Is Lukashenka Preparing for a War?

Image: Evgen Dovgal

At the end of January, Belarus temporally mobilised nearly 15,000 reservists - a large number for the nearly 50,000-strong national army.

A major Russian news portal Gazeta.ru linked this move to the escalation of the Ukrainian conflict. At the same time, the Belarusian army began conducting military exercises.

The Belarusian parliament also introduced several amendments to existing legislation - allegedly with the view of preventing "hybrid wars," like the one currently going on in Ukraine's eastern regions.

These actions have generated rumours about the intentions of the Belarusian government which has to date sought to preserve its neutrality in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Belarus's neutral stance has provoked criticism from Kyiv and Moscow alike and it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain.

Not only is Belarus's economy suffering from the external effects of the conflict, but the Ukrainian war has caused political rifts inside Belarus as well. While the Crimean scenario is unlikely to play out in Belarus, the destabilisation of the country's internal politics and a rise in tensions on the border with Ukraine are highly probable.

The Belarusian Army Training Close to the Border

On 23 January the Belarusian army begun exercises at six different military training grounds. The Belarusian Defence Ministry said that the manoeuvres were motivated by an increased level of activity by NATO's forces near Belarus's borders. The nature of the exercises would seem to suggest another, more complex motivation.

According to the Chief of the General Staff, major general Aleh Belakoneu, the army will conduct exercises to hone their own air force and air defence systems, as well as strengthen border security.

While the focus on air defences may indeed stem from NATO's activities, beefing up security on the border betrays a different concern – namely, sealing Belarus's perimeter.

The war in neighbouring Ukraine escalates, while Belarus-Ukrainian border remains porous. In these circumstances, it is extremely important to suppress illegal activities or infiltration of all kinds of force in both directions through the Belarus-Ukrainian border which can cause further destabilisation of the situation in Belarus or difficulties in relations with Kyiv.

Legislating for a Future Conflict

Minsk's concern over the developments in Ukraine may have also been the motivation behind changes to the the Law "On Martial Law" that entered into force on 1 February. The amendments stipulate that martial law can be imposed if another state sends "armed bands, irregular forces, or units of regular troops" to the country, regardless of whether war has been declared or not.

Some opposition media, including Belorusskiy Partizan, view the amendments as Belarus's reaction to Kyiv losing Crimea. Dzyanis Melyantsou of the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies disagrees with this view and emphasises that the earlier versions of this law already discussed this type of threat.

Yet some aspects of the amendments merit more consideration. For instance, the law stipulates that an act of aggression against one of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) member states (Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, or Armenia) is regarded an act of aggression against Belarus.

the Belarusian government has learned a lesson from Ukraine

Furthermore, the document contains new provisions on the use of physical force, weapons, special equipment and technical means by military personnel while enforcing martial law. According to Melyantsou's analysis, "soldiers and other individuals involved in enforcing martial law have the right to use force and weapons in virtually any situation, including against unarmed civilians.” These provisions suggest that the Belarusian government has learned a lesson from Ukraine.

Amendments to the Law “On Defence” that entered into force in 2015 also merit some attention. The amendments concern, inter alia, the territorial defence system established in 2011 to strengthen national defence by creating district-level paramilitary units. Recently, Gazeta.ru quoted a source in the General Staff as saying that the territorial defence units can be used to prevent “hybrid warfare [as in Eastern Ukraine] in different regions of the country.”

Ukraine and Russia Not Pleased with Belarus

Moscow-based Nezavisimaya Gazeta reacted to Belarus's recent spurt of legislative activity by publishing an article titled “Lukashenka Goes to War.” The article argues that the recent legal innovations are aimed at preventing the “Crimean Scenario” and cites Lukashenka's criticism of the Ukrainian army for failing to defend the country.

Some Russian pundits have been more outspoken in criticising the Belarusian president. Russian nationalist Egor Kholmogorov told the Vzglyad daily that Lukashenka:

is doing exactly as much as necessary to not to spoil relations with Russia. Yet we shall not forget about his absolute dismissal of the uprising in Novorossiya. … Even Crimea [...] he does not recognise as Russian, but simply proposes that Ukraine forget about it in order to avoid more grave consequences.

The Ukrainian news agency Novyi Region struck a different tone by asking, “Are Belarusians Being Prepared for a War with Ukraine? There is no one else to fight.” Novyi Region justifies their position by referring to the “complete financial and political dependence of Lukashenka's regime on Moscow” and by Belarus's common border with Ukraine.

No Modern Arms for an Ally

At a meeting with journalists on 29 January, Lukashenka emphasised that Belarus was a sovereign and independent state. He said the country will never surrender its territory to anyone. The Belarusian Head of State also explained that in order to protect Belarus's sovereignty, the government is reforming the army, restructuring the defence industry and developing new weapons.

Lukashenka also made some ambiguous statements about Russia:

We seek to provide Belarus with its own arms. Now our army is supplied primarily with the weapons produced in Russia. We are manufacturing some components for these weapons [...] Yet we must have the proper weaponry so that any potential aggressor would not even imagine going to war with Belarus.

Indeed, Belarus lacks modern military equipment. According to daily newspaper Vzglyad, Belarus received two batteries of S-300 surface-to-air missile systems for free because they “were not needed anymore” in Russia. The Russian army decommissioned the S-300s in order to integrate more modern weapons into its arsenal.

This year, Belarus also gets nuts – five training Yak-130, spare parts for aircraft and helicopters, some complete helicopters, tank engines and other supplies. Minsk seems to have already given up on hopes of replacing the aircraft it inherited from the Soviet Union with modern fighters.

To date the Belarusian government has been desperately trying to avoid getting entangled in the confrontation in Ukraine. The Ukrainian crisis has forced the Belarusian authorities to promptly adopt the logic of national interest and with unprecedented resoluteness challenge the Kremlin's policies. However, Belarus still remains vulnerable to destabilisation attempts.

Siarhei Bohdan is an associate analyst at the Ostrogorski Centre.

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