Belarusian Army: Between Disarmament and Optimisation

On 4 January, the Belarusian army deployed a third battery of the Tor-M2 short-range surface-to-air missile systems, supplied to them by Russia. In December, the first Russian fighter jets arrived at a prospective Russian air force base in Baranavichy. Does this signal that the regional military balance is changing in favour of Minsk and Moscow?

Nominally, Belarus possesses an impressive old Soviet armoury. Yet it acquired few modern arms after gaining its independence. In a rare admission to the situation with the nation's defence two years ago Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka stated that the active lifetime of Belarusian military aircrafts was expiring. The military continues to fly old Soviet aircraft, but then decommissions them without finding any replacements.

Minsk - even with its recent growth in its spending defence budget - spends little on its military. Moscow demands money for its weapons and prefers to deploy its own forces instead of rearming Belarusians oat Russia's expense. This takes away from Lukashenka's ability to leverage Belarus as a provider of security in his dealings with Russia.

Butter Instead of Canons

Some new equipment reportedly will soon arrive -- four more divisions of Russian long range surface-to-air missile systems, the S-300. Belarus also concluded with Russia a contract on purchasing four Yak-130s, an advanced jet trainer/light attack aircraft.

Yet this is too little, too late. Firstly, both of these surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems –  the Tor and S-300 – were expected be part of the Belarusian army's arsenal many years ago. While they are only now finally being delivered to Belarus, the Russian army is arming itself with the newest line -- the S-400s. Belarus is just replacing its old S-200s.

Secondly, modern as it may be, the subsonic Yak-130 cannot replace full-fledged jets like the Su-27s that were decommissioned in 2012. Belarusian officials explained the decommissioning of these aircraft by pointing out the small air space of the country.

Another plausible explanation is that Belarus cannot afford maintenance and purchases of new machines. In the 2000s, the government never allocated more than 1.48 per cent of its GDP for defence. This prolonged neglect created an acute situation and in recent years the defence budget has grown. In 2012, it made up 1.6% of the GDP, in 2013 –1.8%, and this year it is about to reach 1.97%.

However impressive this may sound, the actual sum is about $740m. Meanwhile, one fighter jet like the Su-27 or Su-30 costs $35-50m, and one S-300PMU-1 SAM system is $800m.

Under these circumstances, it is no wonder that the Belarusian establishment lacks a militaristic mood. The secretary of the parliament's National Security Commission Alyaksandr Myazhueu admitted, “There is no military threat per se now, although NATO activity in neighbouring countries causes some concern. On the other hand, without any political and social destabilisation occurring inside the country, it is hardly possible to launch an armed conflict in it.”

Major General Myazhueu also urged them to sort out social issues – “especially housing maintenance and utilities, housing construction, creating employment etc.” He apparently spoke the words that Lukashenka had been wanting to hear and shortly afterwards, in December, Myazhuyeu became State Secretary of the Security Council.

Why Did Moscow Hurry to Send Its Aircraft to Belarus?

The rhetoric of the Belarusian leader often clashes with reality. In August, Alyaksandr Lukashenka proclaimed both air defence and air force as the key priorities for the development of the armed forces. He apparently hoped to receive Russian funding to modernise the country's aging air defence and air forces.

 Each have for years had problems with modernising their old Soviet equipment and Belarus still struggles to get enough S-300s from Moscow. Russia helps the Belarusian army only in a limited way and receiving something like an extra couple of Tor systems does not matter much in the grand scheme of things. The last time Russia supplied Belarus with a significant shipment of missile systems was seven years ago.

The situation is not better with the air force – by early 2013 they decommissioned about 50 aircraft due to their age without finding a proper replacement for them afterwards. In addition to the remaining Soviet jets, the army has only ten slightly newer second-hand L-39Cs, which is a military trainer and light ground-attack aircraft.

The Russian leadership has not helped Belarus by providing it with newer Russian aircraft. In September 2012, Lukashenka boasted after a meeting with Putin: "We discussed many issues with the air force. I asked for help and received it. Soon we will get new aircraft to guard our borders."

Putin, however, did not deliver anything. Not even the 18 second-hand Su-30 jets, which were repaired in Baranavichy and for a long time rumoured to be transferred to Belarusian army. Moscow demanded hard currency for the Su-30s, pretending that it is interested only in money.

This turned out to be a farce when considering the fact that Russia soon after sold the Su-30s to Angola, a country that has an extremely poor credit history with Russia, but is still buying Russian weapons on credit. Strange it may seem, Moscow even had to woo Angola. On the contrary, brotherly Belarus has – due to its international situation – no choice but to stay with Russia, even without any additional incentives in view.

As a matter of fact, Belarus lacks the necessary equipment to guarantee the security of its own air space. In 2012, it established the Single Regional System of Air Defence with Russia. Formally this means that now any breach in Belarusian air security is a breach of Russian defences as well.

By decommissioning its Su-27s at the end of 2012, Minsk has dangerously thinned out its air defence forces in the vicinity of vital Russian economic and political centres like Moscow. It should not take anyone by surprise then that the Kremlin hurried to deploy its own air force to Belarus.

Why Lukashenka Accepted a Russian Base in Belarus?

On 8 December, the first four Russian Su-27 jets arrived in Belarus. Military analyst Alyaksandr Alesin commented on European Radio for Belarus: “That is a complete analogue to what is going on at the air base in [Lithuanian] Šiauliai where NATO's fighter jets stays on alert duty.” Russia is going to establish a full-scale air force base in Belarus in 2015.

Yet this base may change the two nations' bilateral relations. The Belarusian government cultivated for years the image of Belarusian army defending the Russian capital. Lukashenka relied on this image in his disputes with the Kremlin and, in a way, speculated on it to maintain his own popularity with Russians. The loss of this image would seriously undermine Lukashenka's position in his dealings with Russia, so he initially resisted the Kremlin's proposals to deploy Russian forces in Belarus.

Minsk accepted the Russian takeover of some air defence duties only as the technical problems facing the Belarusian armed forces became too conspicuous. Belarus was losing its capacity to control its air space and the Kremlin refused to grant modern arms to its closest ally. Thus Lukashenka accepted something he refused to do for years – a Russian military base on Belarusian soil – to get at least a few SAM systems and jets.

If the current trends resulting from under-funding continue, the national armed forces will gradually loose nearly all of its advanced capabilities. All of its tanks and impressive machinery are useless without air support in the modern era. Minsk also needs advanced weapons and equipment to deal with new terrorist threats on the rise globally and in the post-Soviet region.

Talk coming from Minsk about optimising the size of the army is disarming. It is shifting to light aircrafts, is spending little on defence, and relegates many of its own defence tasks to the Russians. As a result, it is loosing its significance for Russia as a partner in the military realm and will face all the political consequences as a result. Moreover, it is undermining its own sovereignty in the process.

Siarhei Bohdan is a senior analyst of the Ostrogorski Centre and a PhD candidate at Freie Universität Berlin. He is an alumnus of the Belarus State University and European Humanities University in Lithuania.

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