Russia Is Deploying More Air Power Near NATO Borders
Belarusian airfield gets upgrades to support Russian Su-27s
The latest satellite imagery from April 2014 shows several additions to the 61st Fighter Air Base at Baranovichi in Belarus, fewer than 90 and 80 miles from the Polish and Lithuania borders, respectively.
The Belarusian facility is an important operating base for Russian warplanes as tensions mount between Moscow and NATO over the former’s annexation of Ukraine’s strategic Crimean Peninsula.
Both Russia and the European alliance have shifted warplanes into Eastern Europe to back up their increasingly heated rhetoric.
The Digital Globe satellite shot depicts an expanded Quick Reaction Alert area with a new revetment to accommodate four Russian Su-27 fighters. Three Belarusian MiG-29s are visible, parked in revetments alongside the Russian aircraft.
A Russian A-50 radar plane is nearby—proof that the command-and-control aircraft was still operating from the air base in April, after deploying to Belarus for a regional air-defense exercise in mid-March.
An An-24 or An-26 cargo plane, not pictured, is evident in separate imagery. The transport could be associated with the Russian deployment.
Belarusian and Russian fighters could jointly patrol Belarus’ air space, as spelled out in a 2009 defense agreement that Belarus finally ratified in 2012. The patrols could put the fighters within miles of NATO warplanes monitoring the air space of Poland, Lithuania and other alliance states.
While both Russia and NATO countries always say their respective deployments are not aimed at each another, in this case it’s not too difficult to read between the lines.
In April 2013, Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu announced that the Kremlin was considering sending an entire squadron of a dozen or more fighters to Belarus by 2015.
Shoigu’s announcement just happened to coincide with a meeting in Brussels, in which Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov questioned Europe’s planned missile-defense shield, which Moscow views as a threat to its nuclear deterrence.
A couple of months later, RIAN reported that Russia would deploy an unspecified number of Su-27SM3 fighter somewhere in Belarus within a few months. But in December, the Kremlin dispatched to Baranovichi just the four Su-27s. An additional six Su-27s reportedly went to Babruysk, a reserve airfield in the eastern part of the country.
The recent airfield improvements could be signs of Moscow’s intention to follow through with its 2013 promise and send additional jets to 61st Fighter Air Base by next year. In addition to the expanded QRA area, engineers have also added two or three berms to the air base that could eventually support radars.
In mid-March at the height of the Ukraine crisis, Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenka said he would ask his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to send up to 15 additional fighters to Baranovichi. It’s unclear if these fighters would supplant or reinforce the squadron that Russia said it would base in Belarus by 2015.
If Lukashenka meant the 15 Su-27s as reinforcement, then 61st Fighter Air Base could soon host as many as 27 Su-27s plus Belarusian planes, resulting in one of the greatest concentrations of Russian and allied air power outside of Russia’s own borders.
The deployment of the Russian Su-27s to Baranovichi is equally notable as Belarus recently pulled its own Su-27s from service. Although Lukashenka has said that Belarus would keep the aircraft in reserve, the arrival of Russian fighters continues to suggest further outsourcing of Belarusian security.
The ongoing erosion of Belorussian military capability is something to watch as Russia begins to reassert itself in the near abroad.