Is Russia About to Send New Weapons to Belarus?

Belarusian and Chinese Special Forces on Belarus-Ukrainian Border. Image: Vayar News Agency

Last week, Belarusian Defence Minister Andrei Raukou told TASS news agency that the political talks on when and where to place a Russian airbase in Belarus were still continuing. Moreover, “it is too early to discuss when [Russia's] aircraft and helicopters come to Belarus.”

In this difficult time, Minsk struggles to find a middle ground in confrontation between Russia, Ukraine and the West. Minsk pursues a policy of balancing for some years already. It looks to avoid choosing only between Russia and the West. Facing Putin's refusal to help modernise Belarusian army, three years ago Belarus launched unprecedented military cooperation projects with China.

Still Nothing Decided?

The statement by Raukou means that one more time, Belarusian officials commented on possible Russia's base as something still to be negotiated. They essentially dismiss the statement of the Chief Commander of Russia's Air Force Viktor Bondarev who announced last October establishment of a Russia's airbase in Eastern Belarusian city of Babruysk in 2016.

Minsk has a lot of reasons to keep distance from the issue. It primarily wishes to stay as much as possible neutral in current confrontation between Russia and NATO. This confrontation makes both sides deploy ever more military units and equipment in the region around Belarus. For instance, the US and Lithuanian governments agreed on 17 June to station US forces and weapons in Lithuania.

Minsk could have reconciled with this major change in regional security situation, as it has more vital concerns to worry about. Moscow, however, considers the US arrival to the region as crossing a red line by deploying military equipment - although without personnel - in the former Soviet Union.

Old Plans

So far Russia limited to rhetoric its response to this US decision as far as Belarus is concerned. Moscow is expected to deliver four batteries of S-300 surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems to Belarus by the end of this year. While undoubtedly important, this delivery of the systems decommissioned from the Russian army solely helps Minsk replace its older SAM systems and was scheduled years ago.

Last week, Russian Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily wrote about possible supply of Iskander short-range ballistic missile systems to Belarusian army. This offensive system should replace its Soviet-time predecessors and strengthen Belarusian army's capabilities. As early as in 2007, Minsk announced its plans to get Iskanders “within the framework of the Belarusian state military equipment program implementation through 2015”.

Yet Minsk feels that Kremlin is not willing to transfer Iskanders. Lukashenka on 16 June complained, “Our ally, Russia, is not so active in support of our aspirations. This is what we will talk about separately with the President of Russia. But we are grateful to the People's Republic of China and its leadership for their support.”

Moscow refused to give Minsk newer aircraft preferring to give them to African countries with disastrous credit history

By that he meant Palanez multiple rocket launcher - a new Belarusian defence product which underwent recently trials in China. In May, the military parade in Minsk featured this first major weapons system produced in independent Belarus. Military analyst Alyaksandr Alesin immediately wrote about possible Chinese involvement into designing of Palanez.

On 23 June, the Jane's Defence Weekly confirmed this guess. It reported quoting a Chinese source that in 2012 China and Belarus signed an agreement to develop a new SAM system. In 2013, the two countries decided to create the new multiple rocket launcher system.

It is a very illustrative move. Kremlin demonstrates ever less willingness to pay the military bill of its Belarusian ally. Moscow refused to give Minsk newer aircraft preferring to give them to African countries with disastrous credit history. Apparently, in recent years Minsk got air defence equipment only after it accepted Russian air base deployment in Belarus. Facing the same problem with getting surface-to-surface rocket systems from Russia, Lukashenka simply looked for help somewhere else - in China.

No wonder, the government in Minsk for many years courts China hoping to avoid in its foreign policy choice between Russia and the West by opting for cooperation with Chinese global might.

Not to Be Dragged into War

Trying to escape the current Russia's quarrel with the West, Belarusian Defence Minister Raukou on 16 June emphasised, “The interaction of our country with NATO is stable, has a practical orientation, corresponds to our national interest and does not affect the interests of our allied relations with Russia.”

Minsk also organised a minor military exercise in Southern Belarus bordering on Ukraine. The exercise launched last week could have easily provoked Kyiv. After all, it involved border guards, territorial defence and special operations forces. Belarusian officials openly express their concern over the instability in Ukraine and some days ago Chairman of Belarus' Customs Committee Yury Sian'ko complained about illegal weapons coming from Ukraine.

Furthermore, Belarus recently established one more unit of guards on the border with Ukraine and rapidly constructed sophisticated border installations where never in history was one. The latest exercises were just one more step in this direction. However, to assure Kyiv even in these circumstances Minsk invited to participate in these drills not Russian but Chinese special forces.

Belarusian Foreign Policy: Controversial Yet Consistent

Belarusian government has little space to manoeuvre

Belarus balancing between its largest neighbours is far less chaotic than it seems at the first glance. Minsk not only avoided to support Russia on Crimea but as recently as in April Lukashenka again acknowledged Abkhazia a part of Georgia. Minsk consistently strives to work with new government in Kyiv and has supplied Ukraine with many vital materials in its war effort. Concurrently, Minsk managed to put on hold the issue of Russian air base and cooperated with China in sensitive military area.

Given the Russia's leverage over Belarus economy and society on the one hand, and strenuous relations between Belarus and the West, Belarusian government has little space to manoeuvre. It cannot ignore Belarus' location next door to the centre of Russia and Belarus' tightly interconnectedness with post-Soviet space. The consequences of failure to balance between Russia and the West will be disastrous – destabilisation and even loss of national independence.

Isolation of the country in the West, Ukraine's or Western attempts to make Belarus take a more clear position on Russia's policy in the region will render Belarus extremely vulnerable before Putin's pressure. Despite all efforts of Minsk, China cannot really substitute the Western countries as an alternative to Russia anytime soon.

Siarhei Bohdan is an associate analyst at the Ostrogorski Centre.

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