President Vladimir Putin is actively seeking to restore Russia’s imperial character. With an important role to play in the conflict in Syria, U.S. document leaker Edward Snowden’s asylum in Moscow, and the recent economic agreements signed with Ukraine, Russia finds itself in the global politics spotlight. The upcoming Sochi Olympics Games and the pardon of former oligarch and longtime enemy of the authorities Mikhail Khodorkovsky will also serve as a show of strength. Putin is back in the game. But these overshadow another issue that should not be taken nonchalantly and is another example of Putin’s eagerness to divide and rule. Russia has deployed four SU-27P aircraft in Baranovichi, Belarus. Based on the document signed in 2009, both countries will create an integrated air defense system, including aircraft patrols and short and medium-range missiles.
Under pressure from the Kremlin, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has to play by Putin’s rules. Belarusians are looking to sign a year-long oil supplies contract in ongoing negotiations for 2014, but Moscow has proposed a six-month arrangement instead. Russian aircraft in Belarus are only a prelude to more in-depth “cooperation” between Minsk and Moscow. It was already announced that an air base near the borders with Poland and Lithuania will be opened. Although Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said this year that it will not be a threat to NATO, the Russian plans are a clear response to the envisioned U.S. missile defense system in Europe. Russia is still interested in sustaining and expanding its sphere of influence, and Eastern Europe is on Putin’s agenda. And most of all, Putin does not like to lose. Russia uses different political tactics on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes it uses aggressive pressure (Belarus); sometimes it uses provocation (Snowden); and sometimes it cajoles the international community (Khodorkovsky). Putin himself continues to be a skilled diplomat.
While Belarus is an ally, it is subject to the will of the Kremlin, and Putin does not hesitate to be critical of Lukashenko. For Poland and the post-Soviet Baltic states, the deployment of Iskander missiles in the Kaliningrad Region is similarly grave. Pressure is applied to both friends and potential opponents. Putin looks at global politics through a pragmatic lens, and his thinking is based on a zero-sum game. He is, however, not taking into account that he might not succeed. Putin’s latest actions prove that Moscow wants to be perceived and treated as a powerful state. Whether it is or not is a different question. But one cannot say it is not a fruitful approach.
Michal Romanowski is a program coordinator in GMF's Warsaw office.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.