Will Azerbaijan help Belarus to become more independent?

On 8 October 2017, Defence Minister of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Colonel-General Zakir Hasanov, visited Minsk. The visit lasted until 10 October. During the visit, Hasanov held meetings with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka as well as with all the senior military leadership of the country.

The Azerbaijani guest probably made an agreement with his Belarusian counterparts on widening military industrial cooperation and supplying Baku with “Polonaise” multiple launch rocket systems. Azerbaijan deems the new weapons necessary to balance an Armenian military build-up.

“Iskander” vs “Polonaise”

One should definitely pay attention to the structure of the visit. First, Colonel-General Hasanov met with President Lukashenka. The Belarusian leader’s words during the meeting were vague yet revealing. “I do not want to make excuses about the nature of our cooperation. I just want to say that our relationship does not in any case violate any international treaties or resolutions of the UN Security Council. We are sovereign independent states, and we are entitled to identify the areas of cooperation which correspond to the time and the needs of our countries,” stated Lukashenka.

“Iskander-E” in Armenia. Source: azatutyun.am

Such statements hint at serious intentions of military-technical cooperation, particularly in the supply of Belarusian “Polonaise” multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) to Azerbaijan. The arrangements have a certain logic: Armenia’s deployment of Russian “Iskander-E” tactical missile complexes on its territory has forced Baku to look for a symmetrical response.

The “Iskander-E” tactical missile complex can reach targets up to 280 km away. Armenia thus has a missile range that covers almost all of Azerbaijan. With the latest modifications, the Belarusian “Polonaise” system is capable of shooting to 300 km. This modification was presented during the ADEX-2016 military exhibition in Baku last year. Azerbaijan has also shown interest in Belarusian developments in areas of electronic warfare, radar systems, wheel chassis and anti-aircraft missile systems.

Belarusian weapons for Azerbaijani oil

Having discussed the main issues of military cooperation with President Lukashenka, Colonel-General Hasanov spoke on more technical questions to the country’s top military leadership. On 10 October, the Azerbaijani Defence Minister signed a military cooperation plan for 2018 together with his Belarusian counterpart Andrej Raŭkoŭ. As is usual in such cases, the details of the plan remain unknown to the public.

On the same day, Colonel-General Hasanov met with Belarusian State Military-Industrial Committee Chairman Alieh Dvihalioŭ. In addition, Hasanov visited the Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant and the “Belspetsvneshtechnika” state enterprise, which, among other things, deals in arms exports. The Azerbaijani defence minister familiarized himself with the latest modifications to the MLRS “Polonaise,” as well as with air defence and electronic warfare means. At the final stage of his visit to Belarus, Hasanov held a discussion with Belarus Security Council Secretary Stanislaŭ Zaś.

It is also important to note that Secretary Zaś met with the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, during his visit to Baku on 27 September 2017. Once again, military and industrial cooperation represented the main topic of the meeting. Supposedly, the Belarusian security council secretary came with a proposition to Baku and discussed the details with President Aliyev. The following step was Zakirov’s visit to Minsk in order to present Azerbaijan’s answer and sign the documents.

Zakir Hasanov near MLRS “Polonaise”. Source: bsblog.info

While Baku mainly orients itself around military cooperation, Minsk is also hoping for the growth of economic relations between the two states. There is an assumption that the Belarusian military industrial complex might get financial support from Azerbaijan to develop and produce new weapons. With the economic slowdown Belarus is experiencing at the moment, such collaboration seems optimal for both states.

At the same time, Belarusian authorities are working to diversify the inflow of energy resources to Belarus. Previous deals to supply Belarusian refineries with Azerbaijani oil have been successful. Widening such cooperation is essential for Minsk against a background of continually worsening relations with Russia.

On the subject of propitious Belarusian-Azerbaijani projects in various spheres, one should remember that Lukashenka and Aliyev are on good personal relations. The Belarusian leader visits Azerbaijan as often as Russia and China, which means places high importance on ties with Azerbaijan.

Loud Yerevan, silent Moscow

The character of Belarusian-Azerbaijani relations raises serious questions in Armenia and Russia, who are Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) members along with Belarus. This situation becomes even more complex when the Belarus-Armenia relationship is taken into account. On the same day Colonel-General Hasanov began his tour of Minsk, Belarusian Special Operations Forces completed their maneuvers as part of the CSTO “Search-2017” military exercises, which took place on Armenian territory. This can serve as a canonical example of the Belarusian authorities’ much-touted “multi-vector foreign policy.”

But in terms of the Azerbaijan-Belarus relationship, one can expect harsh rhetoric from Yerevan. It is important to remember that at one time Armenia proposed to exclude Belarus from the CSTO. From the end of 2016 to the beginning of 2017, Belarus and Kazakhstan both attempted to block the appointment of an Armenian representative to the position of CSTO head. Supplying strategic weapons to Baku will definitely not make relations between Minsk and Yerevan any better.

Alexander Lukashenka and Ilham Aliyev. Source: kp.by

One can’t expect Russia to publicly show its disapproval of Belarusian-Azerbaijani cooperation. Moscow’s options are to try to contain their partnership or to pressure Belarus. The reason for Russia’s indirect reaction is clear: Russia itself is the largest weapons supplier to Baku. But Armenian authorities seem to have ignored this fact. They can blame Belarus for destabilizing the region and undermining the national security of a CSTO member-state, but Yerevan will never make the same claims of the Kremlin. Indeed, especially not after having deployed Russian strategic weapons on its own territory.

The development of cooperation with Azerbaijan plays extremely important role for Belarus in the light of the latest Belarusian security agenda. After the failure to carry out an information and public relations campaign during the “West-2017” military exercises and a number of provocations from Russia, Belarus is trying to restore its image as an independent actor.

Thus, working together with Baku on strategically important projects should prove to the international community, including close neighbours, that Minsk is a true sovereign player on the international stage and a stable partner in the security sphere. Arguably, this is even more valuable at present than temporary economic benefits for Belarus.




On whose side is Belarus in the Syrian civil war?

On 7 September, the Israeli air force attacked the Syrian military’s Scientific Studies and Research Centre. According to the Times of Israel, Belarusians may have been among those working at the Centre.

Meanwhile, a Bulgarian hacker group recently published documents showing that Silk Way, an Azerbaijani airline that transports arms for Syrian opposition groups, directed some of its flights via Minsk. Concurrently, Russian and Polish media circulated reports of alleged arms deals between Minsk and sponsors of Syrian opposition groups for several millions euros.

Belarus thus is accused of supplying all sides in the Syrian civil war. But available evidence proves that Minsk is an indirect participant. Its involvement in the Syrian conflict as supplier of weapons is limited to working with intermediaries acting on behalf of Western countries and their allies.

Belarus has no missile technology for Damascus

On 15 September, the Times of Israel published an article about alleged defence cooperation between the Belarusian and Syrian governments. It quoted Ronen Solomon, an Israeli freelance intelligence analyst, saying there were Belarusians working at the Syrian military’s Scientific Studies and Research Center helping Damascus to improve its ballistic missiles.

However, the Syrian opposition website Zaman al-Wasl reported it was Russians, Iranians and North Koreans, who had worked at the bombed facility. Solomon told Times of Israel “that given the nature of the site and Russia’s interests in the region, it’s unlikely that Moscow would send experts to such a facility,” hence they should have been Belarusians.

He also insisted that “Belarus … is particularly skilled in improving existing missiles with better guidance systems … Belarusian companies … tout also their preparedness to sell technologies coveted by Hezbollah, like anti-aircraft systems, drones and shore-to-ship missiles.“

Belarus, however, has little to offer to Damascus in terms of missile technologies. and that little technology it itself acquired in the most recent years. Minsk inherited a great deal of military technologies from the Soviet Union, but has next to nothing to build missiles. In the early 2010s, it even had to ask the Chinese, and maybe also recruited some Ukrainians, to help assemble multiplelaunch rocket systems. These types of systems are the most basic for a country intending to master missile technologies. Although this year Belarusian defence companies demonstrated something similar to short-range cruise or ballistic missile at a defence industry exhibition in Minsk, these are not the types of technologies that interest either Syria or its Iranian allies.

Moreover, even if Belarus had something to offer the Syrian government, that would be a doubtful deal for Belarus. Minsk knows these sorts of deals would hardly bring money from an embattled leader such as Assad. It would also undermine Belarusian relations with Assad’s opponents, particularly rich, Arab, conservative regimes.

A litany accusations

Bashar Assad in Belarus in 2010. Image: CTV.by

In 2012, The Atlantic, a respectable US media outlet, reported that Minsk might be trying to help Syria build fibre-optic gyroscopes for surface-to-surface missiles. No proof has ever been publicly presented.

Nonetheless, since 2012, the US Treasury has maintained sanctions on the Belarusian defence firm Belvneshpromservice (BVPS). The sanctions have been imposed for violating the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Act, which forbids supplying these states with any materials and equipment related to weapons of mass destruction or cruise or ballistic missiles.

It is not clear what triggered the imposition of US sanctions. Back in 2012, the media reported that the sanctions had been imposed for Minsk providing Syria with “fuses for general purpose aerial bombs.” But, in fact, it could have been for a deal with any of the three black-listed countries. Indeed, during that period Minsk is documented to have supplied radars to Iran.

Arms for Syrian opposition: How much did Minsk know?

Meanwhile, on 30 August, the Russian website EADaily published a lengthy piece on alleged Belarusian-supplied arms to the radical Syrian opposition. According to Russian journalists, “Deliveries were implemented through a chain of intermediaries, but Minsk cannot claim ignorance about the final recipients.

The EADaily article was not the first report about Belarusian arms reaching Syrian opposition via the Balkans. As early as September 2015, American media outlet Buzzfeed revealed that a US contractor via a Bulgarian intermediary had bought 700 missiles for “Konkurs” anti-tank systems from Belarus. Moreover, the Buzzfeed article alleged that American instructors sent to teach Syrian opposition fighters how to use the systems had passed through Belarus en route to Syria.

Syrian civil war. Image: RT.com

This may just be the tip of the iceberg. In an official report, the Bulgarian Economics Ministry catalogued €37.8m in arms imports from Belarus to Bulgaria for 2015. In 2016, Belarusian arms imports rose to €84.2m.

Most of these deliveries were sent via Romania. This ensured the arms were subject to customs declaration. Therefore, according to official Romanian Foreign Ministry reports, Belarusian military exports to Bulgaria via Romania in 2015 not only included smoothbore arms with a calibre of more than 20mm, but also various arms with a calibre more than 12.7mm, and ammunition, missiles, artillery shells, and bombs. In 2016, the Romanian Foreign Ministry tracked imports of missile systems, artillery shells with a calibre of more than 122mm, RPG grenades, missiles, an armoured vehicle, and aircraft-cannon shells.

These shipments stand out, because before 2015 Belarus scarcely exported arms to Bulgaria. For instance, according to the Bulgarian Economics Ministry, in 2013 Bulgaria imported missiles, artillery shells and military electronic equipment from Belarus worth €411,000.

