Up close to Lithuania’s side, the Russian planes would reach Šiauliai air base before its NATO fighters manage to take off.
Russia will obtain the use of Baranovitš or Lida airfields in Western Belarus, or maybe both. One of the bases will be hosting an air force regiment of 24 fighters. At that, Lida is only 35 kilometres from the Lithuanian border.
«One regiment is decided, may-be there’ll be many,» said Kaarel Kaas, an analyst at International Centre for Defence Studies. The air bases will be equipped with Sukhoi SU-27SM3 type fighters. Here, the «SM3» refers to the modernised version. Among other things, these are equipped with air-to-ground rockets used to bomb targets on land and sea.
«These are frontier ground forces support planes,» said retired Brigadier General Urmas Roosimägi. Simply put, these aren’t interceptor fighters – these are attack aircraft.
Risk level up
Russia ratified a joint anti aircraft system agreement with Belarus in 2009. The President of Belarus, Aleksandr Lukašenka, did not rush to sign it. He waited, and then ratified the treaty in 2012. To begin with, Russian airbases on Belarusian territory were not on the agenda either, but Russia continued to apply pressure – Mr Lukašenka wanted the planes without Russian pilots; the Russian defence minister Sergei Šoigu wanted fighters complete with Russian pilots and air bases.
In return for the bases, Belarus is supposed to get S-300 type anti aircraft missile systems. Remains to be seen if the Kremlin will keep its part of the bargain. By 2015, latest, at least one base will be at Russian army disposal, wrote The Economist.
As estimated by Mr Kaas, this will raise level of Russia’s preparedness in the Baltics. For defence reasons, he noted, Russia would not need to take squadrons to vicinity of Lithuanian border. Should that be the case, it would make more sense to place the planes further from the border – harder for the enemy to bomb them. As a rule, airbases close to borders are used to attack, not for defence operations.
«I agree,» said Ret. Brig. Gen. Roosimägi. According to him, Russian airbases in Lithuanian border area raises risk levels. Why?
«It cuts reaction time,» he said, and proceeded to briefly explain what that would mean. On radar, a fighter will be seen after it has taken off; but not immediately, as any radar will have its blind zone. Lithuania uses P-18 radars. «It’s a good radar but it will not see below 1,000 metres,» he said. Once the radar detects a fighter, NATO fighter pilots based in Šiauliai will be informed.
As the crow flies, it is 256 kilometres between Šiauliai and Lida. Should they so desire, the Russians would arrive in ten minutes. In that case, a Pearl Harbour scenario could come into play with no NATO fighter taking off – having been bombed on the ground.
Mission completed, the Russians could fly back to Lida unpunished. Poland’s fighters would not make it to help, the airbases being located too far off. Planes taking off from Ämari, in Estonia, would be late as well. Lithuania’s only option would be to successfully use anti aircraft rockets from the ground, to shoot the Sukhoi SU-27 fighters down.
Lithuania had three types of anti aircraft weapons: Stinger, RBS 70, and Bofors. The latter two are Swedish-made – as once tried to sell to Estonia as well. «We rejected the offer,» said Ret. Brig. Gen. Roosimägi. Why?
To guide RBS and Bofors rockets, laser is used. «The capacity goes down greatly with fog or rain,» explained the general.
He added that when the rubber hits the road, the American Stingers will serve the Lithuanians the best. Even so, the Stingers do not shoot higher than 4,800 metres. Thus, should the Russian fighters fly above that, the anti-aircraft stuff is useless. A Sukhoi SU-27 gets above that level under two minutes.
Ret. Brig. Gen. Roosimägi said the bases close to NATO borders would further escalate the West vs Russia tensions. Is Russia bringing these there just to show its teeth? «Sure,» he said. In the general’s opinion, NATO should send a clear response and raise anti-aircraft capacity.
Šiauliai and Ämari do have interceptive fighters. Meanwhile, mid-range anti-aircraft capacity ought to be created. As admitted by Ret. Brig. Gen. Roosimägi, this is a costly solution but the only one to secure the Baltic airspace.
According to defence ministry press rep Peeter Kuimet, Russia started to take its fighters to Baranovitš at the start of the year. «Considering that the Baltic Sea region is among the most peaceful in the world, Russia raising military capacity is unfounded and incomprehensible unexplainable,» he said. Still, said Mr Kuimet, the issue of Russian bases in Belarus need not be overemphasised, being just a part of Russia upgrading its military capacity towards the West. To this, Kaarel Kaas agrees.
According to Mr Kuimet, mid-range anti-aircraft capacity is needed, but the shortfall must be solved in cooperation with allies. «It cannot also be excluded that development of mid-range anti-aircraft capacity may be discussed as the next decade defence development plan is prepared; but, when it comes to this decade, Estonia’s priority is, as also covered by finances, to purchase infantry combat machines, new anti-tank missile systems, and self-propelled guns,» said Mr Kuimet.
Mr Kuimet added that the steps by Russia are creating the need to increase NATO presence and raise reaction speeds. «That will definitely also be under discussions at the September NATO summit in Wales,» he said.
Ahto Lobjakas, an analyst at Estonian Foreign Policy Institute
The placement of Russian attack aircraft into Belarus, though decided several years ago, gets a new meaning in light of the events in Ukraine.
In EU-Russia relations, the fact in itself changes nothing – the relations are in downward spiral as it is, because of Ukraine. Also, the European Union has no direct military competence, to say nothing about military communication with Russia. On the geopolitical plane, they will doubtless take note of Russia’s creeping expansionism in the space the European Union considers its neighbourhood.
However, Russia does already have a base in Armenia, troops in Moldova, a war with Georgia under its belt, and a shadow war underway with Ukraine. For EU, all this is regrettable as it destabilises the neighbourhood and pushes even further into the future the perspective of normalisation of relations between Russia and its neighbours, and between Russia and the EU. It is only then that the EU’s real competence and capacity would kick into gear. The most that can happen is a declaration by the EU disapproving the development.
With NATO, the problem is sharper. Again: this is not an escalation out of the blue – the decisions have been taken earlier and the tensions are long-standing. Historically, the dislocation of attack aircraft needs to be viewed in the missile shield context – the same with the Iskander-rockets placed in Kaliningrad, two years ago.
Even so, in the current situation we have a signal more aggressive in nature, a step in regional arms race spiral. Reacting painfully to the events in Ukraine, the Baltics have obtained additional support and guarantees from NATO.
Proportionally, the value of these is now shrinking – military inflation will also eat away at current investments in air defence. There arises a need to compensate, which works on two levels. The first being domestic, implying increased spending and/or a need to re-profile the current investments. The other relates to foreign policy: as guarantor of Baltic security and independence, NATO will now have to take steps to neutralise the threat created by Russian attack aircraft. If that is not done speedily, psychological pressure on the Baltics will go up. If the steps are taken, Russia will use it as pretext to take its own next steps.