Moscow-Minsk Military Axis

On 16 October, the High Command of the Belarusian military conducted a detailed analysis of West-2013 exercise, which played out in Belarus in late September. The event became the largest show of force by the Union State of Russia and Belarus in four years.

Second in scope only to the controversial West-2009 exercise, West-2013 has become another milestone in the Russia-driven military integration in the post-Soviet space. Whether the exercise helped the Belarusian leader to strike non-military bargains with Kremlin remains to be seen.

Russian-Belarusian Integration: Guns for Butter

Pro-regime commentators in Belarus often compare the Union State of Belarus and Russia with the European Union. While regular economic “wars” and top-level spats make the comparison hollow, in one area the Union project has probably achieved more success than its European counterpart. The area is military integration.

The roots of the close cooperation between the two militaries lie in the wake of the dissolution of the USSR. The collapse of the Soviet Union did not affect the military ties between the two countries as much as their economic and political trajectories.  In the early 1990s, the transitional Communist-dominated government ensured the conservation of the Belarusian military-industrial complex, which was created to serve the needs of the Soviet military.

After the 1994 presidential elections, Alexander Lukashenka reinforced this trend. On the one hand, he turned the conservative Belarusian military, which was nostalgic of the Soviet military might, into his loyal base during the power struggle of the mid-1990s. On the other, his policy of generous military allowances made servicemen and military retirees Lukashenka’s core constituency.

Moscow-Minsk Military Axis: 1990s to 2000s

Empty political declarations and still-born agreements of the 1990s aside, effective cooperation between the two militaries originated from within the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

The year 1998 saw the launching of yearly air defence exercises of CIS member-states' Combat Community. The exercises enabled Moscow to maintain control over the air defence capabilities of the former Soviet republics, particularly its Central Asia states. However, by 2013 the Combat Community was reduced to little more than pre-sales testing of advanced Russian air defence technology.

The early 2000s marked a time of maturation for the Belarusian military. Three major military exercises took place within a three-year period – a defensive Nioman-2001, a counter-offensive Biarezina-2002 and a comprehensive air force and air defence exercise “Clear Sky-2003”. The latter became the first instance of major Russian military involvement in Belarus.

On 13 October 2003, in a statement summarising the outcome of Clear Sky-2003, President Lukashenka claimed that the exercise reflected the lessons learned from the NATO campaigns in Yugoslavia and Iraq and aimed to counter an identical scenario in Belarus.

The first truly joint military exercise Union Shield-2006 took place three years later. The pivotal points of this staff-centred exercise were air defence and the coordination of the newly created Joint Military Force, which comprised the military forces of Belarus and the Russian 20th Army.

West-2009: a Milestone

In 2009, the militaries of Russia and Belarus conducted their first full-scale joint field exercise West-2009, which became the largest field exercise in the region since the dissolution of the USSR. It came as a surprise to Belarus' Western neighbours and caused significant angst in the Baltic republic and Poland.

West-2009 lasted for two weeks and played out across several locations, including the Kaliningrad enclave and Belarus. The exercise imitated a full-blown military conflict, involving strategic bombing, airborne and seaborne landings and a tank attack spread over a large front. The scenario of West-2009 leaves no doubt that the exercise had a distinct offensive character.

The following major Union State military exercise Union Shield-2011 received little attention in the West, largely due to the fact that it was conducted far from the borders of the EU. Thus, Poland and the Baltic states saw the return of a large joint Russian-Belarusian military force to their borders in 2013 as a repetition of the 2009 scenario.

West-2013: Who Benefits

However, the similarities between the two West exercises are only superficial. While comparable in scope and the number of military personnel involved, the exercises differed significantly in the composition of their forces and set objectives. The official exercise plan of West-2013 foresaw the neutralising of a group of terrorists invading the Union State.

Most military analysts rightly qualified the choice of Belarus and Kaliningrad region for a large-scale anti-terrorist operation as misguided. However, the absence of ground operations over a large front or a serious air component de facto limited the exercise to a number of intense tactical operations completed by elite task forces.

This exercise did not display any clear defensive or offensive characteristics. Rather, it was reminiscent of a coordinated anti-insurgency mission. The skills trained during such an exercise would prove useful in a conflict similar to the current situation in Syria or in a potential political breakdown scenario in a Central Asian republic.

Coupled with the absence of heated anti-Western rhetoric in the state-controlled media, which marked West-2009, it appears unlikely that Lukashenka prepared West-2013 as an opportunity to flex his muscles in the face of his Western critics.

In 2009, the impending elections and Russia’s economic backing allowed him to reap the fruits of publicly defying the West with impunity. However, in the late 2013 the Belarusian leader finds himself making cautious advances towards the EU and IMF in the face of a looming currency crisis in Belarus. An aggressive military move simply would go against President Lukashenka’s current game.

On a different note, the exercise provided Alexander Lukashenka a rare opportunity to hold circumstantial negotiations with President Putin. Lukashenka used the traditional joint inspection of the troops to raise the issues on Uralkali and extending new credit lines to Minsk. The coming weeks will show whether these talks yielded any practical results.

What Next?

Quite predictably, the exercises ended with enthusiastic reports from both the Russian and Belarusian military commands. In contrast to West-2009 and Union Shield-2011, the planners of West-2013 indeed managed to avoid both international incidents and any highly embarrassing loss of life.

However, an implausible legend and the secrecy around the event cast doubts about whether its planners had clarity about the ultimate purpose of the exercise. In the wake of West-2013, it appears that its only clear consequence is the further consolidation of Moscow’s hold over the Belarusian military. However, this alone might as well be considered by the Russian military strategists to constitute a success.

Alexander Martynau

This article won a best article prize in a recent Belarus Digest contest. ​

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