11:51 Jul. 6, 2016
Dispatch of new S-300 systems to Belarus without an airbase agreement suggests Russia is attempting to bring country back into the fold
Satellite imagery confirms that Russia delivered new surface-to-air missile systems to Belarus, its frontline ally and last Eastern European buffer state. It's a further sign the resurgent power's strategy to shore up and integrate the two countries' air defense networks is going ahead as planned, even with the recent friction in the relationship.
The satellite imagery, some of which Google Earth published last week, indicates the presence of additional S-300 near Polatsk and Grodno, locations running along the Poland and Lithuania borders. Both sites are important defensive positions, which could threaten NATO airpower, should the two come to blows.
Despite relative peace since the end of the Cold War, developments over the last decade suggest conflict is increasingly possible. Since Russia's brief war with Georgia in 2008, the Baltic countries—comprised of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—and Poland urged NATO to set up plans for their defense. Diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks outlined the whole secret affair. Russia's more recent aggression against Ukraine, with the latter's loss of Crimea, brings Russia's intent for its Western flank back to the fore—to say nothing of its grander geopolitical ambitions.
With talks of a new Cold War circling Washington's think tanks, the transfer of new surface-to-air missile systems to Belarus remains a notable event for observers. While Russia promised the systems years ago, it would appear increased tensions between NATO and the oil producing giant proved to be the tipping point for their delivery. And now the systems are operationally deployed in newly renovated sites, bolstering the two countries' defensive capabilities.
The S-300, a mobile strategic SAM system conceived in the late 1960s, has been Russia's go-to platform to protect allies and territory it wants to control. Previous space snapshots showed the system deploying early on in conflicts in Georgia and Ukraine.
More recently, as tensions in the Black Sea ramped up, Russia jumped at least one S-300 from Hvardiyske airfield in the middle of Crimea to Sevastopol on the coast. The move gave Russia the capability to acquire targets farther out to sea and more generally put pressure on NATO's comfort level for operating at safe distances. Similar logic can be applied to the recent movements in Belarus.