Russia’s Near Abroad, Part 3 – Lithuania & Belarus

In Part 3 of this series, the author describes how Lithuania and Belarus have attempted to get out from under Russia's shadow

How Lithuania and Belarus have attempted to get out from under Russia's shadow
How Lithuania and Belarus have attempted to get out from under Russia's shadow

Part 1 of this series was about Crimea and Part 2, about Latvia.
[dropcap color=”#008040″ boxed=”yes” boxed_radius=”8px” class=”” id=””]D[/dropcap]uring an interview with Jeremy Shapiro, Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius cited Crimea and Georgia for thinking that Russia was his country’s greatest threat.14    He added that being a member of NATO and the EU was a blessing.  He felt secure that NATO would come to Lithuania’s aid in case Russia misused it military strength, especially from the militarization of strategically-placed Kaliningrad.

Lithuania took several steps to reduce ties with Russia. It would increase its military budget as Latvia did.  It reintroduced the draft which was abolished in 2008.  To avoid the oil and gas monopoly that Russian Gazprom had, a floating import terminal will be ready by the end of 2016 with the help of a Norwegian company.15     Lithuania, like Latvia, is demanding compensation for Russian occupation before 2015.  Lithuania wants targeted sanctions against Russian officials. The US already stores 180 nuclear bombs in different parts of the EU.  Lithuania has also coaxed the US to spend $3m to build a munitions storage facility at the Air Base in Siauliai in northern Lithuania.16   Lithuania also wants to host planes that can carry nuclear warheads for safety.  Meanwhile, American warships like the USS Donald Cook, USS John Dunham, and USS Oscar Austin have visited Klaipëda as a show of strength.

Regional brigades for defensive purposes is another way thwarting Russia.  Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine are launching the Litpolukrbrig Brigade with 4,000 troops for peace keeping operations, starting in 2017.17       This brigade will be headquartered in Lublin.  Though Poland and Lithuania are members of NATO and Ukraine is not, the latter was a member of an alliance, Partnership for Peace, eastern outreach programme, since 1994.  This coalition will broaden out to include Georgia, Belarus, and Moldova in areas of security, defense, energy and transport.  It appears that the European nations of the Near Abroad have united to increase stability in their region.  Speaking for the region, Linkevičius said that dealing with Russia is like playing football against a rugby team.

[dropcap color=”#008040″ boxed=”yes” boxed_radius=”8px” class=”” id=””]O[/dropcap]f all the states in Russia’s Near Abroad, Belarus and Ukraine are closest to Russia.  Russia is the home of the ‘Great Russians’, Belarusians are ‘White Russians’, and Ukrainians are ‘Little Russians.’  It is not surprising that Belarus had a two-state union with Russia from December 5, 1999 but it never fully matured.  Although Russian is widely spoken, ethnic Russians are just 8.3% of the 9.5 m. population.18     Like Russia, Belarus has a dictator, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who is in his fifth term as president; Belarus has its own ruble and an active KGB.  Just as Putin’s Administration went after oil tycoon and its richest man Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Lukashenka’s KGB detained its wealthiest businessman and ally, Yury Chyzh.  Chyzh was known as ‘Lukashenko’s purse.’”19    Reasons for Chyzh’s detention are not clear: perhaps, there was an internal power struggle; perhaps, there was   a failed attempt to raise money internally; or perhaps, there was a crackdown on private businessmen.

But 2016 is witnessing a tilt towards the West.  Research Director of the Ostrogorski Centre Siarhei Bohdan attributes this change to Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Syria.20    Russia has also stopped cooperating with its new neighbours in the field of military hardware.  Russia wants to keep secrets on the manufacture of its Iskander and Tor mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles.  Belarus refused to fight for Russia and its allies; it wants to forge an independent policy if it can.  For a start, political prisoners were released as required for an IMF loan.  Sanctions were suspended against Belarus but not Russia after the October 2015 elections.

Many of Belarus’ actions go against Russia and it appears that Putin’s tolerance will be tested.  Lukashenka seems to be reaching out to new customers, mainly Islamic nations.  To cite one important example, Lukashenka attended an Organisation of Islamic Cooperation summit in Istanbul and from the sidelines forged a $1 billion trade deal.21    His aim is to bolster trade with any part of the world.  Belarus seems to be successful.

