Belarus Signs New Air Defense Deal

APLukashenko, right, meeting with Medvedev, Putin and other senior Russian officials in the Kremlin on Tuesday.
Russia and Belarus agreed to form a joint air defense system, the Kremlin said Tuesday, strengthening military cooperation between the two uneasy allies.

The agreement -- announced after talks between President Dmitry Medvedev and his Belarussian counterpart, Alexander Lukashenko -- would create a joint force consisting of Russian and Belarussian air force squadrons, missile batteries and radar facilities.

The deal reflects a deep mistrust of Western intentions by both countries, as well as their shared opposition to NATO's expansion into former Soviet turf and U.S. plans to build missile-defense sites in Belarus' neighbor, Poland, and the Czech Republic.

Medvedev hailed the deal during the talks, saying it "will significantly increase the defense capability of Russia and Belarus."

Air Force commander Alexander Zelin has said the joint system would help Russian and Belarussian militaries to strengthen monitoring of airspace. The system will include five air force units and 10 air defense missile units, Zelin was quoted by news reports as saying.

The agreement has been in negotiation for years, with Belarus reportedly lobbying for better terms and more generous Russian aid.

Kommersant reported that as conditions for striking the deal, Lukashenko had demanded new Russian weapons at subsidized prices and Russian orders from Belarussian defense industries.

Lukashenko appeared to corroborate that report, saying Tuesday that the creation of a joint air defense field should be part of a package toward "deepening military-technical cooperation."

Independent military analyst Alexander Golts said the deal carries little military meaning and is mostly aimed at adding some substance to a weakening Russia-Belarus alliance.

Lukashenko also may use the deal to push the Kremlin for more aid, he said.

"When Russia demands that Belarus pay off its debts, Lukashenko may point at this deal and say, 'How can you talk about money with us who protect you?"' Golts said in a telephone interview.

The Kremlin has been a key sponsor of Lukashenko -- dubbed "Europe's last dictator" by the United States and the European Union for his crackdown on dissent. But the Belarussian leader made efforts last year to improve relations with the West, releasing opposition activists and making other overtures.

Russia has backed Belarus with cheap energy supplies and loans, and the former Soviet neighbors have a union agreement that envisages close political and economic ties, though in reality it has amounted to little.

Belarus' Soviet-style, centrally planned economy has been hard hit by the global financial crisis, and Lukashenko secured a $2 billion loan from Russia last fall and pushed for another credit tranche equivalent to $3 billion.

Russia on Tuesday promised to consider the request but would not say how much money it could give.

Lukashenko also last fall secured a deal for the supply of Russian natural gas at a price much cheaper than other former Soviet nations.

In a sign of improving ties between Belarus and the West, the International Monetary Fund last month approved a $2.46 billion loan to Belarus. Belarussian officials also voiced hope that they may get a $1 billion loan from the World Bank.