Russia has taken the first steps toward establishing its first air base in Belarus, but questions remain over how much Moscow will have to pay for the privilege.
Last month, four Russian Su-27 fighter jets and their support personnel arrived at the Baranovichi air base, near Belarus's borders with Poland and Lithiania (both NATO members). The move is part of a plan to set up a Russian fighter jet regiment, likely at another base in Belarus, by 2015. RIA Novosti writes that the new base would be "Russia’s first on Belarusian territory in modern times."
The terms of the base agreement, however, are yet to be worked out, which holds the promise of some interesting times ahead in Russia-Belarus relations. At the end of December, Russia's ambassador to Minsk said that the two sides would work out the terms together, saying that "these things don't happen for free."
RIA Novosti sums up the international implications of the new Russian base:
Plans for the airbase come amid continued irritation in Moscow over combat air patrols from NATO members states Latvia and Lithuania, which lie near Belarus, wandering into areas close to Russian airspace.
European defense officials have bristled at evidence of Russia’s increased military deployments close to NATO’s border, arguing that it fuels tension with former Communist bloc countries in Central Europe and the Baltic States.
And Belarus Digest notices a couple of interesting things about the initial deployment: first, that the planes currently are under Belarussian command; and second, that they are not the variant that was initially proposed: "Instead of the Su-27SM3 fighters which were initially announced to be arriving, fighters of the 'P' class were sent to Belarus. The Su-27P is a defence aircraft and, according to open sources, is not able to use air-to-surface weapons."
Their analysis concludes:
It is evident that the bargaining for the creation of a truly Russian air force base in Belarus continues and the overall situation remains uncertain. After having deployed the first element, Moscow, for image reasons, will be interested in pushing the air force base issue through and achieving its practical implementation. For Minsk this gives them a potential opportunity to ask for the highest possible price.
Get the popcorn.