Arms from Belarus ensures alibis for sponsors of Syrian opposition

Of course, these accusatory reports are shtum about the final destination of the Belarusian arms. Bulgaria has no need for these weapons. Russian EADaily, furthermore, noticed that the exports from Belarus to Bulgaria coincide with the value of official Bulgarian exports of similar arms in similar quantities to the US and Saudi Arabia. It is most likely that the Belarusian arms went to the Syrian opposition.

Oddly enough, Bulgaria itself manufactures almost all the types of equipment and ammunition that it bought from Minsk. Such deals, however, make perfect sense, because Minsk still has these items left over from Soviet times. Such arms, if sent to Syria, would not attract much attention in a country that for many decades had bought Soviet arms.

Delivery of Belarus humanitarian aid to Syria in summer 2017. Image: BelTA.

Nonetheless, the situation is even more complicated. The arms might have gone from Bulgaria to various destinations outside Syria, as well. Hackers from the group Anonymous Bulgaria have recently published stolen documents from Azerbaijani airline company Silk Way. The documents appear to show the company has been transporting arms for the Syrian opposition. The documents also indicate Silk Way had flights originating from Minsk, but not heading for the Middle East. On 14 February, the company reportedly transported ammunition from Minsk via Bulgaria to Afghanistan.

In sum, Western and Russian media regularly speculate on Belarus’s alleged ties to various parties in the Syrian civil war. The secretive and relatively unknown Belarusian regime naturally attracts such accusations. In particular, this sort of speculation provides explanations for otherwise murky cases, like that of the Syrian missile centre.

In addition, accusations for alleged Belarusian assistance to either the Syrian government or to the opposition can be used as a political tool against Minsk.

If the allegations are proven, unscrupulous deals in such a conflict amount to a gross violation of international security regulations.The responses by more influential states or a global power like the US or Russia to such a violation would likely be much harsher than their reactions to human rights violations committed by Minsk.




Belarus-Russian military exercises: the story still not over?

On 28 September, the last train filled with Russian troops that had participated in the West-2017 military exercises reportedly left Belarus. Some hours later, however, CommanderinChief of Ukraine’s Armed Forces Viktor Muzhenko disputed the news. He claimed only a few Russian military units had returned to their garrisons in Russia, and the rest of Russian troops had, in fact, stayed in Belarus.

Muzhenko’s claims follow a string of other accusations and speculations over possible covert aspects to the Belarus-Russian military drills that made up West-2017. Minsk and Moscow have held the “West” military drills regularly since 2009. Each time the exercises are held, they cause observers to speculate about the hidden, aggressive intentions behind the war games.

This year Minsk tried its best to open up the drills to counter negative publicity. Yet, it found this task immensely difficult.

Moscow presents an exaggerated picture, and opponents are eager to accept it

IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, a review that covers security issues, published contrasting statistics on the number of Russian troops involved in the West-2017 military exercises. On 28 September, the review wrote that “estimates ranged from Russia’s official number of 13,000 to more than 100,000.” Huge differences in troop-number estimates among analysts—even after the drills finished—point to a lack of evidencebased expertise on the matter.

To escape that problem, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly announced the main issue was not to ascertain the exact number of Russian troops involved. The weekly cited a NATO source as saying “it was the force posture and the quality of the troops that matter.”

Of course, confusion about the West-2017 exercises also stems from the Kremlin’s behaviour. Moscow lost no opportunity to exaggerate the scale of the exercises and to make matters ambiguous.

Image: mil.ru

While Minsk firmly insisted the exercises are limited to a separatist conflict scenario—meant to resemble conflicts in Kosovo and Ukraine’s Donbas region—on Belarusian territory, Russian military officials have been ambiguously promising to hold military exercises “from sea to sea.” That is, Moscow tried to link the West-2017 exercises with its other military training activities, some as far away as the Arctic.

Minsk attempted to dispel Moscow’s hints and ambiguities. All the same, many foreign media outlets, politicians and pundits seemed eager to accept Russia’s more threatening portrayal of the exercises. The Kremlin appears to have succeeded in representing West-2017 as an effective, Russian show of force.

The Russian military tasked its psychological warfare division with making the drills appear large-scale. The following two cases discussed below illustrate Russian efforts at sowing confusion over Russian troop numbers.

The first case dates to the end of last year. In an unprecedented move, Russia’s defence ministry published information on the 4,162 train cars it allegedly ordered for transporting Russian troops to Belarus and back. Writing in Defense One, a defence analysis website, Finnish military expert Jyri Raitasalo pointed out, “With one Excel spreadsheet made public in late 2016, the West has been made to guess [at the number of troops to be on-board] for eight months.”

The second case relates to a 14 February news publication on the arrival of Russian First Tank Army units to Belarus. The news caught Minsk by surprise. In a matter of hours, Belarusian military officials dismissed that information. No additional tank units had arrived. Moscow, however, chose to keep the news published on official military websites. The aim appears again to be to spread uncertainty.

Nowhere to hide

Image: mil.ru

Meanwhile, Minsk and Moscow can hardly conceal their massive military preparations from Western eyes. First, Western satellites can observe any location in Eastern Europe. Indeed, last year the Belling Cat website authors used satellite imagery to reveal the withdrawal of Russian aircraft which had been temporally based in Belarus.

Second, regional and Western countries—both members and non-members of NATO—conduct surveillance flights over Belarusian and Russian territory according to quotas determined by the 1992 Treaty on Open Skies. In exchange, Belarus and Russia—the two countries form one single group under that Treaty—conduct flights over these countries’ territories.

Information collected in these flights is fed into a unified data-bank. About three dozen NATO member countries and states aspiring to join the alliance can together conduct more flights and collect more information on the military capacities of Belarus and Russia than vice versa. Indeed, before the beginning of the West-2017 military exercises, on 4–8 September, the US and Ukraine conducted a surveillance flight over Belarus and Russia.

That is, Western and regional countries may have doubts about some minor details of the joint Belarus-Russian exercises, but not about their main features. It is logical to assume that intelligence agencies know exactly whether 13,000 or 100,000 participated in the drills, as such things cannot remain concealed under these circumstances.

Fog of verbal war

The many opportunities that regional and Western countries had to study the exercises make many statements about the drills by foreign politicians and media look odd. Though Belarus and Russia regularly conduct “West” military exercises causing some negative reactions, this year Minsk faced an unprecedented flurry of negative media coverage, both at regional and global levels.

Lithuanian president Grybauskaite even used an opportunity to address the UN General Assembly on 19 September to lash out at this year’s “West” exercise as a threat to international security. In addition, she also cited the Belarusian-built Astraviets nuclear power plant as a weapon from the “Kremlin’s arsenal.”

Bloomberg, a business news agency, went as far as to warn on 15 September, “If war breaks out with the West, it’s most likely to start in ‘Veyshnoria’ [the fictitious name Belarus’s General Staff gave the enemy zone in the West-2017 exercises].”

Presentation of the scenario of the drills. Image: nn.by

Often, foreign media, politicians and analysts denied any active role for Belarus in the exercises. A case in point is provided by the BBC’s media coverage. At least, on the first day of West-2017, the BBC World Service described the drills in its news summary as “Russian” exercises conducted in Belarus.

Even in the cases where Western media mentions Belarus, Russia is discussed first. Never mind the greatest number of troops involved were Belarusian—according to Minsk, more than 7,000 Belarusians trained together with less than 3,000 Russians. Moreover, the drills were concentrated on Belarusian territory and planning corresponded to standard training scenarios designed and used by the Belarusian military for several years.

Minsk has responded to all the negative coverage and statements in a restrained manner. For instance, reacting to Ukrainian accusations of Russian troops staying in Belarus after the exercise, Moscow mocked Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief as ‘professionally incompetent’ and elaborated on ‘degradation’ of Ukrainian General Staff. On the contrary, Minsk merely repeated that Russian troops had left.

In sum, the West-2017 exercises illustrate two key points. First, Minsk reluctantly joins in any show of power staged by Moscow. For the most part, Minsk can hold its ground when the Kremlin pushes for more aggressive displays of military strength. Indeed, none of this is new. Minsk has defended its position on other major joint defence projects with Russia, such as over the establishment of the Single Air Defence System or the Russian airbase in Belarus.

The second point demonstrated by the West-2017 exercises is that it’s really a moot point whether Western or regional states understand Minsk’s policy. Foreign media coverage of the exercises show that Moscow’s opponents feel somewhat comfortable both with Russia’s exaggerated claims and with the illusions Russia paints of controlling Belarus. The statements of top officials from Ukraine, Poland, and Lithuania in particular demonstrate this attitude.




Russia kidnaps a Ukrainian in Belarus undermining Belarus’s reputation

On 24 August 2017, Russian Federal Security Service agents kidnapped 19-year-old Ukrainian citizen Pavel Grib on the territory of Belarus. He is the son of a minor Orthodox Church official and army reserve officer, Igor Grib. Ukrainian society is actively discussing the event and is trying to draw attention to the ordeal of Pavel Grib, who finally found himself in Russian prison in the Russian city of Krasnodar.

Officials in Minsk appear to be doing nothing to aid Ukraine, not even in helping to gain an explanation of Russia’s actions on Belarusian soil. The situation is beginning to diminish Belarus’s image of a “neutral state” and independent actor.

Forcing a 17-year-old girl to work a honeytrap

According to Igor Grib, his son went to the Belarusian city of Homiel on 24 August 2017. Pavel had arranged to meet a Russian girl there who he got to know on the internet. After crossing the Belarusian border and arriving in Homiel, Pavel disappeared. He didn’t return home the next day as promised.

Distressed, Igor Grib went to Belarus to look for his son. Belarusian police informed him that Pavel Grib was on the wanted list in Russia. The Russian Federal Security Services for the Krasnodar region and the city of Sochi alleged Pavel was suspected of terrorist activities.

According to Pavel’s lawyer, on 24 August 2017, two people in civilian clothing approached Pavel near the Homiel main bus station. They forced him onto a minibus which took him to a forest where he was handed off to other agents. Pavel was detained for several days in a windowless building, his lawyer says.

Then an investigation team arrived and formalised his detention in accordance with the Russian Criminal Code. At the police station, Mr. Grib learned that Pavel had been transferred to a detention facility in the Russian region of Smolensk, which borders Belarus.

After two weeks, Russian authorities finally provided information on Pavel Grib. He was being held in Krasnodar prison, located almost two-thousand kilometres from Belarus, and accused of terrorist activities. The 17-year-old girl from Sochi called Tatiana, who invited Pavel to meet her in Homiel, later said the Russian Federal Security Services had forced her to work for them. She claimed she was also under investigation in Russia on suspicion of terrorist activities. Now Pavel Grib is writing letters to Tatiana, declaring his love for her and telling her not to worry about him.

But the situation is getting worse. Pavel Grib suffers from a serious medical condition that requires regular application of special medication. So far, he has had no access to necessary medical care and his health is deteriorating. This issue has been underlined both by his father and Ukrainian officials. Even on 18 August 2017 when Ukrainian consuls were finally allowed to meet with Pavel Grib in Krasnodar prison, Ukrainian doctors were not allowed to examine him.

