Some time ago, I wrote about Russia’s attempts to use economic levers to force Belarus to submit to Putin’s demands, and many readers didn’t like it. It’s understandable – many Latvian commentators go out of their way to support the Kremlin’s attempts of interfering in the information space of Latvia.
Remembering the article about the Kremlin’s instruments of economic leverage used to influence Ukraine and Belarus, it can be predicted that Putin will do everything in his power to force Belarus into submission. However, it seems that all this time Belarus was devising a plan B – one that doesn’t necessarily concern economics directly but could drive Putin to desperation.
On 2 March, Belarusian-British joint drills called Winter Partisan begun in Vitebsk Oblast involving 29 soldiers of the 42nd Naval Infantry Battalion from the UK side and a peacekeeping company from the 103rd Airborne Brigade from the Belarusian side. The drills will conclude on 14 March.
These are quite small exercises, minuscule even, but they are significant for other reasons. The drills are noteworthy because Belarus is a CSTO member, an organization that also includes Russia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, while the United Kingdom is a NATO member.
The CSTO treaty was signed on 15 May 1992 and took effect on 20 April 1994. Coincidentally, Article 4 of the treaty resembles Article 5 of NATO. There is no doubt that the CSTO was established after the collapse of the USSR so that Russia would have its own military alliance to counterbalance NATO.
And now Belarus, a CSTO member, holds joint exercises with the UK, a NATO member. All of this marks Belarus’ attempts to become closer not only with the EU, but with NATO as well, and for Putin this is a clear alarm.
Another equally important aspect is the location of the drills, i.e. Vitebsk Oblast which borders Lithuania, Latvia and… Russia. To illustrate what is going on: NATO troops are currently taking part in military exercises not on Russia’s doorstep, but with one foot already in Russia.
There are currently two Russian military objects in Belarus – the Volga radar (Hantsavichy, Brest Oblast) intended to identify ballistic missile launches, and the Russian Navy’s 43rd Communications Center (Vileyka, Minsk Oblast) that maintains communications with nuclear submarines in the Atlantic, Indian and partly the Pacific oceans.
The agreement on these military objects ends on 7 June 2021, and Putin is undoubtedly more than interested to maintain his hold over them in the future as well. However, it seems that Putin’s own approach of “forcing” Belarus can backfire.
It is also interesting that Belarus, despite being a CSTO member, has managed to avoid establishing additional Russian military bases in its territories. Russia did attempt to do so, and in 2013 Russian Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu expressed hopes that there will be an aviation regiment in Belarus by 2015. In 2015, Putin himself had tasked the ministries of defense and foreign affairs with taking the necessary steps to reach an intergovernmental agreement with Belarus on this matter.
It does seem that Lukashenko still remembers February 2014 when Russia used its military bases to seize the Crimean Peninsula – quite perceptive on Lukashenko’s part. This move was the first signal for Putin that Belarus may not wish to get too “friendly” with Russia.
The third notable aspect is the name of the drills – Winter Partisan. There hasn’t been a lot of snow this season, but the word partisan is quite suggestive. As already stated, the drills are held in an area bordering Lithuania, Latvia and Russia and feature Belarusian and British troops. Britain is part of NATO, along with Latvia and Lithuania. So against whom exactly will the partisans go to war? There is one country missing – Russia. Nothing else needs to be said, and I believe Putin feels the same way.
In order to see the full picture, we have to remember 2018 when Lukashenko promised that in case of war each family and every Belarusian adult will receive weapons, warning that because of insufficient economic development the state is under threat. “We are on the front line. If we do not make it through this, if we fail, we will then have to either become a part of some other country or a doormat for some other country. God forbid there is another war like in Ukraine.” In 2019, during an interview with the radio station Ekho Moskvy Lukashenko expressed that if Russia attempts to violate the sovereignty in Belarus, NATO and the West will react accordingly.
To conclude – if Putin has made Belarus understand that cheaper energy resources will only be available if Belarus agrees to form a union with Russia, then Lukashenko has made his intentions clear in case Putin does not change his stance.
It currently seems that in this duel Lukashenko is the favorite. Without a doubt, procuring energy resources from other nations will be more costly than from Russia, but by diverting from the pro-Kremlin course Belarus can expect economic assistance from the EU and the US, and even more important – expect to become a NATO member. What would this mean for Russia? We only need to take a quick look at the map to see what this would mean, not even mentioning the disgrace this would bring upon Putin.
One last thing – Russian media outlets are being uncharacteristically quiet about these drills. Could this mean anything?
Zintis Znotiņš, Independent investigative journalist