Russia is beefing up its western border's defence with plans for a new airbase in Belarus and sales to the government there of one of its most sophisticated surface-to-air missile systems.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu announced April 23 a new deal with Minsk that will see Russia deploy fighter jets atÂ a new Belarusian airbase this year, effectively turning the country into a buffer zone to Europe.
"We have begun considering theÂ plan toÂ create aÂ Russian air base with fighter jets here," Shoigu said atÂ a meeting with Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko inÂ the capital, Minsk. "We hope that inÂ 2015 there will be aÂ regiment ofÂ warplanes [in Belarus] that will serve toÂ defend our borders."
Relations with the West have been deteriorating and sometime last year the Kremlin decided it needed to go on the offensive and significantly upgrade its conventional military might. Russian President Vladimir Putin has promised massive investment into modernizing the Russian army, but the campaign went into a move visible gear in March when he ordered the biggest military exercises of the Russian Black Sea fleet since the fall of the Soviet Union.
In addition to the new airbase, the Russian government also announced that it would sell Minsk its S-300 surface-to-air missile system - one of the most sophisticated in the world that can take down bombers, fighter jets and missiles aimed at Russia. Russia has reserved the even more sophisticated S-400 system for itself and is working on an improved S-500 system that will be ready in the coming years.
The modernization of the Russian military will take at least a decade to complete by the Kremlin's own admission, but it is being helped by the drastic defence cuts in spending in the West. The US has cut spending on its military forces and only in April Nato issued a warning that European governments had collectively cut $45bn from military budgets as they struggle to cope with recession - equivalent to Germany's entire military spending.
The US finances nearly three-quarters of Nato's military spending, up from 63% in 2001. And yet among the alliance's 28 nations, experts note, only the US, the UK and (ironically enough) Greece are meeting Nato's own spending guidelines of 2% of GDP.
Russia is catching up the US in military spending terms. Currently, Washington spends 4.8% of GDP on its military, whereas Russia will increase its spending to around 3.7% of GDP. By contrast all the European governments have cut spending to under 2% and France says it will cut even deeper to 1.3% next year. Last year, total spending on defence in Asia overtook that in Europe for the first time.
"We are moving toward a Europe that is a combination of the unable and the unwilling," Camille Grand, a French military expert who directs the Foundation for Strategic Research, told the New York Times. "European countries are continuing to be free riders, instead of working seriously to see how to act together."
Shoigu said theÂ plan is forÂ the first fighter jets toÂ arrive inÂ Belarus this year. Russian aviation regiments normally consist ofÂ roughly 60 warplanes. Shoigu's remarks coincided with aÂ meeting inÂ Brussels atÂ which Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Nato that Moscow still wants guarantees theÂ planned US-backed missile defence system to be based in Central and Eastern Europe, which is the main source of tension at the moment, would not be used against Russia, despite aÂ recent decision toÂ scale it back.
Russia also has aÂ military bases inÂ Kyrgyzstan andÂ Armenia, andÂ it is theÂ most powerful nation inÂ the Collective Security Treaty Organization, aÂ security alliance ofÂ former Soviet states.
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