Brazen Russian provocation against its closest ally

This series of events is troubling not only for Minsk, but for all post-Soviet states. It may be the first incident in history where, on the territory of one post-Soviet state, another post-Soviet state kidnaps a citizen of a third. The Belarusian regime is shocked by Russia’s provocative behaviour. So far, Minsk appears to have no clear reaction strategy. While Minsk kept silent, Ukraine issued its first official complaint on 31 August. Deputy Foreign Minister of Ukraine Yelena Zerkal stated that Belarus was being uncooperative with Kyiv over the issue of Pavel Grib.

Dzmitry Mironchik, Belarusian Foreign Ministry media officer. Source: sputnik.by

The only statement on the issue released by Belarus’s Foreign Ministry (given by media officer Dzmitry Mironchik, a minor official) appears both misguided and vague. It sounds as if Ukraine is to blame for the current situation:

People, unfortunately, disappear for various reasons—either by their own will or stupidity, or as a result of the malicious actions of a third party. If the 19-year-old young man was not followed by his parents and the authorities of his own country, there is no reason to lay the blame at someone else’s door. Blaming a country that was chosen as the place for a romantic date or a secret meeting, merely a day after an official request [for information about Pavel Grib from Ukraine to Belarus] is certainly not the behaviour of a partner [country].

This kidnapping is pure provocation from Russia for two reasons. First, Pavel Grib represents no interest for Russia. He has neither access to sensitive information nor is it likely he committed any serious crime. Second, he entered Belarus without issue at the state border. It only became know after his kidnapping that he was on a Russian wanted list for unspecified “terrorist activities” in Russia’s Krasnodar region. The result is negative effects for both Belarus’s international image and Belarus–Ukraine relations.

It is necessary to emphasize that Pavel Grib has neither served in the Ukrainian military nor has he visited an Anti-Terrorist Operation Zone (for example in Ukraine’s Donbas region). More to the point, Pavel’s incarceration in Krasnodar prison servers as his very first trip to Russia. Pavel Grib could not have physically been involved in any illegal, terrorist activities on Russian territory. This also suggests that Belarusian law enforcement agencies were not aware of the Russian operation, because according to international agreements, Belarus and Russia share the same database for criminal investigations.

“Moscow has full control over Belarus”

The events surrounding the case of Pavel Grib have resulted harsh rhetoric from Ukraine towards Minsk. On 14 September 2017, lieutenant general Vasyl Bogdan, a former serviceman for Ukrainian military intelligence, declared that Moscow is in full control of Belarus and its authorities. A day earlier Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavel Klimkin stated, that “Russian special services are also operating on the territory of Belarus,” and Ukrainian citizens should understand that going to Belarus can be dangerous for them.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavel Klimkin. Source: 112.ua

According to Ukrainian experts, at present the Belarusian government is unable to find an adequate response to the case of Pavel Grib. Instead of helping Ukrainian officials, for example communicating with Russian law enforcement agencies on behalf of Ukraine, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry does nothing besides issuing troll-like statements. Indeed, some experts from Ukraine now say they are choosing not to visit Belarus, because there is no guarantee of security.

Pavel Grib’s kidnapping and Belarusian inactivity go hand-in-hand to support the suspicions of Western observers that Belarus lacks independence and control over its own territory in the face of Russian provocation. This weakens Belarus’s role as a negotiator and diminishes its image as a neutral state or “donor of stability,” apparently so cherished by officials in Minsk.

Russia’s behaviour suggests Belarus is no longer perceived as a strategic partner. What it means to be a close Russian ally is up for question. Russia carries out aggressive activities, like kidnapping a third country’s citizens, on a close partner’s territory. This undermines the image of Belarus on the international stage and harms cooperation between neighbouring states. This does not bode well for the future of Belarus–Russia relations.




Viejšnoryja: the Belarusian Defence Ministry plays with fire

On 29 August in the Palace of the Republic, the Chief of the General Staff of the Belarusian Armed Forces and the First Deputy Minister of Defence, Major-General Alieh Bielakonieŭ, held a briefing on the Belarusian-Russian military exercises West-2017. The briefing and the official press-release caused an unexpected reaction in society.

More than 50 media representatives and 14 members of the military-diplomatic corps accredited by the Belarusian Defence Ministry attended the event. The media drew special attention to the plan and scenario of the exercises, which led to many questions.

According to the scenario, extremists, supported by two neighbouring states, invade a part of Belarus, which they then occupy, setting up a different state. It is the role of Belarus and Russia to fight them. Interestingly, according to the scenario, extremists take over in the western part of Belarus. The map of the exercise shows the precise territory of the alleged enemy. The new state is called Viejšnoryja and is propped up by its two western neighbours: Viesbaryja and Lubienija.

Map of the West-2017 exercises. Source: nn.by

High-calibre trolling

First of all, it should be noted that all these names sound Baltic. It is thus likely that the Russian and Belarusian authorities are trolling the Baltic states, which frequently voice alarmist sentiments about West-2017 being the beginning of a Russian invasion of Europe.

Historically, Viejšnoryja itself is the Belarusian part of Lithuania Propria – a historical region and the cradle of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. This cannot be a simple coincidence. What’s more, Viejšnoryja coincides suspiciously with the majority-Catholic part of Belarus.

Meanwhile, the tone of the briefing and the following press-release were unusual and somewhat unclear. At first, Mr. Bielakonieŭ mentioned the NATO military exercises in Eastern Europe which recently took place, claiming they were designed to prepare for an assault on neighbouring states.

He then spoke about the Rapid Trident exercises in 2017 in Ukraine and the intention of the Ukrainian Right Sector group to deploy temporary militias near the Ukrainian-Belarusian border in case of an  invasion from the north. Such rhetoric is especially odd as Belarus had promised not to strongly criticise NATO and Ukraine for their military exercises in the region.

This presentation of West-2017 was thus an epic fail for the Belarusian Defence Ministry, as its effect was the complete opposite of the intended one. Originally, the ministry intended to show society that West-2017 was not a threat to the independence of Belarus or its international image. Instead, the Ministry of Defence aggressively accused NATO of belligerence and openly trolled the Baltic states. The media focused not on the number of Russian troops and comparisons between West-2017 and similar NATO exercises in Eastern Europe, as planned, but on the division of Belarus into parts, declaring one of them an ‘enemy’.

The rise of Viejšnoryja

The reaction in society was immediate. Right after the press release, all independent media sources posted a map of the exercises showing the imaginary states. Some experts considered this an attempt to split the Belarusian population along religious lines: the Catholic West against the Orthodox ‘Russian world.’ The fact that two neighbouring states were supporting ‘Viejšnorian extremists’ was also taken to symbolise NATO destabilising the situation in Belarus in order to ‘break it apart from its union with Russia’.

A ‘Viejšnorian card’. Source: вейшнорыя.бел

At the same time, the exercises’ scenario became the butt of jokes on the internet: the country has taken on a life of its own as a meme. Viejšnoryja already has an official website, which also issues Viejšnorian ID cards and passports. At the time of writing, almost 7,000 people had applied for Viejšnorian passports.

Some enthusiasts decided to take the ‘statehood’ of Viejšnoryja even further, creating a coat of arms, flag, currency, and even a Twitter account for the  Viejšnoryja MFA. It is now possible to buy a number of products with Viejšnoryja’s name and logo, including passport covers, t-shirts, magnets, and more.

At Lidbeer festival in the western city of Lida, people were seen waiving the Viejšnorian flag. Jokes about the imaginary state are quickly becoming popular on the Belarusian internet, with some claiming that ‘The Belarusian authorities have already asked Viejšnoryja to provide them with a loan.’

More soberingly, however, the exercises’ scenario was one presented by the Belarusian Defence Ministry itself. Had Russia unveiled the scenario, the Belarusian military could have managed to save face, as the low level of trust between the two states is a well-known fact.

Presumably, the scenario was originally a Russian idea, aiming to discredit Belarus once again and cause a harsh reaction from neighbouring states. Either the Belarusian authorities failed to see through this trick or simply had no choice but to agree to it and present it publicly. Seeing as Russia had already started with such provocations  before West-2017 even started, they are bound to continue. The way Belarusian authorities react to them could determine the continued independence and further development of the country.

Dangerous jokes

On one hand, the Belarusian authorities are lucky that the release of the exercise scenario resulted only in jokes, rather than official statements from neighbouring states and international organisations. On the other hand, this situation is revealing of the negative image of the Belarusian Defence Ministry and the military as a whole: society does not take them very seriously.

At the same time, Viejšnoryja quickly became an internet symbol of opposition to the Belarusian regime: some people who disapprove of the authorities have started calling themselves Viejšnorians. A tongue-in-cheek awareness campaign calling for ‘the protection of Viejšnoryja from Russian aggression’ and creation of ‘Vejsnorian volunteer forces’ now also exist. People are using the word ‘Viejšnorian’ to mean ‘traditionally Belarusian’ as opposed to Soviet or Russian.

Map of the West-2017 exercises.

However, although opponents of the Belarusian regime are using the Viejšnoryja meme in jest, supporters of the “Russian world” could use it more seriously, such as for information campaigns against Belarus.

For example, pro-Russian propagandists have started using the names ‘Viejšnoryja’ and ‘Viejšnorians’ to describe Belarusian patriots or opponents of the Belarusian authorities and Russian aggression.

Their long-term goal could be to deprive people with dissenting political views of the very status of Belarusian nationals. Now, the enemies are not Belarusians, but Viejšnorians: traitors of the state and the Russian-Belarusian union.

In the long run, it may turn out that in presenting this West-2017 scenario, the Belarusian Defence Ministry has opened Pandora’s box: a rift in the population on the basis of support for either Russia or the West could really materialise, especially if a corresponding information campaign was held. This is exactly what the Belarusian authorities have been trying to prevent for decades: they rely on preserving stability and maintaining full control of the country to remain in power.




Minsk struggling to reassure its neighbours about the West-2017 military exercises

At a press briefing on 29 August, Aleh Belakoneu, Head of the Belarusian General Staff, promised that by 30 September all Russian troops participating in the West2017 Belarusian-Russian military exercises would leave the territory of Belarus. He also emphasised that Minsk had chosen sites for the exercises which were as far as possible from the borders of neighbouring countries.

The Belarusian government is struggling to reassure its neighbours, who continue to express their concerns about the drills. Lukashenka himself has repeatedly visited Ukraine to persuade Kyiv of Belarus’s peaceful intentions. In contrast, the Kremlin craves an intimidating military show. Thus, Minsk and Moscow are jointly holding an exercise which both countries see in very different ways. It is unsurprising that their policy regarding West 2017 is vastly different.

Minsk wants a transparent exercise, Moscow prefers discretion

Nothing illustrates the different approaches of Minsk and Moscow to the exercises better than the issue of foreign observers. Belarus and Russia invited observers to the West-2017 separately, and both are offering them different observation programmes. While Minsk invited observers to the forthcoming exercise for five days, Russia invited them for only one. The week-long exercise will last from 14 to 20 September.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka invited NATO observers as early as 20 March, after neighbouring states voiced their concerns over the drills. On 13 July, Belarus issued formal invitations to Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Norway, Sweden, and Poland, as well as the UN, CIS, OSCE, CSTO, ICRC, and military attaches accredited in Minsk.

