Belarus President Seeks to Deploy Russia Missiles

[Belarus]
President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, left, who met Oct. 26 near Moscow with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, says that Belarus would like to deploy missiles even if it doesn’t reach an agreement with Moscow.

MINSK, Belarus — President Alexander Lukashenko is in talks with Moscow about placing in Belarus advanced Iskander missiles that could hit targets deep inside Europe.

The talks raise the ante in the debate over a U.S. plan to deploy missile defense in Europe. They also complicate Western hopes for warmer ties with Belarus, which some in the U.S. and Europe hope could help to counterbalance an increasingly hostile Kremlin.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Lukashenko said that he would like to see closer relations with the West but that he sympathizes with Russia on two flashpoints that have rocked relations — the conflict in Georgia and U.S. plans to place antimissile systems in Europe to counter a potential threat from Iran.

Mr. Lukashenko said he “absolutely supports” Russia’s plans to place Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad that would target the U.S. missile system. Kaliningrad is a Russian enclave in Europe that borders NATO members Poland and Lithuania, and missiles there could reach the proposed U.S. missile sites in Poland.

Mr. Lukashenko said Russia also had proposed putting Iskander missiles in Belarus, which is situated between Russia and Poland. And if a deal on the issue isn’t reached, Belarus itself would like to deploy the missiles, he said.

“Even if Russia does not offer these promising missiles, we will purchase them ourselves,” said Mr. Lukashenko, who said the technology for the Iskander optics and fire-control systems comes from Belarus. “Right now we do not have the funds, but it is part of our plans — I am giving away a secret here — to have such weapons.”

Analysts said it is far from clear that Russia would really need to place missiles inside Belarus. The Kremlin has offered to give up its Kaliningrad plans if Washington drops its missile-defense system. Mr. Lukashenko’s missile ambitions also could be a bargaining chip in his maneuvering between Russia and the West.

Though closely allied with and heavily dependent on Moscow, Mr. Lukashenko, a former collective-farm boss who has kept a tight grip on Belarus since he was elected president 14 years ago, has resisted the Kremlin’s embrace.

But financial necessity may be tugging harder at Minsk than before. On Wednesday, Russia announced that it agreed to grant Belarus a $2 billion stabilization loan to shore up the government’s finances, which have been strained by the credit crisis.

Under loan terms, Belarus agreed to pay for future oil and gas debts in rubles, a major priority of the Kremlin, which has sought to expand the use of the Russian currency beyond its borders.

Advisers to Mr. Lukashenko said he has lately put out feelers to improve relations with the U.S. and Europe, which slapped his government with sanctions in 2006 after he was accused of rigging his re-election. Sanctions were eased this year, after Mr. Lukashenko ordered the release of some political prisoners.

Like other leaders of former Soviet states, he has resisted Moscow pressure to side with the Kremlin in its conflict with Georgia by recognizing the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. So far the only countries to confer recognition are Russia and Nicaragua.

But he signaled he may tip toward Moscow on the issue and echoed Russia’s argument that the West paved the way for the independence of Georgia’s breakaway regions by recognizing Kosovo.

Write to Alan Cullison at alan.cullison@wsj.com

NOVEMBER 14, 2008
By ALAN CULLISON

Source: The Wall Street journal

NOVEMBER 14, 2008

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