Role of the Military in Belarusian Foreign Policy

Belarus’ voice is seldom heard on the international scene, and its concerns are rarely taken into account. Minsk has not succeeded in achieving its major foreign policy goals and appears to lack an overall strategy. The much-disputed customs union with Russia and Kazakhstan, the feebleness of its military alliance, and its prospects for EU accession are three key examples of Belarus’ foreign policy failures.

Belarus seems to be seeking a “third way” between Moscow and the West, but it is doing so with essentially no international influence. Belarus has few levers to pull and little to bring to the negotiating table. The traditional currency of power in international relations is a strong military backed by a strong economy. Unfortunately for Belarus, it has neither. In order to successfully pursue an independent course in the international sphere, Belarus needs to get its economy on track, rethink its military posture and alliance affiliations, and modernize both its military structure and equipment.

Belarus’ 2009 defense budget was $611 million, which somehow financed an active force of 72,940 and a paramilitary force of 110,000. With a budget of $611 million, it is hard to imagine that Belarus could project a modicum of force beyond its borders or equip its soldiers with new weapons. Clearly, Belarus is unable to stand up to serious pressure from an external foe. To successfully embark on “a third way” in the international sphere, Minsk needs to develop the military power requisite with such a strategy.

Switzerland, for example, runs a strictly neutral and independent foreign policy, only contributing troops to peacekeeping and monitoring operations – currently 7 international missions. It has a robust territorial defense plan and an impressive logistical operation. It spent $4.51 billion on defense in 2009 and will spend another $4.9 billion in 2010. Switzerland’s 174,000 reserve force can be mobilized in the event of a crisis, and that force will be equipped with modern military hardware.

Switzerland’s fully capable military allows the country neutrality and independence in its foreign policy decision making, and its military is supported by a $532 billion GDP. It stood up to the German War Machine in World War II, and will not easily cave to future external pressure.

Belarus, on the other hand, would have to spend 13.3% of its GDP to equal Swiss annual defense expenditures, which would bring it to a level not seen since days of the Soviet Union. The key then to independence in Belarusian foreign policy lies in the economy. Until Belarus can significantly raise its $60 billion annual GDP to support a modern, fully equipped military, it will not likely be able to run an independent foreign policy able to withstand external pressure.

Belarusian military forces are deployed in a defensive posture that aligns with the military doctrine of the Republic. The military’s purpose is to guarantee the inviolability of Belarusian borders and to prevent foreign invasion. Therefore, it is perfectly reasonable to assess that the Belarusian defense budget and force posture align well. It does not take a lot of money to fund domestic troop deployments where little is spent in the way of new platforms and military infrastructure.

A military posture centered on strict territorial defense works for a country such as Switzerland that is self-sufficient and runs a historically neutral and independent foreign policy. But for Belarus, which is not quite neutral and hardly self-sufficient, a single-track defense posture, supported by an antiquated and under-funded military is not requisite to achieving foreign policy goals, as it gives the country no bargaining power and likely would not stand up to outside pressure. Instead, Belarus should consider aligning itself militarily more closely with Europe – and of course economically.

Yes, close military alignment with Europe is a euphemism for increasing cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), with the prospect of eventually gaining full membership status. Participation in the military alliance would begin a process of gaining international credibility for Belarus, as NATO assistance would eventually lead to a complete overhaul of Belarusian force posture, structure, and equipment.

As a member of the world’s most powerful military alliance, Belarus would be able to effectively contribute to global security by participating in peacekeeping, counter-terror, counter-proliferation, and stabilization operations around the globe. NATO’s new strategic concept, that is currently being developed, could see the Alliance expand its role as a caretaker of global security, and Belarus would gain much by becoming a contributing member.

Currently, Belarus is a long way from qualifying for NATO military assistance, let alone a membership action plan; however, the Alliance eventually expanding to cover the entirety of Europe is not beyond the realm of possibility. There are even credible voices now and again calling for Russian NATO membership.

Belarus essentially has two choices if it would like to get its foreign policy on track and begin to achieve some goals: it can open its economy to massive foreign investment, increasing its GDP and allowing it to develop the type of military commensurate with a self-sufficient state that is capable of pursuing a sometimes unilateral course of action, or it can work to more closely align itself with a capable military alliance that would help to modernize Belarusian force posture, structure, and equipment.