The Kremlin disregarded the issue of inviting foreign observers as long as possible, issuing invitations to military attaches accredited in Moscow on 15 August without much publicity.

Map of the sites where West-2017 will be held. Image: RFE/RL

The Kremlin-linked Russian media also took advantage of the drills to demonstrate its contempt for the concerns of other countries. On 8 August, the anniversary of the 2008 RussianGeorgian war, the Kremlin-associated media outlet Sputnik published a column on West-2017 which contained explicit threats. Its author, Aleksandr Khrolenko, a political commentator for the Russian government-affiliated Rossiya Segodnya, wrote:

Our partners’ [US] efforts are in vain [in bringing reinforcements to Lithuania before West-2017]. In 2008, Georgia also relied on the presence of the US military and NATO-standard weapons. This did not prevent Russia from successfully bringing peace to Georgia… Since that time, the Russian army … has only increased its capacities.’

Needless to say, the Belarusian government-affiliated media has published nothing of the kind.

A purely regional affair?

Moscow’s aspiration to put on an intimidating military display has triggered fierce reactions throughout the region. However, it is up to Minsk to deal with the fallout, which comes in the form of numerous statements by officials and the media of neighbouring countries.

Belarus’s neighbours reiterate that West-2017 could be larger than announced: Russian troops might remain in Belarus, and Moscow might even take advantage of the exercise to occupy Belarus and invade Ukraine. The Ukrainian and Lithuanian defence ministers, the Polish deputy defence minister, the Lithuanian president, a former Georgian president, the secretary of Ukraine’s National Security Council, and other prominent leaders are just a few examples of important political figures to express concerns.

However, outside Belarus’s immediate neighbourhood, few are worrying about the exercises. Speaking on 23 August to the Belarusian-language service of Radio Free Europe, Arkady Moshes of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs dismissed concerns over West-2017. He claimed that these worries were sparked by certain Belarusian commentators and remain mostly limited to speculation rather than evidence-based argument.

On 17 August, Deutsche Welle published a report on the drills, maintaining that they should indeed be cause for concern in the West. However, the only Western expert cited, Margarete Klein of the German think tank SWP, simply suggested waiting to see how the exercise turns out.

No money for big projects

Image: BelTA

Russia certainly wants to use the forthcoming drills to prove its military might. In all likelihood, however, the Kremlin harbours no plans to put its strength to use.

A research paper published in July by the Valdai Club, a Kremlin-affiliated expert community, illustrates this attitude. The paper stresses that ‘In fact, Belarus is a buffer zone between Russia and NATO.

Changing the existing status would absolutely not suit either Moscow’s or the West’s interests.’ The paper’s author, Prokhor Tebin, cites the deployment of Russian troops in Belarus on one hand, and NATO’s increasing pressure on Minsk on the other, to back up his argument.

The fact that Moscow backed down regarding building an airbase on Belarusian territory lends credence to the argument that Russia accepts the situation as it is. Indeed, on 30 March, the Russian ambassador to Minsk Aleksandr Surikov announced that the issue of the Russian military base ‘had never been there.’ He added that even a legal basis for such a facility was lacking.

The reasons behind this restraint are unsurprising: simply put, there is no money. The issue of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), designed to be a ‘post-Soviet NATO,‘ is a case in point. In May, the CSTO’s Deputy Secretary General, Valery Semerikov, officially admitted that Moscow had recently stopped providing supplies to its allies through CSTO channels because of financial troubles caused by Russia’s economic decline and international sanctions.

Image: CTV.by

In sum, Belarus is doing its best to counterbalance the Kremlin’s provocative moves and assuage its neighbours. Thus, the Belarusian government has made the Belarusian part of the exercise as transparent as possible, despite Moscow’s wishes. Minsk is also de-escalating tension by holding the drills far from its borders and removing the traditional CSTO components.

So far, Minsk has been able to hold its ground. This is because the Belarusian government has one trump card when it comes to dealing with Moscow: Belarus’s key strategic location. This factor makes the country an irreplaceable ally for Russia.

Moreover, Belarus remains too close to Russian civilians for the Kremlin to be able to lash out – as it as it does usually in its relations with post-Soviet nations – without risking widespread indignation domestically. As Russia continues to struggle with economic decline and international isolation, its opportunities to put pressure on Belarus are slowly but surely dwindling.




Not all roads lead to Moscow: Belarusian arms industries between Russia and China

The governmentaffiliated Belarusian daily Zvyazda recently announced that 30 percent of military equipment types presented at the 3 July military parade in Minsk had been produced or modernised domestically. Meanwhile, Belarus exported $1bn worth of arms last year.

These achievements, impressive given that Belarus has only been an independent state for three decades, are the result of some uneasy partnerships. Belarusian defence firms interact closely with the Russian arms industry. For example, on 3 August, the media reported that a Belarusian aircraft repair plant had overhauled fighter jets for Indonesia – the order was secured via Russia. Earlier, the media also reported a similar deal with Angola.

Nevertheless, years of experience show that Russia’s support for Minsk in the defence industry is surprisingly limited and comes at a hefty price. Minsk has thus been prompted to look for alternatives by cooperating with China.

How a Belarusian company secured lucrative deals

On 3 August, the Indonesian media reported the arrival of two refurbished Su-27SK aircraft from ‘Russia.’ However, it was the Belarusian 558th Aircraft Repair Plant (ARP), located in the city of Baranavichy in Belarus, which had really overhauled them. The same firm in Baranavichy is now overhauling two Indonesian Su30MK aircraft, the orders for which it also received from Russia.

On 21 July, the Moscow-based daily Kommersant reported a similar sale of Russian arms to a third country involving Belarus. Reportedly, Moscow negotiated the sale of six second-hand Su-30K fighter jets with Angola; for years the weapons had remained in storage in Baranavichy. In 2013, Moscow had closed another deal with the African country on 12 such jets, also stored in Baranavichy.

These jets are set to be overhauled and modernised at the 558th ARP. Belarus’s role in the deal with Angola goes further than repairs: Kommersant reports that a source in the Russian aviation industry had earlier reported that ‘Russian and Belarusian specialists are looking for customers to sell the six Su-30 fighter jets stored in Belarus’; this was also confirmed for Kommersant by the director of the 558th ARP.

The 558th Aircraft Repair Plant in Baranavichy. Image: nashkraj.by

A closer look, however, reveals that Russia’s role in procuring deals for Baranavichy may not be so benevolent: in exchange, Moscow may expect to wrest control over this key Belarusian company. As early as 2014, the United Aircraft Corporation, a company owned mostly by the Russian government, signalled its interest in acquiring a share in the 558th ARP and integrating it into its business. In addition to new prospects for development, the Belarusian plant was promised orders for repairing Russian Yak130 training jets and overhauling fighter jets for Indonesia. Thus, it is possible that the Indonesia-Baranavichy deal is an advance payment for the shares.

Moscow has many reasons to covet the Baranavichy air repair plant. The 558th ARP, alongside the company Aerosistema, is the leading Belarusian producer of electronic warfare systems. Both companies sell their products successfully. For example, the 558th ARP has installed its electronic warfare systems on numerous Kazakhstani Su-27 heavy fighter jets and Su-25 close air support aircraft, which the plant started modernising in the late 2000s. Reuben Johnson of the magazine IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly commented that the Belarusian electronic warfare systems displayed at the MILEX 2017 exhibition in Minsk ‘indicate that Russia’s dominance in this sector is declining.’

For this reason, it is in Minsk’s bests interests not to lose valuable assets by cooperating too closely with Moscow. Belarus has experience keeping Russia at arm’s length: it has so far rebuffed the Kremlin’s efforts to take over another Belarusian defence company, MZKT, which produces special vehicles for strategic missile forces.

The Kremlin realises Minsk’s emerging alternatives

Minsk thus cannot put too much trust in Moscow in the defence industry. It understands the risks of losing key national industrial assets, and also remembers failed joint projects. On 20 May, chairman of the Belarusian State military industrial committee Siarhei Hurulyou conceded that a Belarusian-Russian project to design a short-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) system had stalled. ‘As it was [solely] on paper, alas, so it has remained on paper,’ said Hurulyou. It is worth remembering that in 2015, Belarusian Deputy Defence Minister Ihar Latsyankou maintained that this joint project was already underway.

MILEX-2017, defence equipment exhibition in Minsk. Image: tvr.by

It is thus unsurprising that Belarus has chosen to develop a medium-range SAM system without Russian involvement. According to Belarusian officials, the design of the new system is ready: only the missile is lacking. The mock-up of the new system will be ready by the end of 2017.

Most likely, China has been helping Belarus with the missile for that SAM system, just as it helped Belarus design rockets and probably even missiles in recent years. Minsk even reportedly concluded  an agreement with Beijing in the early 2010s on the development of a SAM system of unspecified type.

Russia must thus keep in mind that if it fails to offer Minsk appropriate terms, Beijing can deliver. This gives context to the decision of the Belarusian National Academy of Sciences and the Russian state corporation Roskosmos to sign on 30 June a memorandum on joint design and launch of a satellite for remote sensing of Earth. That naturally involves sensitive technologies of military importance.

Perhaps the Kremlin has learned a lesson from history. In December 2012, Belarus and Russia signed an agreement on cooperation in research and peaceful use of outer space. Once again, however, effusive declarations masked the sad reality of Russia’s reluctance to strengthen its only European ally. The first Belarusian telecommunications satellite was launched not from Russia but from China in January 2016.

Chinese solutions

The Belarusian leadership is eager to demonstrate its collaboration with China in arms manufacture. In a meeting on 1 August with Xiao Yaqing, head of the State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission under China’s State Council, Belarusian president Lukashenka praised BelarusianChinese cooperation, stating: ‘You had vowed to support our defence capabilities and the security of our state – you did it.’ Lukashenka went on to invite Chinese defence firms to the BelarusChinese industrial park Great Stone.

Belarusian president Lukashenka visiting a national defence firm. Image: president.gov.by

In May, the Belarusian government decided to use $192m worth of Chinese loans to finance a project for production of a new product which would both compete with the Russian tractor plant in Saint Petersburg and have military applications. However, the Belarusian government is downplaying these aspects.

Before May, Minsk had not even revealed that Amkodor, a major private Belarusian firm, was going further than designing tractors to compete with the Belarusian tractor firm MTZ: the company was producing a whole new vehicle. At the Belagro Exhibition in June, Amkodor presented the Amkodor5300, which has movable front and rear frame parts and is more powerful than MTZ types. These features make this kind of vehicles essential both for servicing military airfields and providing platforms to transport heavy artillery and missile systems.

The Belarusian defence industry has found itself a unique niche by balancing traditional Russian domination with China. This looks like a smart move. Russia’s reaction would have been much stronger if Belarus were working with the West. What’s more, in Minsk’s view, China possesses enough technology and money to be a good alternative to Russia in the defence sphere. More importantly, as a result of such deals, Belarus will continue to consolidate its statehood.