Belarus sales of military equipment to Ukraine increased by $100m: aircraft from 0% to 45% of sales; in 2014 aircraft sales to Ukraine amounted to $5m and in the following year it reached $14m.  In 2015, sales of special trucks increased by 210% from $1.7m in 2014.  Ukrainian expertise helped Belarus in building Palanez, a multiple launch rocket system, which is officially a Belarus-China project.  The armoured vehicle, Varta, is also a combined Belarus-Ukraine project.22

Russia does not seem to be unduly worried that Belarus is arming Russia’s assumed enemies.  Perhaps it is because Russia is modernising the Baranovichi’s 61st Fighter Air base in Belarus where it has 4 SU-27 & 5 MIG-29.  Belarus has excellent pilots but lacks the cash to have its own fighter jets.  This base is intended to be part of Russia’s Quick Reaction Alert system.23

But in 2010-11 and again in 2013, Russia flexed its muscles by stopping deliveries of discounted oil to Belarus.  In 2014, Russia blocked $4.5b worth of foodstuff exports to Russia.  Lukashenka realizes that, “one should be cautious with Russia.”24

References

  1. Stefan Kirchner, “Crimea’s declaration of independence and the subsequent annexation by Russia under international law,” Journal of International Law, January 9, 2015.

  2. “Russian Defense Minister names Russia’s main task,” pravda.ru, April 24, 2016.

  3. “Concept of foreign policy has changed for Estonia,” baltictimes.com, 27.7.2016.

  4. Mikhail Kulkushin, “Estonia wants more NATO troops – but only if they aren’t black,” observer.com, 22.2.2016.

  5. “Russia and Estonia exchange spies after Kohver row,” bbc.com, September 26, 2016.

  6. Bartoz Bieliszczuk, “David and Goliath? Estonia-Russia relations,” visegradplus.org, 10.1.2015.

  7. “Panic in Estonia: Russia kills its economy at one fell swoop,” pravda.ru, 15.4.2016.

  8. Mathew Luzmovre, “Latvia struggles with restive Russian minority amid regional tensions,” america.aljazeera.com, June 13, 2015.

  9. “Latvia-Russia relations in deepest crisis in 20 years,” sputniknews.com, 12.9.2015.

  10. Carl J. Williams, “Latvia, with a large minority of Russians worries about Putin’s goals,” latimes.com, April 13, 2016.

  11. Lydia Tomkiw, “Russia-NATO relations, 2016: Armed aggression, Latvia calls for more military troops,” ibtimes.com, 24.2.2016.

  12. Embassy of Latvia, “Relations between Latvia and Russia,” mfa.gov.lv, 29.9.2015.

  13. “Latvia wants Putin to apologize for Soviet occupation,” pravda.ru, 22.2.2013.

  14. Jeremy Shapiro, “The Russian threat to Lithuania: An interview with Foreign Minister Linas Linkervicius,” brookings.edu.

  15. “Lithuania-Russia relations,” globalsecurity.org, no date.

  16. Adanas Abromaitis, “Nuclear weapons in Lithuania; defense against Russia or target for terrorists,” baltic-review.com, April 16, 2016. Also see Ingvar Henry Lotts, “Russia invasion: two train stations in Lithuania have been cordoned off…” balticreveiw.com, March 19, 2015.

  17. “Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine to launch Joint Brigade in 2017,” defensenews.com, January 25, 2016.

  18. CIA Factbook – Belarus

  19. Siarhei Bohdan & Ryhor Astapenia, “Why Belarus KGB detained the country’ former top businessman,” belarusdigest.com, March 18, 2016.

  20. Siarhei Bohdan, “How Belarus disappointed Russia in Ukraine and Syria,” belarusdigest.com, December 18, 2015.

  21. “Belarus eager to bolster trade, economic cooperation with foreign partners,” belarus.by, April 15, 2016.

  22. cit. Bohdan.

  23. Chris Biggers, “Russian airbase in Belarus remains in limbo,” bellingcat.com, December 27, 2015.

  24. Mikalai Anischacka, “Is Belarus and Russia’s ‘brotherly love’ coming to an end?” theguardian.com, May 29, 2015.

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