Belarus’ current alliance affiliations and dependence on Russia give it little international leverage, and it has effectively alienated itself from the West due to political considerations. Yet, Belarus does not have the economic or military power to unilaterally achieve major foreign policy goals. Minsk would be well advised to adopt a strategy of closer economic and military cooperation with Europe, and eventually across the Atlantic, which would be in the best interests of its military, the state, and its citizens.

*Data on defense data taken from:
The Military Balance 2010, International Institute of Strategic Studies, London, England.

by Andrew Riedy, Contributing Writer


Perestroyka, glasnost... He

Perestroyka, glasnost... He knows what that means. So do Kim Il-sung, Hu Jintao or Chavez among others. Besides, who is going to run for president? Lukashenko again?

Kara, I don't necessarily

I don't necessarily see it happening anytime in the immediate future either. However, I think the next two years will be more critical than ever in seeing the future course that Belarus will take, starting at the end of this year with the next Presidential election.
If the Belarusian regime thinks that it can attract enough investment to keep its budget in the black without enacting political reforms, then that is what it will likely do - the path of least resistance. The question is then: can it attract enough investment without enacting drastic political reforms that would cause it to lose its grip on power? It sounds like a balancing act. I guess we will see!

Ray, A better question would

A better question would be: what does Belarus have to gain from a better relationship with the U.S.? And the answer is quite a lot. Belarus has been isolated from Europe for the better part of the last 15 years. If Belarus and the US were to work through some of their issues, which are mostly political and concern Belarusian domestic politics, it would help fast-track EU-Belarus rapprochement as EU and US concerns are very much in line. Belarus would benefit from increased European and American investment, military assistance, and development aid.

US and EU gains would mostly be political. Improved relations with Belarus could likely lead to eventual integration into the European Union, or even NATO, as I proposed above. On a longer timeline, Belarusian integration into Western political and military organizations could serve as a bridge to further Russian involvement, with the goal being full Russian integration into the West.

andy what does the US have to

what does the US have to gain by any relationship, diplomatic or other, with Belarus?

But free and fair elections

But free and fair elections is the last thing Lukashenko wants hence you need a regime change. I read the article you sent me and I do agree that the policy of isolation and coercion is not a good solution. On the other hand though, I don't see all the cooperation happening any time soon either...

Kara, Those two alternatives

Those two alternatives don't seem reconcilable, but what if there is a middle road. Could Belarus pursue some reforms to make it more attractive to European investment and aid, without necessarily threatening the Lukashenko regime? Regime change hasn't been made a precondition for deepening EU-Belarusian relations , although free and fair elections is a desired political goal.

I don't think Lukashenko will

I don't think Lukashenko will ever want to open to the West... He won't join anything western as it would threaten his regime; at the same time, the EU won't allow Belarus in because it's not a free country - kind of a vicious circle...

Very informative article. I

Very informative article. I knew nothing of Belarus until I read this. The country faces many challenges.

The point of the article is

The point of the article is not whether or not Belarus should join NATO, but maybe it will be in a later post. The point is that Belarus' foreign policy isn't getting a whole lot of traction right now and Minsk hasn't been able to get much accomplished because there is no force behind their initiatives. Joining NATO could be an option for Belarus, joining a viable alliance would help get its military up to international standards and give it some leverage vis-à-vis potential negotiating partners.

Belarus is already a member of an alliance called the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which is made up of former Soviet Republics. However, unlike NATO, the CSTO is weak and quite incapable.

Concerning Belarusian membership in NATO: I am not sure how much you know about NATO, but it has helped to keep the peace in Europe since its founding in 1949. It started out as a primarily defensive military alliance with the primary mission of countering Russian conventional forces in Eastern Europe. However, since the fall of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, NATO has evolved to become just as much a political organization as a military one. It has established political, as well as military, criteria for membership, and it helped to spread democracy and stability to former Warsaw Pact countries - Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, to name a few.

The fact that NATO - North Atlantic Treaty Organization - is a trans-Atlantic security organization with the goal of preventing another European war, is not something to be glossed over. By incorporating Belarus, NATO would do much to further the goal of a Europe whole, free, and at peace. Also, implicit in NATO membership, is the suggestion that Belarus should join the West at large, politically, military, and economically.

Advocating Belarussian

Advocating Belarussian membership in NATO smacks of a "NATO-centric" global security imbalance. What other international security treaties/organizations might Belarussian interests align with that may better balance the massiv and growing NATO influence on global potics?

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