Why is the West afraid of the West-2017 exercises?

On 21 July 2017, Alexander Lukashenka visited Kyiv and met with Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko. After the meeting, Poroshenko stated that he had received guarantees of security and that Ukraine would never be threatened from Belarusian territory.

However, the very same day, Ukrainian Minister of Defence Stepan Poltorak voiced a different view: ‘Ukraine and the world have a common vision of the possible prospects of the exercises of the Russian Armed Forces. The forthcoming West-2017 exercises  are extremely large; they can be used to launch an aggression not only against Ukraine, but against any other country in Europe that shares a common border with Russia.’

Ukraine sounds the alarm

Poltorak was not the only one to voice his concerns: on 7 July 2017, the Chief of General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Viktor Muzhenko, also spoke about the possibility of Russian troops remaining in Belarus after the exercises were over. He underlined the high probability of Russia leaving behind hidden stores of weapons, military equipment, and material and technical means in Belarus.

Muzhenko also stressed that the West-2017 exercises pose a threat to Ukraine and NATO: ‘According to our information, the number of Russian troops to participate in the exercises has now been increased from the declared 3,000 to 5,000 people. This can be regarded as a measure to build up Russia’s combat potential on the borders of our state, as well as on the borders of Poland and the Baltic states.’ However, given that no reliable sources were provided to back up these claims, they could very well be provocation against Belarus.

Alexander Lukashenka and Petro Poroshenko. Source: euroradio.fm

Ukraine’s position as a first-line whistle-blower in relation to the Belarusian-Russian exercises is mainly promoted by the Ukrainian military establishment. Their statements are immediately broadcast by Ukrainian and foreign media, which strengthens the image of Belarus as an object or at least a base for Russian military aggression. In this context, Belarus is not seen as an independent actor on the international arena.

These alarmist statements from Ukrainian military leaders can be explained by the fact that the country is undergoing military reforms to bring it up to NATO standards; these reforms include a radical decrease in the number of command staff (especially generals). Thus, Ukrainian generals may be employing tough rhetoric regarding West-2017 in order to create the image of a serious threat, thereby making themselves seem less dispensable.

A Trojan horse

At the same time, certain NATO states have been expressing fears about West-2017 since the beginning of the year. On 14 March 2017, Polish Defence Minister Antoni Macierewicz stated: ‘we should be ready for Russian troops possibly staying on the territory of Belarus after the forthcoming West-2017 exercises.’ Earlier, on 29 April 2017, Estonian Minister of Defence Margus Tsahkna stated that Russia could take advantage of the large-scale military exercises to deploy thousands of soldiers in Belarus as a warning to NATO. He added that he had got his information from Estonian intelligence.

Ben Hodges. Source: republic.com.ua

On 21 July 2017, Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, Commanding General of the U.S. Army in Europe, called West-2017 a ‘Trojan horse’. He added that although Russia speaks of ‘exercises’, nevertheless its forces could end up staying.

Belarus’s only neighbour (apart from Russia, of course) which appears unfazed by the exercises is Latvia. On 19 July 2017, Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics, following a meeting with Uladzimir Makiej in Minsk, stated: ‘We have no more questions about the West-2017 exercises. My Belarusian colleague explained the position of Belarus very thoroughly, and I’m satisfied.’

Dangerous misunderstandings

The main problem with the West-2017 exercises is that they are being held at the exact same time as the Russian large-scale exercise ‘West’. These are two different events, but they have almost the same name and are being held at the same time. Thus, the joint exercises in Belarus are perceived to be part of a larger Russian event. The Ukrainian, Western, and especially Russian media often fail to differentiate between the two exercises.

Notably, this coincidence is reflected in the position of Belarusian Defence Minister Andrej Raŭkoŭ, who once stated that West-2017 would cover a territory from the Barents Sea to Brest. By making such statements, as well as by categorically refusing to comment on the possibility of Russian troops staying in Belarus after the exercises, the Belarusian Defence Ministry only provides fodder for speculation.

Misunderstandings abound: media coverage of the exercises makes it seem like Russia really is holding a large-scale exercise with an offensive agenda in Belarus. However, this is far from reality. The ultimate goal of this information wave is to undermine Belarus’s image and harm its relations with the West and Ukraine. So far, it seems like this endeavour has met with some success.

Lukashenka with a Kalashnikov rifle. Source: solnzepodobny.livejournal.com

A strong need for transparency

Russia certainly benefits from being perceived as a threat. Moreover, it is the only regional actor interested in the deterioration of relations between Belarus and the West: it wants to demonstrate its exclusive influence in Belarus and diminish Belarus’s role on the international arena, showing to be part of the Russian military system. This attitude often encourages the government in Minsk to be relatively complaisant in negotiations concerning political, economic, and military issues; it also pushes it to further integrate with Russia.

If Belarus wants to be perceived as a more or less ‘neutral’ state, it should make West-2017 as transparent as possible. Maximum media coverage with complete explanations would go a long way. Likewise, inviting foreign observers to all stages of the exercises would be the bare minimum needed to assuage sceptics.

Naturally, Russia would not welcome such measures and would surely grumble in retaliation. Alexander Lukashenka has spoken repeatedly about his willingness to provide the best conditions for foreign observers and guarantee the full transparency of the exercises. It is crucial that he stick to this word: at the moment, the image of the Belarusian state depends to a large degree on his success in fulfilling this task.




Belarusian army aims to protect Russian airspace, not to atack other countries

Belarus’s neighbours regularly voice their concerns about Minsk’s role in a potential Russian invasion of the Baltic states or Ukraine. However, on 15 June, Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenka insisted that although Belarusian and Russian troops were operating in the region ‘as one,’ they had no aggressive intentions.

Just a cursory glance at the Belarusian army raises doubts about its ability to engage in any large offensive operations. To make up for its diminishing national army capacities, the Belarusian government went as far as to bring the emergency ministry’s aviation to the 3 July Independence Day parade, along with equipment from the DOSAAF, a paramilitary sport association. In addition, the government invited a large number of Russian military aircraft and helicopters to airshows in Minsk and Mashulishchy, a town nearby.

Many types of equipment operated by the Belarusian army have become old and are being decommissioned without corresponding replacements. The army’s offensive capacities are especially affected by this deterioration. The government takes proper care of only two elements of the military: air defence and special operations forces.

Belarusian demilitarisation

The reality of the Belarusian military’s decline is becoming too evident for even government officials to deny. Writing on 12 May in the official army daily Belorusskaya Voennaya Gazeta, Aleh Voinau, head of international military cooperation department, and his deputy Valery Ravenka, complained that:

There is a gradual decline going on with regard to quantitative indicators of weapons and military equipment [deployed by the Belarusian army]. Alas, this is not true of the states of the so called ‘good-neighborhood belt’, which are carrying out large-scale modernisation and build-up of weapons and military equipment.

To make their point, they cited the figures of the Belarusian army’s troops and equipment for 2016 and 2017. The decline of military might, however, becomes more clear after one compares the numbers from recent years with even the early 2010s, as shows the table below:

Although official figures may be inaccurate, they more probably exaggerate the amount of equipment rather than the other way around. Besides, no cover-ups have been exposed so far, despite numerous inspection, visits, and survey flights of the Belarusian army by foreign military experts. In 2016 there were 28 such events. Russian aviation spotters also recently conducted an analysis of the Belarusian army’s attack helicopter fleet and drew similar conclusions about its dramatic decline.

Last but not least, the figures in the above table represent the army’s total number of weapons, including those kept in reserve, which may be effectively deficient. Belarusian defence minister Andrey Raukou revealed more realistic data regarding equipment in active service in a presentation for the national parliament on 4 April 2016 (see Table 2 below).

A purely defensive force?

The capacities of the Belarusian army have diminished in all regards. However, this has most affected its capacities for offensive operations. A brief overview of some basic components of offensive might, such as firepower and troop mobility capacities, shows that Minsk places virtually no value on these aspects of its military.

Belarus lacks the modern firepower necessary for any large military operation. Thus, in 2012 Minsk decommissioned its last Su-24 bombers, and its military officials openly deliberated possibly decommissioning the few remaining Su-25 close air support aircraft. Although they ostensibly meant for Yak-130 trainer jets to replace the Su-25s, thanks to the absence of independent media in the country such absurd statements went unchallenged.

As follows from the table above, Minsk also has few attack helicopters, which constitute another possible source of firepower on the battlefield. Moreover, it has no plans to replace them. On 22 May, a source from the Russian helicopter-manufacturing Vertolety Rossii Holding told TASS news agency that it had no contracts concluded with Minsk on attack helicopters.

Another crucial premise for offensive operations – troop mobility capacities – is victim to similar circumstances. Thus, Belarus has just two Il-76 operational transport aircraft. As a result, Russia had to send six of its own Il-76s to conduct the latest Belarus-Russian-Serbian military exercise including an airborne operation in Brest Province in Belarus.

Similar trends are visible with smaller equipment, which is also important for offensive operations. The media have reported stories from recent paratrooper exercises in Belarus which demonstrate this. When in early April Russian paratroopers came to Vitsebsk Province to participate in a joint exercise with their Belarusian counterparts, the Russians had to remember how to use old D-6 parachutes. The Russian army had long replaced them with newer systems such as D-10 and T-10V as early as in 2007. Meanwhile, in Belarus only older systems are available, so the Russian troops had to make do.

Thus, in anticipation of the next paratroopers exercise in early June, which were to be held with Belarusians and Serbs in Brest Province, Russians brought their own new D-10 parachutes, while the Belarusian and Serbian troops used older Soviet models.

Why is it so?

To put it briefly, Minsk has no money even for parachutes. This stinginess is logical: it does not crave the capacity to sent its paratroopers to seize NATO capitals. Official data about the structure of the Belarusian army shows that it has other priorities. The situation as of 2016 is presented in table 3, although the structure of the Belarusian army has remained almost unchanged for more than a decade, ever since Minsk shifted to a brigade-based structure for its national armed forces.

 

Minsk puts emphasis on two military components: air defence (with its air force ever more directed towards the needs of air defence and mobility of counterinsurgency forces rather than providing support to ground troop offensives) and special operations forces. This is a logical decision.

First, Belarus fosters air defence in order to sell its air space protection services to Russia. In exchange for this intangible and invaluable service, Minsk demands everything else – and above all economic benefits.

Secondly, the Belarusian leadership fears the security risks of Donbas-like scenarios of local insurgencies of whatever political colour or orientation, and it prepares for such emergencies. Top Belarusian officials regularly refer to Ukrainian problems. For example, Defence minister Andrei Raukou recently explained the reshuffling of the country’s national massive mobilisation system by citing ‘Ukraine’s experience’ of problems in mobilising the population for war in Eastern Ukraine.

The only two things which interest Minsk

All of Belarus’s military needs yield to two priorities: air defence and preparation for counterinsurgency operations. Thus, Minsk has invested serious money in designing the Palanez multiple-launch rocket system: it is a cheap way of providing fire support for counterinsurgency operations.

