efforts last year to improve relations with the West, releasing opposition activists and making other overtures.

Russia has backed Belarus with cheap energy supplies and loans, and the countries have a union agreement that envisages close political and economic ties.

Belarus’ Soviet-style, centrally planned economy has been hard hit by the global financial crisis, and Mr. Lukashenko last year secured a $2 billion loan from Russia as well as a deal for Russian natural gas at a lower price than what other ex-Soviet nations pay.

Russia said Tuesday it would consider Belarus’ request for another $3 billion or so in credit, but did not elaborate.

Western loans, however, could help reduce Belarus’ dependence on Moscow. In a sign of improving ties between Belarus and the West, the International Monetary Fund last month approved a $2.46 billion loan to Belarus. Belarusian officials also hope for a $1 billion loan from the World Bank.

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