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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Replacing Skrunda

Washington, 9 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- In yet another indication that Moscow can still find the funds for activities it deems essential, the Russian military will soon open a radar base in Belarus to replace the Skrunda site in Latvia that was shut off last summer.

According to a report in the Moscow newspaper "Nezavisimaya gazeta" last Thursday, construction of the new base, located near the Belarusian city of Baranovichi, was delayed for five years because of "insufficient funding." And as a result of these delays, much of the equipment for it was no longer in working order.

But, the paper reports, Moscow recently found the funds, ordered construction carried out at "forced march tempos," and will soon be able to put this early warning radar system on line in the service to protect Russia's northwest.

"Nezavisimaya gazeta" suggests that this project reflects the growing military cooperation between Moscow and Minsk. Indeed, it published this story under precisely that rubric. But in fact, the opening of what the paper called an "alternative" to Skrunda points to three other and much larger issues.

First, Moscow's construction of a new site in Belarus undermines Russia's longstanding claims, supported by many in the West, that the Skrunda site was integral to East-West arms accords and that Moscow had no choice but to continue to operate the Skrunda site in Latvia long after Soviet power fell there.

Indeed, it was largely on the basis of these Russian claims that the Latvian government was pressured into allowing the Russian military to continue to operate the Skrunda site until this summer, four years after the last Russian soldier left, and to have eighteen months more to dismantle that site.

Second, Moscow's ability to find the funds needed for this plant at a time when the Russian government faces so many financial problems seems certain to raise a number of questions in Western countries to which Moscow has applied for assistance.

On the one hand, some in these governments seem likely to ask, just how cash-pressed is the Russian government if it can construct such expensive bases? The Baranovichi installation is not the only one: The Russian military is putting on line a variety of new weapons systems even as some of its units are forced to open soup kitchens for soldiers and officers.

And on the other, these Western leaders may inquire, where did the Russian authorities get the cash for this installation? Money is fungible, that is, funds designated for one purpose can easily be shifted to another. Did the Russian government divert some Western assistance intended for shoring up the Russian economy into strengthening the Russian army?

While the answers to these questions may never be known, the fact that they will be asked seems certain to generate additional resistance in the West to any plans for providing assistance to the Russian government.

At the very least, Russian military construction of the kind taking place at Baranovichi almost certainly will cause Western governments to conclude that they should supply only non-cash aid to Moscow because such assistance, be it food or medical supplies, is far less easy to divert to other purposes.

And third, Moscow's decision to build this site in Belarus points to one of the ways the Russian authorities are able to cope with their loss of control over the Baltic states. And it underscores just how important Belarus now is in Russian security thinking.

Russia's willingness to live up to its commitment to shut off the Skrunda site in Latvia demonstrates that most in Moscow are coming to accept that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are no longer part of what some in Russia call its natural "sphere of influence" in the same way that they view the former Soviet republics.

Such a distinction does not mean that Moscow will avoid using a variety of non-military means to put pressure on the governments of these countries.

Rather it suggests that the Russian authorities recognize that any direct use of military power in that region would almost certainly be counterproductive.

But Moscow's acceptance of this new reality in the Baltic states makes Russian interest in Belarus and other former Soviet republics along its western borders all the greater.

And that in turn suggests that Moscow is likely to press for additional forms of military cooperation with these countries, either bilaterally or under the cover of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

To the extent that happens, replacing Skrunda with Baranovichi appears likely to reverberate through the new security architecture of this still-unsettled region.