Belarus Strengthens Its Air Force With Russia's Reluctant Support

Last week, the Belarusian army newspaper Vo Slavu Rodiny published an article praising the newly received Russian warplanes. However, these Russian aircraft are a step backward compared to the equipment that Belarus already had.

President Lukashenka recently publicly complained that the Kremlin had refused to give Belarus a dozen aircraft. The Belarusian authorities therefore are delaying the establishment of a Russian airbase in Belarus. Minsk trying to convince Moscow to give it newer aircraft.

Is the Agreement on the Airbase Ready?

According to an article published by the Russian news agency Sputnik on 17 August, Belarus and Russia had already agreed technical and legal details on establishing a Russian airbase. The two sides reportedly have prepared a draft agreement.

no Russian military units deployed on the airbase could be used without the consent of the Belarus

According to the draft, Belarus agrees to a permanent Russian military presence in the form of an airbase for at least 15 years after the signing of the agreement. However, according to the document, the prospective airbase will be subordinated to the goals and objectives of the Single Regional System of Air Defense, which means that no Russian military units deployed on the airbase could be used without the consent of the Belarus.

But the situation around the base still remains unclear. Some time ago, Belarusian Defence Minister Andrei Raukou said that the issue of the base still had not been decided upon politically. Speaking on 4 August, Lukashenka likewise failed to mention the prospective airbase while explaining that the existing Russian military communication and radar facilities pose no threat to Ukraine.

Which Planes has Belarus Received?

The issue of the Russian airbase closely relates to the state of the Belarusian Army and its capability to fulfil its tasks with the Soviet-era equipment that it has. Since 1991​ Belarus has bought no combat aircraft. Although it may appear that Belarus has many modern aircraft, including up to four dozen MiG-29, the real figure and the state of them has caused many doubts. Belarus has sold scores of planes since early 1990s and has given up on exploiting the more sophisticated Su-27 fighter jet.

Minsk did get some new military equipment. On 12 August, Air Force and Air Defence commander, Major General Aleh Dvihalyou announced that by the end of the month Minsk was going to sign a contract to purchase four more Yak-130 aircraft in addition to the four planes of the same type it had got from Russia in April.

Belarus is going to replace by 2020 all the L-39 Albatros it had used as jet trainers with Yak-130 advanced jet trainer/light attack aircraft. Belarusian officials emphasise that the Yak-130 can carry out a wider range of tasks, while the L-39 functions essentially only as trainer. Moreover, the Belarusian Army has successfully absorbed the Yak-130, said Dvihalyou.

The Army daily Vo Slavu Rodiny proudly wrote, “For the first time in its history, our aviation has used high-precision munition – guided bombs KAB-500Kr – dropping them from the Yak-130.”

No wonder that the Belarusian Army coped with Yak-130, as it is a backward development. For decades the Belarusian Airforce flew older yet more sophisticated machines such as the heavier Su-27 (comparable with the F-15) and the lighter MiG-29 (comparable with the F-16).

Overhaul Instead of Buying

For now, Minsk has failed to get advanced military aircraft from Moscow. On 4 August, Lukashenka said how he had asked Moscow to sell or "give" [whatever it means] Belarus "a dozen of aircraft" before the 2014 Ice Hockey World Championship. The Kremlin offered to “give” Minsk just “three or four” planes which Lukashenka accepted. This story corresponds to previously known information about the aircraft flight of Russian fighter jets deployed to Belarus back then.

Lukashenka insisted that the mentioned aircraft had returned to Russia. So currently no Russian military planes – in any capacity - are deployed in Belarus. He hinted at the problem of getting newer – and even second-hand equipment. Nevertheless, the Belarusian leader asserted

We have enough of aircraft. When I was refused [by the Kremlin] is to be sold certain weapons, including aircraft, I gave the order to overhaul and upgrade ten fighter jets. We have enough of them but their effective life-span nears its end. In November, we will finish the last overhaul – of the tenth fighter.

The Belarusian government obviously tries to strengthen national defence although it has limited funds for this. The following table of the known overhaul and modernisation works undertaken by Belarusian industry for the national army illustrates that.

In addition, Minsk apparently decided to spend more on fuel. The fuel deficit for years debilitated the national air force, as for instance in 2000 a Belarusian military pilot flew two to five hours a year.

In 2011, the Air Force set a goal to achieve 100 hours a year per pilot. The government supports this plan. Recently, the army press hinted at a possible increase in the fuel limit for the Air Force by more than 2,000 tonnes – to 16,000 tonnes in 2015.

Two Goals of the Belarusian Authorities

In its military policies in general and in its modernisation of the air defence in particular, the Belarusian authorities pursue two major goals. First, they want to remain a militarily valuable ally for Russia. In particular, the Belarusian government would be eager to provide air defence for Moscow from the western side by itself.

Belarus established together with Russia the Single Regional System of Air Defence in 2012. Despite concerns that it would put a part of the army under Russian control, Minsk holds its ground and even got its officer appointed as the system's commander. Now, the system serves Minsk as a bargaining chip in its attempts to get economic and political favours from Russia.

But Minsk has a second goal in mind, to keep some distance from Russia, especially after the war in Ukraine.

To resolve the contradiction between the two goals Minsk opted for delaying strategy. Belarus can live with deficiencies in its Air Force yet for Russia they present a vital threat. They mean a hole in the defence perimeter of Russia's capital.

To fill this hole, Russia while refusing Belarus' requests for newer planes in the 2010s decided instead to put its airbase in Belarus. However, if Minsk manages to procrastinate longer, the Kremlin will have no other option but to give Belarus the planes it wants.

Siarhei Bohdan is an associate analyst at the Ostrogorski Centre.

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