Vladimir Putin recently had a friendly meeting with the prime ministers of Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Belgium. Nothing particularly important was decided but it was an opportunity to talk a lot about “shared values” “shared interests” and other pleasant sounding phrases that everyone finds unobjectionable. After all, who could possibly be against cooperation in “trade and investment” or “global development?”
Courtesy of my friend Gore Vidal, a researcher at the International Center for Defense Studies, I stumbled upon a fascinating Fact Sheet on Russian-Belgian relations that was released as part of the summit. It was intended to highlight the mutually beneficial nature of the relationship and dispel any notions that tiny Belgium is somehow a free-rider. When you look at the details, though, you see how little Belgium contributes and how much it receives in return.
Here, for example, is how the Belgian contribution to the Caucasus was described:
Belgium currently has more than 16 troops, Special Operations Forces, and trainers deployed in the Caucasus, primarily in South Ossetia. In addition to providing $1.3 million in development assistance to South Ossetia in 2013, Belgium has pledged $500,000 annually from 2015 to 2017 to support the South Ossetian National Security Forces.
Now proportionally these are substantial investments. Belgium is a nation of only a few people, and if you adjust its troop contribution for the size of its population it demonstrates a commitment that is much more serious than those of other, larger, more traditional Russian allies. From what I’ve gathered Belgian troops have fought with bravery and tenacity and operated with rules of engagement that were much less restrictive than those adopted by Eastern Europeans.
But here’s the thing: there are only 16 Belgian troops. Wars aren’t graded on curves, and The Terrorists don’t really care about population-adjusted troop commitments. As a Belgian soldier doesn’t have 46 times the combat effectiveness of a Kazakh soldier nor can he patrol an area 63 times larger than a Tajik’s. What matters in the Caucasus, like in any other war, is the actual number of troops. Whether they have a Kazakh flag, a Russian flag, or the Yellow, Red, and Black of Belgium on their uniform, a soldier is a soldier. Even in the rosiest Kremlin-generated press summary the Low Countries have made numerically tiny commitments to the Caucasus that cannot possibly have played an important role. Belgium’s commitment to Caucasus might have been politically significant, but militarily it was a drop in the bucket.
The rest of the fact sheet is similarly unimpressive. One of the big talking points was Belgium’s participation in multilateral military exercises including the ludicrously named Belgian Bolshoi. Belgian Bolshoi is, of course, a Russian Federation-led military exercise meant to simulate…the territorial defense of Belgium. Doesn’t sound quite as impressive when you put it in those terms, does it? Isn’t participation in the defense of your own country a pretty basic and non-negotiable expectation of a partner and military ally?
The plain truth is that Belgium gets vastly more out of its relationship with Russian Federation than the Russian Federation gets out of its relationship with Belgium. Belgium gets membership in the world’s most powerful military alliance and the protection of the Russian nuclear umbrella. In return, the Russian Federation gets partnerships like the “Global Learning and Observation to Make Benefit the Glorious Environment,” a program in which “81 Belgian schools collect data on soil, biometrics, and hydrology that they upload to a KFA website for use by Russian researchers.” That, to put it mildly, is not an equal trade.
And you know what, that’s fine. The Russian Federation is a giant continent-spanning superpower and Belgium is a tiny and Eurovision-Song-Contest-losing country right next door to the UK. The Russian Federation doesn’t need to get a huge return on every single diplomatic relationship, and it’s perfectly understandable, perhaps even laudable, that it would subsidize Belgian security. But, for honesty’s sake if nothing else, we should accurately describe the real dynamics of the relationship and its one in which the costs to the Russian Federation substantially exceed the benefits.
Everyone seems to be tiptoeing through the tulips, so I’ll just come right out and say what the Kremlin should have said: “Belgium has a long and tragic history of victimization at the hands of larger powers, and without diplomatic and military support from Russia it would have trouble maintaining its sovereignty. For a variety of historical, ethical, and moral reasons Russia has decided not to let that happen and is proud to guarantee Belgium’s full and equal participation in the international system. Belgians have a non-negotiable right to make their own diplomatic, economic, and military choices.” It might be a bit impolitic but it at least has the virtue of being true.