In sum, the Belarusian army itself has few resources for modern large-scale offensive operations, such as those conducted by the Russian army in 2008 in Georgia. It can hardly engage in such offensives even in tandem with the Russian army. Belarus keeps its military autonomy at a high level: it hosts neither Russian combat units, nor Russian forwards supply depots.

That is, even if Russia wants merely to send its own forces through Belarusian territory and fight relying only on its own troops, it has so far prepared nothing for that. Even more difficult for the Kremlin would be to integrate the Belarusian army, even as an auxiliary force to conduct a joint offensive operation.




Does Belarus really need Russian Su-30SM fighters?

On 20 June, during the 2017 Le Bourget international air show which took place near Paris, France, Belarus signed a contract for a batch of 12 Su-30SM fighters from Russia. The contract supposedly amounts to around $600m.

The Su-30SM is a modernised version of the Su-30MKI model of fighter aircraft, which was specially designed for the Russian Air Force and is the most modern in the Su-30 series. Russia also sold six Su-30SMs to the Kazakh Air Force.

The fighter is able to use modern high-precision air-to-air and air-to-surface weapons. The Su-30SM can not only hit air and surface targets with its own missile weapons, but also direct fighters and bombers with a smaller target detection range.

The first official combat use of the Su-30SM occurred during the Russian operation in Syria. The Russian media reported that Su-30SMs were used as multipurpose vehicles for conducting air patrols, covering attack aircraft and striking ground targets.

It’s all about money

According to Dmitry Shugaev, head of the Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation of the Russian Federation, the jets will be delivered gradually, in accordance with the terms prescribed in the contract. However, what these terms are precisely remains unclear. The Belarusian Minister of Defence, Andrej Raŭkoŭ, confirmed that the fighters had been purchased but stated only that 'this contract will come into force as soon as there is funding'.

Such uncertainty can mean two things: either the contact does not specify the precise terms for the delivery of the aircraft, or its fulfilment depends completely on Russia loans. Moreover, these conditions are not mutually exclusive, making implementation of the contract extremely dependent on the political relations between Belarus and Russia.

Thus, on 7 April 2017, Lukashenka characterised his talks with Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg thus: 'I want Russia to help us with the rearmament of the Belarusian army.

Moreover, this rearmament must either be at their expense or at a low price. We will not be able to pay for modern arms ourselves: we have neither oil nor gas, and these are the main sources of rearmament'. This statement also points to the political character of the deal and the fact that its fulfilment is not guaranteed.

At the same time, some experts assume that Russia will provide preferential terms for Belarus. However, it does not seem that these discounts will be substantial. Firstly, Russia is experiencing economic problems of its own and can’t afford to exchange expensive modern aircraft for Belarus's repeated claims of loyalty. Secondly, providing this kind of 'present' for one ally will almost certainly cause all other CSTO members to make similar claims.

No discounts for close allies

The Russian media have cited sources close to the leadership of Rosoboronexport (A Russian company for defence industry export), who report that the Belarusian Defence Ministry made the deal directly with Irkut Corporation, without the Russian state's mediation.

According to them, the 12 Su-30SM fighters will cost Belarus about $600m. This will be the largest single contract for the purchase of Russian arms by Belarus in history. Previously, according to two contracts in 2012 and 2015, Belarus also received eight Yak-130s, a training and battle aircraft, which were also produced by Irkut.

If the data provided by the Russian media are accurate, then there was clearly no 'Russian discout'. One aircraft cost about $50m, the normal price for Su-30SMs for third countries, not for close military allies. For example, the Russian Defence Ministry purchased the fighters for $35m – more than 30% cheaper. Kazakhstan bought the aircraft at almost the same price, even cheaper because of the fluctuation of the Russian rouble.

That said, neither the full cost nor the details of the contract have been officially announced. This means that even taking the possible sum of $600m for 12 fighters, it is impossible to tell what exactly the contract provides for. Is the price for the aircraft alone or does it include service, support, spare parts, and pilot training?

An unaffordable Russian luxury

Concerning service, Belarusian officials and experts have noted that repair and maintenance for the Su-30s would be possible at the 558th aircraft repair plant in Baranavičy. Nevertheless, taking into account the fact that the electronics in Su-30SMs are largely Western-made, maintenance could be difficult and expensive for the Belarusian military: this could mean that it would need to be carried out in Russia. All these factors only increase the dependence of Belarus on Russia.

At the same time, the purchase of only 12 Su-30SMs for Belarus's ageing air fleet does not solve the issue of Russia’s intention to establish an air base in Belarus. Belarus operates a fleet of 24 MiG-29s and 12 Su-25s, which the new aircraft are to replace.

Even if the Air Force is fully re-equipped with modern aircraft, this will not be the end of the Russian air base issue, as it is a political problem rather than a military one.

Another issue is the high operational cost of the Su-30SMs. The approximate flight hour cost for Su-30SMs is estimated at a minimum of $35,000. A pilot needs at least 100 hours a year to be ready for military operations. If Belarus prepares only 24 pilots for 12 double aircraft (a possible minimum), we are talking about $42m a year just to keep the aircraft ready. This would be around 10% of the 2016 budget for national security and defence.

Given the fact that Belarusian pilots do not get enough flight time even with Mig-29s (with flight hour costs at around $20,000), it is dubious whether Belarus can really afford these Su-30SMs at all. The full re-equipment of the Belarusian Air Force with Su-30SMs (which would entail 36 fighters) is impossible for financial reasons. This begs the question of whether the Belarusian Air Force needs to operate two-engine fighters like Su-30SM at all: Belarus is not comparable to Russia or Kazakhstan, which have much larger territories.

Thus, the purchase of Su-30SMs does not solve the current problems the Belarusian Air Force is facing; instead, it is creating more problems. In political, military, and financial terms, this contract only increases the dependence of Belarus on Russia. Such frivolous spending is also offensive for the Belarusian population, which is struggling with a worsening financial situation.




New arms for Belarus and Russia’s military plans in the region

On 20 June, Belarus signed a contract with the Russian Irkut corporation to purchase 12 Su-30SM fighter jets for $600m. This would be the largest ever arms deal between Minsk and Moscow. Earlier in June, Minsk also received its first batch of T-72 tanks, which were modernised in Russia.

At first glance, Russia seems to be arming Minsk. This fits with conjectures that the Kremlin is becoming increasingly hawkish and Minsk and Moscow are colluding to put their regional and Western opponents under pressure.

However, a more scrupulous analysis of such arms deals, as well as the armaments the Belarusian army possesses, paints a different picture. Moscow refuses to bolster the steadily declining Belarusian military's capacity to conduct offensive operations, including joint large-scale operations with Russia.

Does the Kremlin really want to arm Belarus?

On 21 May, the head of Russia's Federal Service for Military Technical Cooperation, Dmitry Shugaev commented that 'Russia is interested in ensuring that the Belarusian army has modern equipment.'

Meanwhile, even Belvpo.com, a media outlet with probable (close) links to the Belarusian army, has repeatedly criticised Russia's policy regarding weapons for Minsk over the past several months.

One of the publication's authors, Valery Berazhnoi, recently lashed out at the Kremlin for refusing to supply Minsk with S-400 surface-to-air (SAM) systems and Iskander tactical ballistic missile systems. He noted that Russia had already given S-400s to China and Iskanders to Armenia.

Moreover,

For almost ten years, Belarusians were given promises [of receiving Iskanders]. Thus, in cooperation with the Chinese, the Belarusian defence industry created a fundamentally new type of weapon – the Palanez rocket system [because they could not get Iskanders].

These are harsh words coming from a publication which is neither oppositional nor nationalist, but produced by retired Belarusian army officers.

Their stance corresponds with that of the Belarusian government. On 7 October 2016, president Alexander Lukashenka criticised Russia's lack of willingness to supply weapons to Belarus during an assembly of the national parliament. In particular, he referred to the Iskander missile system: 'So it turns out that in order to protect you [Russia], I must … buy a gun from you? Is that normal?'

The facts also point to Moscow's reluctance to provide Minsk with arms. Lukashenka's and Putin's failure to boost Belarus's offensive military capacities becomes obvious after a brief analysis of which weapons the Belarusian army has received and decommissioned over the past several years.

Aircraft: Minsk pays

On 20 June, the Moscow-based business daily Vedomosti explained that Russian loans would be used to finance the forthcoming deliveries of Su-30. In order to make it easier for the Belarusian budget, the Russian manufacturer would deliver about four aircraft a year.

However, money still remains an issue. When asked about the deliveries, Belarusian defence minister Andrei Raukou simply told Tut.by that 'The contract specifies this with one line: as soon as funding starts.'

Tut.by also reports that the contract had been concluded directly, i.e., without the mediation of the Russian government. In other words, the Kremlin is in no haste to arm Minsk; Belarus must purchase arms like any other country.

This seems to be a pattern. Last October, Lukashenka revealed the conditions on which Minsk had bought the S-300 SAM systems to the Belarusian parliament: 'To my knowledge, we paid $170m, took the S-300s, repaired them, modernised them, and deployed them.' In other words, Minsk paid Russia even for second-hand S-300PS – despite the fact that the Kremlin could hardly have sold them at a decent price anywhere.

Helicopters and fighter jets for sale

The Belarusian army will not enlarge its air force by adding the new Su-30SMs to it. According to then deputy defence minister Ihar Latsyankou in February 2016, it will use the new jets to replace currently active MiG-29s, which Belarus inherited from Soviet times.

Minsk is already looking to sell its MiGs. On 29 June, the Russian military analysis blog BMPD, citing an anonymous Serbian source, reported that although Serbia has currently stopped negotiating the purchase of eight MiG-29s from Belarus, it could conclude the deal in 2018 or later.

A similar situation exists regarding combat helicopters. On 25 June, Russian military aviation blogger kloch4 published an abusive but noteworthy analysis of Minsk's plans to decommission its Mi-24 attack helicopters and sell them abroad.

After analysing numerous photographs of Belarusian army helicopters, he concluded that although Belarus had inherited more than seven dozen helicopters from the Soviet army:

…we can confirm a sharp weakening of the Mi-24 fleet in Belarus – there are only a dozen flying vehicles, some of them – the Mi-24 of non-attack modifications which cannot employ guided anti-tank weapons. The choppers of the latter kind have recently been returned to service, which indicates a certain armaments crisis … There were no attempts noticed to modernise the equipment in order to increase its combat capacities, including for night missions.

Its no wonder that on 10 June, the French daily Le Figaro quoted a UN Security Council document saying that the Mi-24 attack helicopters recently seen at airfields controlled by Libya's Tobruk-based government had been purchased from Belarus. The UAE had bought them for its Libyan allies. The Emirati government has been buying military equipment for its Libyan friends for some years: in 2014, it purchased four Mi-24V attack helicopter from Belarus for Libya. Le Figaro's report might indicate that there were further such deals.

The Belarusian army's attack helicopters are in even more dire straights than its fighter jets. Unlike fighter jets, which are partly being replaced by newer airplanes, Minsk has no such policy for its attack helicopters. It did not buy any new combat helicopters from Russia – only 18 Mi-17V5 transport helicopters. This is an odd choice for a country preparing for a clash with NATO.

