Russia Takes Over a Part of Belarusian Army

Lukashenka and Medvedev watching the military

Last week, President Lukashenka approved an agreement with Russia to establish the Single Regional System of Air Defence. The defence ministers of the two nations already signed the controversial treaty three years ago. Russian and Belarusian presidents will jointly  appoint the commander of the air defence system. This effectively means that a portion of the Belarusian armed forces will be brought under Russian command.

Earlier this month, Lukashenka asked Russia to help finance the Belarusian army. The statement provoked controversy, prompting Defence Minister Yury Zhadobin to explain that the words of his commander-in-chief were intended as an invitation to increase bilateral cooperation. The German magazine Spiegel commented that Belarus is "losing its autonomy step by step.” In reality, Belarus does not need to maintain such a large, well-armed military in the first place - the only reason it does so is to serve Moscow.

Armed for Moscow

Referring to the recent unrest in North Africa, Syria, and Iran, Defence Minister Zhadobin declared on Tuesday that "external factors are drawing our attention to the military dimensions of state security." Zhadobin may have implied that Belarus should be vigilant because its neighbours were willing to teach it "how to live." But hardly anyone in the Belarusian army could imagine a war against NATO. Perhaps Zhadobin was referring to the external threats faced by another state - Russia?

Military analyst Alyaksandr Alesin and other experts believe that Belarus itself does not need such a formidable military in the first place. Yet as Russia's staunch ally, Belarus needs its armed forces to qualify as a valuable asset to Russia's national defence. Indeed, only 300 km separate the Belarusian border from the Kremlin. National defence is a trump card for the Belarusian government in its negotiations with Russia.

However, as with many other assets of the Belarusian regime, the real value of this trump card is hard to measure. Officially, Belarus still has a lot of military equipment but lacks the funding to modernise it. According to former Defence Minister Paval Kazlouski, only four or five of the 30 fighter planes in each of Belarus's air force regiments were actually combat-ready in 2010.

Since the summer of 2009, the Belarusian armed forces have lost seven pilots and four fighter jets and helicopters. Radio Liberty quoted a Belarusian air force pilot as saying: “We still use Soviet machines that are twenty to thirty - and in some cases even forty - years old. The government has no money to renovate military equipment, so we intimidate [enemies] with what we have”.

Underpaid Belarusian Soldiers

There are also questions concerning the human resources of the Belarusian military. In the 2000s, then Defence Minister Malcau began implementing a new system of brigades in the army that he had studied in Germany. This finally brought Belarus on par with the level of brigade organisation common throughout Europe. Russia had undertaken this reform years earlier.

The salaries of Belarusian soldiers remain discouragingly low. Presently, a lieutenant receives about BYR 2-2.5 million (up to US$ 280) per month - six to seven times less than his counterpart in the Russian army. Regime insiders also acknowledge that it is impossible to have a successful career by rising up the ranks in the army, since high official positions are reserved for people from state security agencies (mostly KGB) or the Presidential Security Service. Indeed, those who have served as a bodyguard to Lukashenka are almost guaranteed a rank of colonel or higher.

As a result, the most coveted places in the Military Academy are for the training of internal security troops - there are twice as many applicants as for the air force faculty. That seems remarkable given that internal troops are used to guard prisons, patrol the streets, and carry out policing. But these internal troops are treated better than the army because they are more vital to the regime.

Many specialists go east to serve as contractors in the Russian army. That makes the task of maintaining Belarusian armed forces in good shape even more difficult. Hence it is no wonder that, as Putin steps up military spending, the Belarusian leadership wants to get its share. Minsk knows that the Kremlin is in greater need of the Belarusian army than Belarus itself. In previous years, Belarus received indirect support for its military from Russia through generous oil subsidies that could be recycled into defence spending.

But now that Russian subsidies have been reduced, Russia needs to find other ways to keep the Belarusian army afloat. Belarusian and Russian officials like to compare such financial aid to the Belarusian army with US aid to Israeli and Egyptian militaries.

Inch by Inch towards NATO

Close military relations with Russia are not indicative of Lukashenka's goodwill toward his eastern neighbour. As in other spheres, Lukashenka is pursuing an opportunistic policy that makes the best of Belarus's vulnerabilities. According to Dzyanis Melyantsou of the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, Lukashenka has also gradually developed military ties with NATO.

As one might expect, the Belarusian media has downplayed this cooperation with the West. While state officials like to make much fuss about military links with countries as far afield as China, they have kept silent on the cooperation with NATO. Relations have always been very practical, with minimal legal frameworks and few ceremonies.

But NATO has increasingly developed links with the Belarusian military. Under NATO's “Partnership for Peace”, Belarus has reduced arms. In 2004, Minsk joined NATO's Planning and Review Process, effectively requiring the Belarusian military to meet NATO standards in preparation for joint operations. The following year, Belarusian soldiers began to take part regularly in NATO exercises.

Belarus has yet to sign an agreement with NATO on sharing classified information, and it prevents Belarus from participation in some programmes. But the two sides were already cooperating in 24 different thematic areas in 2010-2011. In 2006, the government set a goal of adopting NATO weapons standards. In the past couple of years, Minsk has allowed NATO to transport cargo for its troops in Afghanistan through Belarus.

As a result of this hedging strategy, the Belarusian military may now compare its equipment, working conditions, and salaries not only to Russia, but also to NATO.  It is too early to say whether Belarus is a reliable NATO partner - its army depends on Russia for equipment, spare parts, and training. But the engagement is evident - if Belarus democratises, current efforts will expedite the transformation of armed forces in accordance with the role that an army usually plays in a European nation.

Unlike the security agencies or police, the army itself is not Lukashenka's best ally. The government values security agencies and the internal troops under the Internal Ministry because they are necessary to keep a grip on power. But its distrust of the army means that it never uses army units to crush protests. The army is unlikely to play a role in a political transition and it has never done so. But its personnel are an untapped source of support for change.

Siarhei Bohdan is an associate analyst at the Ostrogorski Centre.

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