Disregarding Russian diplomats’ smooth speeches on mutually beneficial cross-border cooperation, from time to time weapons are rattled and aimed at our country on the other side of Latvia’s Eastern frontier. Military training episodes include scenarios presenting the Baltic countries in the status of Russia’s adversaries. Next military exercise Zapad 2013 is to be held this September with the planned participation of Russia and Belarus. Presently no direct military threat to Latvia is posed, however, we cannot pretend being unaware of the increase in Russian military presence near our frontier both in Russia and in our neighbouring country Belarus.
Shoigu in Belarus
On this April 23, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu arrived in Minsk for a work visit where he met his Belarusian colleague Juri Zhadobin and Belarusian President Lukashenko. Shoigu called Belarusians the brothers, and he got warm reception in Minsk. The meeting included discussion of several issues, but special attention was paid to Shoigu’s announcement of the planned stationing of missile systems and Russian military airbase in Belarus. According to the plan, Russian missile systems S-300 will be supplied to Belarus in 2014, and a fighter regiment will be located there in 2015.
Military ties between Russia and Belarus have already been quite close so far. Nearly all the armament used by Belarus has been manufactured in Russia. Over the last fifteen years, Russian military higher-schools have educated more than one thousand Belarusian military persons. The following Russian military objects are located in Belarus: Radio-Technical Centre in Gantsevichi – the fixed radio-location station “Volga” capable of observing ballistic missiles and space objects in the range of 4800 km, and 43rd Communications Centre in Vileika securing radio communication for Russian Navy with vessels and submarines, as well as performing radio interception.
According to Lukashenko, the military exercise is directed neither against the Poles, nor Balts, nor NATO. But the scenarios of the previous exercises do not support this statement. Furthermore, Polish mass media have publicized the information that this year a “preventive” nuclear attack on Warsaw will be imitated during the exercise… Lukashenko added that they (us – the Balts, Poles and NATO in general) have to be aware that “in case they attempt to look at us in a wrong way, our reaction will follow”. Does Lukashenko really consider that NATO might conduct an attack on Belarus? The general impression, however, is that Lukashenko’s statements, made in the aforementioned event, were rather of cautious not fighting character.
Belarusians remind also that both Russia and Belarus are the members of Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). According to the Article 4 of the Collective Security Treaty, signed in 1992, “In case of aggression commission to any of the Member States, all the other Member States at request of this Member State shall immediately provide the latter with the necessary help, including military one, as well as provide support by the means at their disposal…” CSTO is rather the expression of Russia’s regional ambitions, not the evidence of solidarity among all the member countries. For example, it is difficult to imagine that Belarusian or Kazakh military persons would involve in the warfare between Russia and Georgia. The cooperation within CSTO, however, would serve as the basis for Russia’s military support for Belarus in case of implementation of the Libyan scenario against the authoritarian Belarusian leadership, the possibility of which is presently close to nil. The Lukashenko’s statements indicate that he is not too convinced about that.
It is possible also that Lukashenko uses the existing concern about eventual Western humanitarian intervention to persuade his country’s citizens that Russia’s military presence is necessary. He has not succeeded in persuading the opposition members who indicate that the new agreement contradicts the status of Belarus as the neutral country. Such Lukashenko’s activities have been caused mainly by the economic weakness and Russia’s preference to settlement of energy issues. While allowing Russia to resolve its security issues, Belarus would hamper sale of its strategic enterprises to Moscow.
Quite Close to Latgale
Along with Zapad-2013 and the fighters in Belarus, some changes are expected also on the other side of the Latvia – Russia frontier. Western Military District Air Defence and Air Force Commander Igor Makushev announced in this March that Russia was going to station a new military airbase on Ostrova airfield, Pskov Region. According to the major-general, the airbase will have helicopters Ka-52, Mi-35, Mi-28, Mi-26, Mi-8MTB5. The pilots have already been trained at the training centre, and the airbase is to be completed in the first six months of this year. Let the military specialists discuss the capability and mission of these aircraft, but one thing is already clear – the helicopters are capable of transporting special and subversive activities units not being detected by adversary radars. Russia’s care for so called compatriots (many of whom are residing in Latgale Region), Latgalian language and the local activists’ rhetoric about autonomy of Latgale, in combination with the military base formed near Latvia, cause if not concern, then at least some thoughts about the objective of such military base.
Relationship between Neighbours
Latvia’s participation in NATO provides us with security guarantees the effectiveness of which will not be tested by Russia in the nearest future. However, the neighbour who is looking at your house through backsight and storing ammunition next to your fence, should not be judged just by his speeches expressing wish to cooperate beneficially. Besides, we should bear in mind that some years ago this neighbour took away by force a part of his Southern neighbour’s garden in order to hamper his accession to our club. One of the international policy research approaches – realism postulate – says that there are no friends in international relations, only interests. So the Latvia’s security interests need the Baltic countries’ participation in a united, fighting-fit and rapidly reacting NATO having not alternative either in the medium-term or long-term perspective.