The United States and Belarus are intensifying their military cooperation, as Minsk -- nominally a close ally of Russia -- seems to be trying to diversify its options.
U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Carpenter visited Minsk at the end of last month, where he said Washington "hope[s] to build a foundation for improving our bilateral relations, including in the security and defense arena." Carpenter also mentioned "progress that we have seen over the past six months," apparently referring to the release of some political prisoners. That was the pretext for the U.S. and the European Union loosening some sanctions on the country, though it appears that the West's increasing attentions to Minsk may be more motivated by geopolitical considerations vis-a-vis Russia.
Carpenter met with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, a surprisingly high-level reception for someone of his rank in the Pentagon bureaucracy. The main result of the visit appears to have been an agreement to exchange military attaches. (The U.S. embassy in Minsk has been operating on a skeleton crew since 2008 when the Belarusian government forced them to downsize.) During the visit it also emerged that defense talks between the two sides began last year, with the previously unreported visit of a Belarusian defense ministry official to Washington.
Lukashenko wasn't exactly effusive in his praise of Washington during Carpenter's visit. he suggested that Washington could "stop the war" in eastern Ukraine if it wanted to, and suggested that it saw NATO's military buildup in the east as a threat, albeit a minor one, according to the official release from Lukashenko's office:
The Belarusian side is not overenthusiastic about the activation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the so-called promotion of NATO in the East. “We cannot but respond to it because it happens near our borders,” the Belarusian leader said. He added that he does not want to demonize or exaggerate this process. Alexander Lukashenko does not think that NATO is going to fight Russia or Belarus. “It is impossible and unnecessary in the current conditions,” he noted.
But Lukashenko also added that although Belarus was a member of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, it did not actually plan to defend any of the other countries in the alliance. And a few days later, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makey said that the question of establishing a Russian air base in the country -- which Russia had said was a done deal last fall -- was now "closed." (Carpenter had said in Minsk that the U.S. and its allies saw the possibility of a Russian air base in Belarus as a "destabilization of the situation.")
There doesn't appear to have been any official reaction from the Kremlin, but the Russian media reaction has been strong. "Belarus declared the question of a Russian airbase closed. It's not too nice to hear that from an ally," tweeted Igor Korotchenko, the editor of the military magazine Natsionalnaya Oborona. "Carpenter's visit to Belarus: Testing Russia or the Beginning of a Betrayal?" asked Russian news site Regnum. Lenta.ru said that, with its reception of the U.S. official, Belarus "was effectively spitting on Moscow."
So could Belarus be the next stage of confrontation between Russia and the West? Chatham House analyst Keir Giles suggests so:
Russia will seek means of deterring what it sees as US encroachment, but judging the point at which it will act will be challenging. In Ukraine, it took the departure from power of President Viktor Yanukovych. But it is possible that, emboldened by success in Ukraine and Syria, Russia might feel capable of intervening at an earlier and less dramatic stage in the case of Belarus.
The range of options to do so is broad. Russia may react calmly in public to this US visit, and restrict any strong words to private back channel warnings. But it could equally be that Moscow is already preparing an assertive response. In Ukraine and Syria, President Vladimir Putin may not necessarily have developed a taste for conflict, but it is entirely likely that he has developed a taste for success in asserting what he sees as Russia's security interests.
Siarhei Bohdan, writing at Belarus Digest, emphasized that Lukashenko will tread very carefully to keep that from happening, pointing to the announcement last week of an (insignificant in practical terms) agreement on air defense between Minsk and Moscow:
Minsk is doing everything possible to avoid being squeezed between the increasing military activities of both NATO and Russia. In these circumstances its attempts to find a new channel of communication with the West, particularly in the security sphere, reflects survival logic.
At the same time, the Belarusian government realises the risks of ignoring the security needs of Russia which the Kremlin perceives as vital, such as the air defence of Moscow. Minsk provides for these needs, yet defends concurrently its own sovereignty, interests and neutrality as far as possible.