New Military Doctrine in Belarus
On 15 November, Belarusian Defence Minister Andrej Raŭkoŭ appeared on Belarusian Television to discuss a new military doctrine, which he attributed to the arms buildup in neighbouring NATO states surrounding Belarus.
This article explores the background and content — insofar as it is known — of this doctrine and the preparedness of Belarus to meet future contingencies, including the potential development of a “hybrid war.”
Working with Russia
The series of exercises with the Russian Army that began with ZAPAD 2009, were in anticipation of a NATO threat to the territory of Russia and Belarus that would require a military response. Specifically, the Russia-Belarus operation targeted Poland and Lithuania, and Russian missile carriers TU-95 and TU-160 bombed mock objects in those countries.
Such an approach anticipated the close cooperation of the two armies against the common enemy of NATO. Essentially that approach did not change drastically in the current year, as a joint exercise named “Union Shield 2015” in Kaliningrad in September preceded training sessions with the rapid response forces of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation in Tajikistan.
pursuit of a common military doctrine with Russia has become a liability to the Belarusian government
Another link is that one of the leading figures on military decisions, Stanislaŭ Zaś, confirmed as Secretary of the Security Council of Belarus on 5 November (earlier he served four months as Acting Secretary), holds the rank of Professor at the Russian Academy of Military Sciences.
Yet the pursuit of a common military doctrine with Russia has become a liability to the Belarusian government. At a mundane level, the two armies remain vastly different, not least in salary. Whereas a Russian captain can expect to receive a monthly salary of just over $2,000, his Belarusian counterpart brings home a salary of less than $150 — following a rise in salary from around $100.
But more important the goals of the two states are no longer in harmony. Belarus fears becoming embroiled in a hybrid war, particularly on its southern border with Ukraine. The Russian invasion and occupation of Crimea in February-March 2014 marked the decisive turning point in Lukashenka’s decision to introduce a new military doctrine.
In the number of tanks, armoured vehicles and guns per 1,000 troops, Belarus currently ranks first in Europe
In theory, Belarus possessed ample weaponry after its declaration of independence in August 1991. As military expert Aliaksandr Alesin has noted: “We don’t have many troops but we have a lot of weapons,” most of which were inherited from the former USSR. In the number of tanks, armoured vehicles and guns per 1,000 troops, Belarus currently ranks first in Europe. But in July 2012 it suffered the embarrassment of the intrusion of its airspace by planes from Lithuania piloted by Swedes, which dropped teddy bears bearing pro-democracy messages over Minsk and other areas, including directly over the residence of the president.
Belarusian Army: Capacity And Its Role in the Region Belarus successfully formed its own national army in 1992 while making use of favourable premises already available to them after the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Understandably the Belarusian authorities reacted furiously, but more important, the event served as a psychological blow to the president and sparked fears—largely unjustified—that Belarus appeared vulnerable to an attack from the air.
Foundations of the New Doctrine: “The Polonaise”
Following his reelection, the president held three meetings with military leaders on 30 October, 3 November, and 6 November 2015. The third was largely ceremonial coming during Lukashenka’s inauguration ceremony as troops swore the oath of loyalty to the president and country.
On 30 October, Lukashenka reported that a new military doctrine would be introduced in 2016. It would entail a gradual reduction of the size of the regular army from 250,000 to 65,000, along with the restructuring of administrative and support personnel. On 3 November, while visiting an electro-mechanical factory in Dzerzhinsk, the president announced the task of introducing a new generation of modern rocketry. This latter revelation requires some explanatory background.
Its origins lie not in military links with Russia, but with China. Belarus has created a new rocket complex called “Polonez” (Polonaise), a means to inflict “unacceptable damage” on an attacking enemy. The rockets in question have a range of 200 kilometres (about 120 miles), meaning that they could strike the capitals of all neighbouring states, though they could not reach Moscow. Within range would be military objects of NATO countries: the Baltic States and Poland. China, which produces the missiles, financed the project whereas Belarus’ role is to manufacture the trucks and missile launchers.
Interestingly, however, Belarus will produce and control the missile targeting system. In this way, Belarus has bypassed Russia, which had expressed scepticism about the ability of the smaller state to produce such advanced weaponry. The Polonaise’ local base is the Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant MZKT 7390 “Astrology,” and the rockets could deliver a simultaneous strike on eight targets at the 200 kilometre range.
In addition Belarus also intends to produce its own drones, the formation of its own rapid respond force—in addition to that of the CSTO—and the formation of an army of local self-defence. In all aspects the doctrine emphasises a form of aggressive defence and even a preemptive attack on an enemy about to strike Belarusian territory.
In addition to the new concept, the full details of which are unknown outside presidential circles, Belarus must re-equip its existing weaponry though it lacks the finances to do so. Reliance on Russia to subsidise and replenish the Belarusian military fleet backfired when Russia opted to construct its own air base near Babruisk.
The establishment of the new military doctrine runs counter to Russian plans and also appears to undermine CSTO unity because the course being pursued by Lukashenka is one of neutrality, especially in the conflict between its two neighbours Russia and Ukraine. Yet the fundamental alliance between Belarus and Russia remains and military exercises continue.
Thus the limits of Belarus’ military independence appear obvious. Lukashenka seeks a national deterrent free from Russian control. Simultaneously his country remains an integral part of Russian strategic space and needs Russian help for its homeland defence. Lastly, Belarus remains in the Russian-dominated alliance CSTO, as well as the Russia-Belarus Union.
David Marples and Uladzimir Padhol
David Marples is Distinguished University Professor, Department of History & Classics, University of Alberta.
Uladzimir Padhol is Belarusian political scientist and journalist, editor and publisher of Narodnyi televisor. Tsitaty i baiki A.G. Lukashenko [People’s Television: Citations and Stories of A.G. Lukashenko], which is now in its thirtieth edition.