Moscow Gives Belarus Arms and Seems to Abandon Airbase Plans

Belarusian pilots after receiving overhauled aircraft. Image: Minsk Novosti.

Belarus has managed to persuade Russia to supply it with arms and renounce plans for a Russian air base on Belarusian territory.

The Belarusian official military daily newspaper admitted at the end of December that some (apparently four) Russian aircraft are still stationed in Baranavichy. But Minsk has managed to postpone or even cancelled Russian plans for an air base in Belarus. To do so Minsk was forced to finally invest in the overhaul and modernisation of its fighter aircraft. That was completed in November.

This will help Belarus not only to avoid a Russian air base being established in the country and to receive Russian equipment for the army; it will also help convince Moscow that its Belarusian ally possesses real force. Minsk has strengthened its position in any negotiations with Russia and made clear its readiness to defy any attempts to undermine the Belarusian state.

Belarus repairs the equipment which Russia scraps

In November, the Belarusian Air Force received a batch of aircraft overhauled at the 558th Aircraft Repair Works in Baranavichy. All the overhauls planned for 2015 – 13 aircraft and six helicopters – have been completed.

What is more, instead of the planned eight MiG-29 fighter jets the defence industry delivered ten overhauled MiGs. Minsk needs its own fighter jets to fulfil its functions as a participant of the Single Air Defence System with Russia.

Seeing Belarus' inability to do so, Moscow moved in 2013 to impose a Russian air base on Lukashenka. Minsk has tried to avoid this at any cost. Facing Kremlin pressure to host a Russian base in Belarus, President Lukashenka in April 2014 ordered that ten MiG-29s be overhauled.

That decision meant a lot. If in 2012 Lukashenka reassured Belarusian pilots that soon they would fly more modern aircraft, in 2014 he gave up waiting for the Russians to deliver and ordered the repair of Belarus' existing equipment to strengthen the national air force.

Indeed, Belarusian companies had already overhauled and modernized drafts for MiG-29s to the level of MiG-29BM in the early 2000s. But then Minsk launched plans jointly with Moscow for rearming the Belarusian army. The Belarusian army expected new aircraft from Russia and put aside its own overhaul and modernisation plans.

The Chief Commander of the Belarusian Air Force Aleh Dvihalyou says that the overhaul of MiG-29s cost less than half the price of new aircraft, but Minsk had no money even for an overhaul. Only some four MiG were modernised to the level of the MiG-29BM to demonstrate achievements of national industry.

At any rate, the issue of fighter jets for the Belarusian air force remained unresolved for years. In the meantime, Moscow gradually started to decommission the MiG-29 altogether. It opted for modernising another Soviet fighter jet, the Su-27, which is much more powerful and heavily armed.

Minsk, on the contrary, has decommissioned the Su-27 and as the situation in the region became tense, in 2014 launched overhauls of its MiGs. According to the Belorusskaya Voennaya Gazeta, the official military daily, the overhaul and modernisation will not end with the delivery of the ten MiGs in November.

Minsk avoids Russian air base and gets newer equipment

Minsk succeeded not only in tinkering with older planes. It achieved by that two major military and political objectives.

Firstly, now it can better argue that Belarusians are able themselves to guard their segment in the Single System of Air Defence and that Moscow should refrain from establishing a Russian air base in Belarus. On 18 December, TASS news agency reported a Belarusian Defence Ministry official as saying that the issue of the prospective Russian air base “was not discussed [at the recent meeting of Lukashenka and Putin] and will not be discussed [anytime soon].”

Secondly, Moscow seems to have agreed to help in rearming the Belarusian air force. Recently Belarusian officials one after another reiterated that Belarus will get new planes from Russia. For instance, on 22 December Defence Minister Andrei Raukou said that soon the army would receive from Russia not only the Yak-130 training aircraft or Tor-M2E ​surface-to-air missile system (SAM), but also newer Su-30 fighter jets. Russia will give them not as gifts, but will sell them on favourable terms.

Likewise, on 22 December the state ONT TV channel reported that to replace the obsolete S-200 SAM systems, Belarus has acquired from Russia four more S-300 missile batteries. It failed to add that these are second-hand systems decommissioned by Russia's army after it introduced more advanced S-400s. Belarus too asked for S-400s as long ago as 2010. Moscow openly says that there is no chance of Minsk receiving them any time soon.

Who guards the sky over Moscow?

The Belarusian army daily published on 17 December an article with the eloquent title "Special Role of Air Defence Among the Interests of Union State [of Belarus and Russia]". Indeed, Moscow cannot live with a literal hole in its defence perimeter caused by the degradation of the Belarusian air defence system – both its ground-based and aviation component.

Vice Chief Commander of the Belarusian Air Defence and Air Force Major General Siarhei Trus recently told Belarusian media that the military command in the past two years deployed 24 aircraft to guard Belarusian airspace as part of the Single System of Air Defence. That is just one regiment, yet Belarus by the early 2010s had difficulty in maintaining this amount of fighter aircraft in flight. Minsk decommissioned all its Su-27s and neglected until 2014 to repair its MiG-29s.

So, instead of providing Belarus with some newer aircraft, Moscow sent its planes. On 10 December 2013 four Russian Su-27P interdictor fighter aircraft started their duty at the Belarusian Baranavichy airfield. Despite President Lukashenka ​earlier this year claiming that these planes had again left for Russia, in December the Belarusian media confirmed that the Russian Su-27P remained in Baranavichy.

Minsk realises that Moscow is more interested in maintaining a functional Belarusian air defence than the Belarusian government. This situation creates numerous opportunities for Minsk to haggle with the Kremlin, using Belarusian air defence services as a payment for political and economic benefits from Russia. But in order to be able to do so, Minsk must demonstrate its own air defence capacities – fighter aircraft and SAM systems.

And as shown above, it cares about them, unlike other equipment which it easily sells. A case in point is the 2013 decision of the Belarusian military command to decommission Su-24 bombers. The planes were allegedly useless and even dangerous due to their age. In early December, however, investigative web-site Bellingcat reported that the 558th Aircraft Repair Plant in Baranavichy might be preparing three more Su-24M for export to Sudan. Sudan reportedly ordered twelve Su-24s from Belarus.

For Minsk, having a robust army means not only possessing some of the military attributes which every real government has. It is also a major bargaining chip in negotiations with Russia on political or economic issues. Trading Belarusian services in providing security to Russia for material benefits can be a way of overcoming the huge imbalances in the capacities of Belarus and Russia.

Siarhei Bohdan is an associate analyst at the Ostrogorski Centre.

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