Belarusian Defence Industry Recovers from The Last Year’s Scandal

Last month, Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro promised his people that very soon Venezuela would possess the most powerful air defence system possible, capable of stopping any attempt at illegal entrances into the country’s air space. For years, Belarusian specialists were working on the construction of this facility.

The statement by the Venezuelan head of state means that the Belarusian side managed to sort out this serious crisis which the Belarusian military industry encountered abroad just a year ago. Back then, a light airplane of a Swedish PR-agency illegally entered Belarusian air space. Allegedly, it did so to promote democracy by symbolically bombarding Belarus with teddy-bears. But as the leading Belarusian military expert Alexandr Alesin recently noted on naviny.by, it might just as well have served to discredit Belarus' military capabilities and defence industry. Recent news show, however, that this has not happened.

Belarusian “Contract of the Century”

The national defence industry has achieved some success over the last decade by specialising in the modernisation of equipment and the development of its own new systems along Soviet technological lines. Especially impressive are its innovations in air defence – no wonder, Belarus has maintained from Soviet times probably the most comprehensive air defence system among all the former Soviet states. 

In recent years, Belarus achieved some qualitative breakthroughs by developing new systems and extending its own arms exports – which are not leftovers from Soviet times – and defence products. For example, Belarusians received contracts for the modernisation of the air defence in Azerbaijan and apparently sold some of their products to Iran (though Minsk has not admitted as much). Yet the most lucrative contract was, of course, its Venezuelan one.

While visiting Caracas in December 2007 Aleksandr Lukashenka signed with the then president Hugo Chavez of Venezuela an agreement on the construction of a unified air defence system and radio-electronic warfare system in Venezuela. Belarus had to coordinate the project, while cooperating with Russian, Chinese and Iranian companies.

Afterwards, Belarus sent numerous military advisors to Venezuela who had to ensure the complete creation of the air defence system in six years time. It went well up until the Swedish incident of last summer. After the incident, Hugo Chavez allegedly thought twice about the reliability of his Belarusian partners.

Belarusian Defence Industry Vindicated After Last Summer Failure

To reassure him, Belarus sent its leading air defence expert Aleh Paferau to serve as ambassador to Venezuela. He was a perfect figure for that assignment, being the former Belarusian air force and air defence commander. In addition Paferau, while serving as a deputy chairman of the State Military Industrial Committee of Belarus actually participated in the conclusion of the “contract of the century” with Venezuela. And he succeeded. By autumn, the Venezuelan air defence and electronic warfare systems shall be essentially completed, says both Venezuelan and Belarusian officials.

The film demonstrated how Iran deployed Belarusian-made Vostok-E system to intercept the American aircraft.

Of course, another accident also vindicated Belarusian defence industry after its "Swedish failure." In February, Iranian TV broadcasted a film about intercection of a US drone which entered Iranian air space in December 2011. The film demonstrated how Iran deployed Belarusian-made Vostok-E system to intercept the American remotely piloted vehicle.

It had an effect and although the US immediately sanctioned two Belarusian enterprises, Minsk could demonstrate some tangible and battle-proven achievements to its foreign friends. In May, as the Vietnamese prime minister visited Minsk, Belarusian officials claimed to have achieved an agreement with Hanoi on selling Belarusian unmanned aerial vehicles to Vietnam. A month ago, Belarus agreed to sell about 20 Vostok-E radar systems to Vietnam, as well as send advisers to train Vietnamese operators for them.

Forever With Moscow?

But Belarus is still rather limited in its weapons business abroad. Any big deal requires the involvement of Russia. Sophisticated Belarusian military products require components produced in Russia or other post-Soviet republics. And it this dependence on Russia that has increased in the last decade as Minsk has exhausted its stocks of Soviet-era equipment or, often, this equipment simply became obsolete. Now Belarusians are producing the equipment themselves, but their dependence hampers their growth in this field.

The creation of the Venezuelan air defence system illustrates this complementary feature of Belarusian defence industry. Thus, as the command center of the system, Belarus chose its native automated fire control station Bor-1M. In addition, Minsk provides Venezuela with radar equipment and radio-electronic combat systems of its own production. Among them, of course, the above-mentioned Vostok-E developed by the firm KB Radar in Minsk. But that is essentially all, for the remaining components of the Venezuelan air defence system Belarus has to resort to Russian weapons.

As for surface-to-air missiles, most likely the S-125 Pechora-2M on chassis from the Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant (MZKT) will be used in Venezuela, after their modernisation at select Belarusian and Russian factories. Some other important components of the Pechoras are also being developed and produced by Belarusian firms, yet essentially the Pechora is a Russian product.

In addition, Venezuela ordered from Russia some items of more modern systems such as the S-300 and Buk-M2E. Once more, Minsk cannot provide such arms itself independently, although the Buk launchers are also installed on Belarusian MZKT chassis. Caracas had also to complement these purchases by buying from Russia some Zu-23s cannons and Igla-S man-portable surface-to-air missiles. 

Is Russia Ready to Recognise Belarus as an Ally?

Russian policies towards defence cooperation with Belarus look more like a desire to grab the most efficient Belarusian firms in its defence industry.

Evidently, Belarus has to cooperate with Russia on big arms and defence modernisation deals. There is nothing particularly extraordinary about this, as allied states usually cooperate with regards to their defence industries. Yet Russian policies towards defence cooperation with Belarus look more like a desire to grab the most efficient Belarusian firms in its defence industry than cooperate with them.

The best example is the same MZKT which produces chassis of world-renown quality. The Kremlin some years ago launched a policy of replacing all the components of Russian weapons produced in former Soviet republics with Russian-made ones. Since at least the early 2010s, it made no exception to this rule even for for its closest ally – Belarus. The Russian military decided to replace Belarusian chassis of the Russian missile systems with their Russian equivalents which were not even available at the time when the decision was made.

It further led Russia to the idea of buying the MZKT – one of the best Belarusian firms. Moscow has many means to pressure Minsk with its financial troubles into selling the works. This would both undermine the future prospects of Belarusian economic development and will further diminish the importance of Belarus to Russia.

It is precisely these kinds of situations that show Belarusian officials and businessmen the risks of cooperating with Russia. The Russian side apparently is not eager to do business together with Belarusians, but rather it wants to take their business from them. Moscow simply refuses to accept Belarus as a partner despite its geopolitical significance and strategic proximity and commitments of Belarus concerning its alliance with Russia.

The Belarusian opposition and Western politicians should avoid demonising the Belarusian defence industry and military. It would be wiser to provide them with realistic prospects with a positive future - an alternative to being strangled by Russia. The demonisation of the defence industries and military by reformist forces in the former Soviet republics in 1990s - especially in Russia and Ukraine - brought no good and led to backlash with grave political consequences.

Siarhei Bohdan is an associate analyst at the Ostrogorski Centre.

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