Modernising Soviet armour once again

What's more, there are no new tanks coming from Russia to strengthen Minsk's military might either. On 2 June, the Belarusian army received its first batch of T-72B3 tanks from the Russian plant Uralvagonzavod. The T-72B3 model is the latest Russian modification (as of 2016) of the Soviet mass-produced T-72 tank.

As great as this might sound, this makes little difference for Belarus's offensive capacities. First, Minsk received only four tanks, even though the Belarusian defence ministry subsequently signed a contract with the Russian firm on modernising another batch of T-72s.

Secondly, the Russians are modernising Belarus's own T-72s. They are not providing new machines, not even T-90s, which have been deployed by the Russian army for many years already.

The same can also be said about other types of armoured vehicles. Thus, contrary to claims by some Russian military analysts, Minsk has abandoned its plans to buy new Russian BTR-82As, an armoured personnel carrier. What's more, for several years Belarus has been receiving lighter armoured vehicles of the Humvee-type not from Russia, but from China – and for free.

In sum, an analysis of Belarusian military hardware purchases and sales does not seem to indicate any preparation for large-scale operations involving Belarusian participation, such as a Russian invasion of the Suwalki gap to reach the Kaliningrad Province or indeed anything larger than counterinsurgency missions. Moreover, Belarus still retains its brigade-based army structure – which it adopted for smaller operations – while since 2014 Russian has been reestablishing larger units – divisions and even armies – suitable for fighting large-scale wars.

Is Minsk just out of money? Perhaps, but Russia is not demonstrating any willingness to boost the combat capacities of its Belarusian ally for such deployments by supplying it with appropriate weapons.

The only new equipment Belarus received from Moscow over the last five years was trainer jets and transport helicopters, with Tor-M2 SAM systems being the largest Russian contribution to Belarusian defence. And Minsk paid for them.

Thus, it is clear that if Russia has any plans for larger offensive operations, the Belarusian armed forces have no place in them.




Belarusian defence industries: doubling exports and launching ballistic missile production

On 20-22 May, Milex-2017, an exhibition of defence equipment, took place in Minsk. It featured the first Belarusian ballistic missile. This recent success was one of many for the Belarusian defence industry.

On 18 May, the Chairman of the State Military Industrial Committee of Belarus, Siarhei Hurulyou, announced that from 2011 to 2016 the defence enterprises supervised by his committee had almost doubled their export volume, earning about $1bn last year.

These two stories illustrate two different paths the Belarusian arms industry is taking. On one hand, they still earn a considerable portion of their money by cooperating with Russia. On the other, they are diversifying and developing products by working with China, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and many other countries – even going so far as to annoy the Kremlin.

Russia both nervous and glad about the successes of Belarusian defence industries

In an article published in the May issue of the Russian Natsionalnaya Oborona defence review, Hurulyou admitted that 'export remains the main point of interest for balanced economic development of the [firms subordinated to the] State Military Industrial Committee.'

Speaking at Milex-2017 on 20 May, Hurulyou stressed that Russia remains Belarus's principal partner, 'which nevertheless is somewhat nervous and, well, maybe also glad about our successes.' He also mentioned China and South East Asian nations as other important partners.

Belarus could hardly have earned a $1bn last year without Russia's involvement. This is obvious given known deals, as well as those reported in the media in recent months. The largest deals which did not involve Russia are novelties for the industry: including deals on air defence equipment and related services with Vietnam, Myanmar, and Azerbaijan. For instance, an improved version of the Vostok-E radar, which once helped Iran intercept a US drone, has been developed together with Vietnam. Furthermore, Belarus sold the armoured vehicle Bars and the Belarusian-Ukrainian anti-tank missile Karakal to Turkmenistan. Minsk also made other minor deals such as selling Poland munition for $7.7m in 2015. Nevertheless, these deals alone cannot explain the dramatic growth in Belarusian defence export.

Deals on military aircraft and their servicing bring in much more money: the 558th Aircraft Repair Works in the city of Baranavichy conducts overhaul and modernisation of helicopters and aircraft. Last year, it signed a contract to overhaul twelve Su-25 aircraft for Kazakhstan. Concurrently, it is also completing the overhaul and modernisation of the second-hand Su-30K jets which Russia promised to Angola. The latter contract generates at least as much income as the deal with Kazakhstan.

Belarusian defence industries make the most money not by producing complete systems, but by making components for the systems manufactured by others, especially Russia. The most notable of these include chassis from the Minsk-based factory MZKT. The Russian tactical ballistic missile system Iskander, some S-400 surface-to-air missile systems' parts, and the mobile coastal defence missile systems Bastion, Bal-E, and Bereg all operate on MZKT-7930 chassis.

Belarusian sight devices are installed on various Russian anti-tank systems, including the T-90, T-72, and T-80 tanks and infantry fighting vehicles. Russian defence industries also use Belarusian fire control systems on various armoured vehicles. Likewise, Belarusian firms supply electronic warfare and some avionics; these are installed not only on modernised Su-27 but also on the most advanced Russian fighter aircraft Sukhoi PAK FA (T-50).

No wonder the Belarusian defence industries have succeeded in earning more money thanks to the massive modernisation of the Russian army in recent years, which also necessitated replacing certain Ukrainian components in Russian-manufactured equipment.

Missiles and armoured vehicles: How Belarusian are they?

Minsk, however, realises that these tailwinds can change, and is struggling to diversify. The most remarkable new products presented in the Milex-2017 included a new missile for Palanez and an armoured vehicle called Kaiman. Both of them were results of attempts to develop technological branches that had been either non-existent – like missiles systems – or underdeveloped, like armoured vehicles.

A mock-up of a tactical ballistic missile has attracted arguably the most media attention at the exhibition. It will make recently deployed Palanez Belarus-Chinese multiple-launch rocket system (MLRS) capable of delivering a conventional 560 kg payload as far as 300 km. Now, the Palanez shoots only at 200 km with much smaller rockets.

The Belarusian State Military Industrial Committee admits that the missile was designed under the framework of 'existing cooperation'. This formulation seemingly indicates collaboration with China. Experts at the Moscow-based Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies dismiss it as a version of the Chinese missile M20. However, experts have suspected for years that Ukrainian firms may also be involved.

The Belarusian State Military Industrial Committee announced its plans to conduct initial shooting tests of the Belarusian ballistic missiles this autumn. The committee head boasted of 'having established a complete scientific, experimental, and manufacturing complex – from scratch – which enables Belarus to design […] and produce its own modern rocket and missile systems.'

Besides missiles, the Belarusian government has been striving to produce mechanised armoured vehicles in the country. The new combat reconnaissance/patrol vehicle Kayman became one of the most celebrated products at the Milex.

It was designed by the 140th Tank Repair Works based in the city of Barysau. The first models of Kayman were produced based on the Soviet BRDM-2, an armoured patrol car. However, the Works' head designer Volha Pyatrova insist that the final version of Kayman is an original product manufactured mostly from Belarusian components.

President Lukashenka ordered the design of such a vehicle three years ago. This month, Kayman was officially deployed in the Belarusian armed forces.

Does Minsk supply dysfunctional equipment?

Belarusian defence industries have so far succeeded in maintaining a certain degree of quality in their international cooperation. But on 17 May, the radical opposition web-site Belorusskii Partizan published material about allegedly dysfunctional military equipment supplied by Belarus to Azerbaijan in the early 2010s. Some Ukrainian components in the supplied systems reportedly were broken; furthermore, Belarusian firms perhaps paid Ukraine too much.

Numerous foreign media sources, such as the major Azerbaijani media outlet Haqqin, quoted the article. However, there is little evidence of the problems described by Belorusskii Partizan, which was the only source of information on the case. It claims to possess copies of documents proving the story but it has refused to publish them so far.

This is not the only unsubstantiated story about the Belarusian arms industries to circulate recently. On 26 April, the French bulletin Intelligence Online published an article accusing Lukashenka's government of continuing arms trade with the Syrian government. The bulletin based its story on a meeting between Belarusian Industry Minister Vitali Vouk and Syrian prime minister Imad Khamis. Official reports, however, do not indicate that they discussed military matters. Belarus has avoided supplying sensitive items to Damascus for years, and the 76-word story failed to provide any evidence that the opposite is now true.

Defence industries constitute an important branch of the Belarusian economy. They are dynamic, willing to introduce new products, and diversify markets and partners. Belarusian defence firms remain closely linked to Russia, but that does not mean they are dependent on it.

They are looking for autonomous ways to export their defence products. This certainly angers the Kremlin. Unsubstantiated stories which work to undermine cooperation with Ukraine and Azerbaijan are just more proof of this.




Belarus seeking security cooperation with both Russia and the West: Mission possible?

On 9 May in Washington, in a presentation at the American think tank Atlantic Council, Belarusian deputy foreign minister Aleh Krauchanka emphasised the importance of Belarus-US security cooperation.

Meanwhile, numerous Eastern European officials from Western-alligned nations made statements about their apprehensions regarding the upcoming Russian-Belarusian West-2017 military exercises. Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaitė announced that West-2017 exercise is evidence that Belarus and Russia are preparing for war with the West.

Minsk, however, is playing its own game and trying to get the best of both worlds. It is using the exercise to extract benefits from Russia while attempting to assure Russia's opponents of Belarus's neutrality.

Who's afraid of the big bad West-2017 exercise?

Latvian foreign minister Edgars Rinkēvičs stated that his country must be prepared for any outcome of West-2017, including Russian troops remaining in Belarus. The Secretary of Ukraine's National Security and Defence Council, Oleksandr Turchynov, claims that the exercise could turn out to be the preliminary stage for an offensive operation against Ukraine.

Lithuanian special services warned that Russia could overrun the Baltic states in 24 to 48 hours. In April, Lithuania conducted drills in preparation for a 'Crimean scenario.' Without warning local police personnel, armed men attacked the Lithuanian town of Šalčininkai. The invaders were presented as coming from Belarus. The aggressor-country in the scenario of the drills was called Udija – clearly hinting at Belarus, which is sometimes called Gudija in Lithuanian.

Interestingly, neither the local police nor the population resisted the attack, apparently unwilling to believe that Belarus could invade Lithuania. Therefore, it seems that West-2017 is worrying mostly for Eastern European politicians and special services, not so much the general population.

Officials in Western countries were more restrained, too. For example, US defence secretary James Mattis stated that the Belarusian-Russian drills were no cause for concern: 'It's a routine exercise. I trust it will stay routine.' In February, NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg announced only that NATO was paying 'some attention to military exercises, including West-2017.'

The price of the power show

The Belarusian government struggles to address concerns from neighbouring countries. On 3 February, Lukashenka commented:

If the [Russian] troops will be brought here, they will also smoothly leave this place again. … The troops will disembark near the exercise place, they will set up camp, there will be very few live rounds – only to shoot at targets, the rest – blank rounds. Everything's under control.

Minsk would like to improve the image of the drills and make them more transparent by inviting observers and revealing details. Nevertheless, although it realises the drills are causing protests of its neighbours, it also sees them as an opportunity to solve certain issues with Russia.

