( RIA Novosti ) - Russia's defense minister said on Tuesday that NATO's eastward expansion and U.S. missile shield plans have encouraged Russia and Belarus to boost military-political cooperation.
Since the fall of Communism, NATO has taken on board several former Eastern Bloc states, including the three ex-Soviet Baltic countries. U.S. plans to deploy missile elements in Poland and the Czech Republic, announced at the start of this year, sparked an ongoing dispute with Moscow, and have also angered Belarus, which borders on Poland.
"NATO's enlargement, missile shield expansion plans and the worsening of the Middle East conflict prove the need for close coordination of our actions in the military-political and military areas," Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said at a Russian-Belarusian defense meeting in Moscow.
He said Russia would continue to supply arms and military hardware to Belarus at subsidized rates and on a priority basis.
"Supplies of arms and military hardware, including advanced models, are the exclusive privilege of our partners in the Collective Security Treaty Organization, in particular Belarus," Serdyukov said. As an example, he noted the deliveries of S-300 missile defense systems that Russia completed last November.
Russia and Belarus have been developing a unified air defense system in line with plans to create a Union State, which they have been working on since 1997, envisioning a common economic, customs, and political space.
Although talks on the Union State stalled recently over a host of issues including natural gas prices, military cooperation between the countries is gaining momentum.
At the session in the Russian capital, Belarusian Defense Minister Leonid Maltsev said the sides had a mutual understanding on military issues. "We will continue doing everything possible to secure the integrity of the Union State," he said.
The Russian minister said he was very satisfied with the work accomplished by the bilateral defense panel during his visit, and pledged to continue developing a legal base for a Union State military organization.
He said the panel had developed a set of joint measures for radio-electronic combat support and had set out prospects for military security cooperation up to 2009.
The minister said: "Expanding and enhancing military and technical cooperation with Belarus is one of our long-terms priorities."
Illustrating growing cooperation between the militaries, he noted that Belarus's Air Force and Air Defense had participated in combat exercises this year at Russia's Telemba and Ashuluk training grounds, and in command and staff exercises.