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Belarus/Russia: Common Military Air Defense System Planned

Prague, 16 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Russia and Belarus are planning to merge their air-defense forces to create a single regional military air-defense system by 2000.

According to Russian media reports, the Belarusian commander of the air-defense forces, General Valery Kostenko, yesterday told a CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) conference in Moscow that the main purpose of that system would be to "control the air space in the Western direction, to guard and defend it." The system would be commanded from a single headquarters, located probably in Minsk.

Kostenko's remarks appear to have signaled a new effort by Moscow and its close Belarusian ally to bring new life to a protracted and still uncertain process of consolidating military ties between some of the countries that once formed part of the old Soviet Union.

The once unified Soviet military system broke down with the collapse of the Soviet Union, but Russia has tried for years to revive it.

In April 1994, the CIS member states signed a collective security treaty, after much prodding by Moscow. Since that time, numerous agreements on military cooperation within the CIS have been concluded and signed. But few, if any, have been fully implemented. There has been little effective military cooperation and even less willingness to take practical steps toward that end.

The air defense may have been the only area of military operations in which some degree of progress has been accomplished.

In January 1996, CIS top leaders agreed to set up a common air- defense system. But specific practical steps have been taken only in expanding cooperation among the forces of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.

In Belarus, local troops and Russian air-defense units from the Kaliningrad group of forces currently maintain joint operations. These operations apparently are to be expanded and intensified in the months and years to come.

Kostenko's remarks confirmed that Moscow's relations with Minsk are closer than those with other CIS countries. The two last year signed an agreement to unite, and are clearly determined fully to implement it -- at least, in the area of military cooperation.

At the same time, Kostenko's announcement seemed to constitute an explicit reminder to other CIS military commanders and political representatives of the member states -- all of whom took part in the conference -- that their governments too should take measures to assure the implementation of the existing cooperative agreements.

Today, the Air-Defense Coordinating Committee of the CIS Council of Ministers is meeting in Moscow to discuss "prospects" for the development of a common air-defense system. Kostenko's earlier intervention was clearly timed to set the stage for the discussion. Indeed, plans are in the offing to consider the possibility of setting up regional air-defense systems, involving Russian troops in the Caucasus (Georgia) and parts of Central Asia ((Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan).

And on April 29, the CIS top leaders will belatedly gather at a summit to discuss the work and the future of their group. The issue of the common defense system is likely to figure prominently in the discussion.