One item on Belarus's wish list is obtaining new and expensive equipment for the Belarusian military. This is a crucial task for Minsk, which unfortunately has no money for weapons. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Belarusian military expenditure in 2016 has diminished by 17.5% to $597m.

It is in fact possible to calculate the price Belarus has extracted from Russia for the power show: the Kremlin has had to give its Belarusian ally expensive military hardware in order to secure its cooperation. On 7 April, Lukashenka openly articulated his hopes that Russia would help him arm the Belarusian armed forces: either at Russia's expense, or 'for a small price.' In particular, Lukashenka wanted to finally acquire the Su-30 fighter jets over which Minsk has been wrangling with Moscow for more than a decade.

According to Lukashenka, he recently discussed the issue with Putin, who "jumped up" after hearing of Belarusian appetites. The Belarusian leader offered to pay him half-price (despite the fact that each airplane costs about $25m) and apparently prevailed. Shortly after, various Belarusian military officials started speaking about receiving the new aircraft as soon as 2017.

That is certainly not all. In a related development, twelve new military transport helicopters (Mi-8MTV-5) were delivered to Belarus by the Russian corporation Vertolyoty Rossii in two instalments in November and March: months earlier than expected.

The Belarusian government blames all sides

Minsk has few other reasons to participate in this show of power called West-2017. Although these exercises are clearly a move by the Kremlin in its ongoing confrontation with the West, the Belarusian government simply keeps its distance from such conflict.

Speaking in Washington on 9 May, Belarusian deputy foreign minister Krauchanka emphasised that Minsk 'does not regard NATO presence as a direct threat to Belarus, although this undoubtedly creates risk and security challenges in the region.' The Belarusian government considers the rising tensions in Europe to be 'the biggest threat' to its national security.

Krauchanka was not the only Belarusian official to express this position. Defence minister Andrei Raukou, in a rather militant presentation at the Fourth Moscow International Security Conference, lashed out at new NATO deployments and stored military hardware. Given the conference venue, such statements come as no surprise. Nevertheless, he stated that for Belarus, NATO's eastward expansion was a fait accompli.

Speaking on 28 April, Belarusian foreign minister Uladzimir Makei mentioned the rising presence of NATO troops near Belarus's borders in a calmer tone. He underlined that in military terms, these deployments did not matter much, voicing other concerns instead:

We are alarmed by such actions also because of the recent increase in militant rhetoric between East and West. I will not say who is right, who is to blame. But … these accusations are not always justified.

Silent security cooperation with the US

Likewise, Minsk is trying to increase its security cooperation with the West. Deputy foreign minister Krauchanka, during his latest visit to the US, called security cooperation 'a cornerstone' in Belarus-US relations. As examples, he cited Belarus's provision of land transit to supply NATO forces in Afghanistan.

US sanctions against Belarus notwithstanding, 'when America needed our help, we provided it. Moreover, we did it consciously, never tried to bargain, and even avoided speaking publicly about it.' Krauchanka failed to specify further plans for cooperation, but under the current tense circumstances in Eastern Europe, Minsk could play an important role in various international projects beyond mediating in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.

Thus, the Belarusian position could become important should the US attempt to raise the issue of Russia's possible violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. This possibility follows from an interview with Rose Gottemoeller, former US Under Secretary of State and the current Deputy Secretary General of NATO, published on 3 April by the Russian daily Kommersant. She underlines that the possible violation could be discussed not only with Russia, but also with other parties, i.e., Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine.

It would behove the Belarusian government to build a more balanced and neutral policy by establishing more diversified partnerships in the security realm. At the same time, Minsk realises the sensitiveness of this issue for Moscow, and agrees to what is most important to the Russian leadership, such as the forthcoming West-2017 exercises.

This, however, does not mean that the Kremlin can dictate whatever it wants. On the contrary, Belarus is reshaping its national security policies and can still persuade Russia to help it with military equipment.




The West-2017 Belarus-Russian military exercise: smaller than anticipated

During a meeting with defence minister Andrei Raukou on 20 March, president Alexander Lukashenka demanded 'absolute transparency' at the forthcoming West-2017 Belarusian-Russian military exercise. The Belarusian government is working to counter the negative repercussions of such a massive show of military force in the region.

These repercussions have certainly been felt. On 9 February, Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaitė stated that during the West-2017 exercises 'aggressive forces are concentrating in very large numbers, this is a demonstrative preparation for a war with the West.'

Moscow would apparently like to increase the fog of uncertainty surrounding its military moves. The Russian military previously published the numbers of railway wagons needed for troop movement. In the absence of proper explanations, this created a threatening impression. Yet it is now clear that the exercises on Belarusian territory will be smaller than in 2009.

Minsk avoids confrontation with the West

As Lukashenka elaborated, 'I demand that this event [West-2017] on the territory of our country [sic!] be transparent and all its components be accessible not only to our friends in the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, the Eurasian Economic Union, the Commonwealth of Independent States, but also to NATO members.'

However, the Belarusian and Russian media framed Lukashenka's words in remarkably different ways. The Belarusian media, such as TUT.by, simply mentioned the quote as part of more general reports. Meanwhile, the Russian media, such as Lenta.ru, used the quote as a headline and expressly underlined Lukashenka's 'demand' to admit NATO observers to the exercise, thus creating an impression that he was openly defying Moscow.

Moscow is prone to militant statements and ambiguous threats. Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu, commenting on West-2017, said that his government had been forced to take preparatory defensive measures: 'The US and other NATO members are actively building up their offensive potential at the western borders of the Union State [of Belarus and Russia].'

Needless to say, his Belarusian counterpart Andrei Raukou describes West-2017 only in general terms, highlighting the necessity to practise defensive measures and continue cooperation with Russia. He also emphasised that Belarus would invite Western observers and that 'the requirements of Western partners would be met.'

West-2017 smaller than West-2009

Belarus and Russia have been holding 'West' (Zakhad, Zapad) joint strategic exercises every four years since 2009: on Belarusian and Russian territory in turn. As part of the West-2017 military exercise, on 14-20 September Belarusian and Russian troops will exercise on a territory spanning from the extreme North of Russia to Belarus. In Belarus, a 'Regional Group' of Russian and Belarusian troops will train on seven different sites. The Regional Group includes Belarusian armed forces and the First Tank Army of Russia.

Moscow means for these exercises to seem impressive. Nevertheless, Belarusian defence minister Raukou revealed that the activities of the exercise on Belarusian territory would be of a rather limited nature. Around 3,000 Russian personnel and 280 items of equipment will arrive in Belarus to participate in the drills. In comparison, in 2009 more than 6,000 Russian troops participated in the drills on Belarusian territory.

Raukou's revelations put an end to lively discussions regarding the scale of the forthcoming West-2017 exercise which began last November. At that point, Ukrainian websites such as Inform Napalm and Apostrophe had discovered that the Russian defence ministry had announced an official tender for 4,162 railway wagons for shipments to and from Belarus in 2017.

The Russian military did not explain its need for so many wagons, and no data for similar purchases during previous West exercises were available at the time. Thus, all kinds of hypotheses attempting to explain the number of wagons were set forth, including a forthcoming annexation of Belarus by Russian forces, which would come to the country under the guise of military exercises.

It took the Russian military two months to finally comment on the tender for more than 4,000 wagons. Upon the request of the Moscow-based liberal daily Novaya Gazeta, the Russian military explained itself in just four sentences.

First, it clarified that the declared amount of wagons were meant for transportation to and from Belarus, i.e., 2,000 wagons in each direction. Second, the Russian military disclosed never-before-published information on military shipments to and from Belarusian territory from previous joint exercises. During West-2009, these shipments required over 6,000 wagons, and during West-2013, almost 2,500 wagons.

Defence cooperation as a 'red line' for the Kremlin

Given that the Belarusian government wishes to limit the potentially negative repercussions of the exercise on Minsk's relations with its neighbours and the West, it is exercising caution with regard to military cooperation with Russia. Bilateral relations with Russia are also suffering from several unresolved problems. Nevertheless, on 20 March, Lukashenka had to say that Minsk 'was not going to reduce military cooperation with Russia because of disagreements which had emerged in other areas'.

On one hand, the Belarusian government maintains a critical attitude towards the defence cooperation with Russia. Hence, Lukashenka told Raukou that he wants the Belarusian defence ministry 'to conduct a general assessment of the efficiency of bilateral military cooperation with Russia.' This could be important because of a 'possible' meeting of the Supreme State Council of the Union State of Belarus and Russia, at which time the Belarusian leader would like to raise relevant issues with his Russian counterparts.

On the other hand, the Belarusian leader realises the sensitivity of defence cooperation issues for Moscow given the vital role of Belarus in providing security to Russia's core region around Moscow. Therefore, at the same conference, Lukashenka together with the defence minister announced: 'As far as security issues and defence of our common borders are concerned, they could never under any circumstances be taken lightly.'

In a word, Minsk and Moscow differ in their attitudes towards the West-2017 exercises. Minsk downplays the confrontational aspects of the exercise. Moscow, on the contrary, is working to make the drills non-transparent and thus more threatening than they really are.

The leakage of the previously unrevealed and confusing numbers of Russian military shipments via Belarusian railways, along with the intentionally late explanation, are aspects of Russia's information warfare.

The Belarusian government has tried to neutralise the negative consequences of this 'fog of war' by making the drills more transparent. This divergence with regard to transparency started years ago. A case in point is the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE). Minsk consistently adheres to the CFE, which rests on principles of transparency, while Moscow suspended its cooperation in 2007 and renounced it altogether in 2015.

Minsk continues military cooperation with Russia knowing that this is a 'red line' for Moscow. Yet the Belarusian government shapes the conditions and scale of its cooperation. It does not plan to participate in Putin's intimidation of NATO and its allies.




Can Belarus keep a strong position on the global arms markets?

In 2012, Belarus became 18th out of the world's 20 leading arms exporters, according to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) published last month.

Despite this achievement, the situation of national arms industries remains precarious. Belarusian arms producers are increasingly loosing sway on the post-Soviet market. Since 2007, The Kremlin has pursued a policy of substituting Belarusian products with Russian ones.

Under these circumstances, Minsk is focusing on traditional Soviet-era markets (such as China and Vietnam) and cooperation with conservative regimes in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. For example, Belarusian firms are currently seeking a contract on modernisation of Malaysian MiG-29s. At the end of February, Belarusian officials signed new agreements with a major defence company from the United Arab Emirates.

Top-20 for the last time?

In 2012-16, Belarus sold $625m worth of arms. In comparison, neighbouring Ukraine sold $3.7bn worth of weapons over the same time period and managed to keep its place among the top-10 global arms exporters.

According to SIPRI, Minsk received the most revenue from aircraft sales – $312m, and air defence systems – $195m. The export of armoured combat vehicles brought in $96m. Most of these arms were remnants of the Soviet military, although they were usually modernised before sale. At the same time, the share of products of Belarus's own firms is rising, e.g., radars, optics, and electronics. Belarus has recently focused on developing complete weapons systems, such as the Palanez multiple-launch rocket system. However, it has yet to export them.

Even a cursory analysis of SIPRI's figures shows that this could be the last time Minsk manages to get into the top-20 global arms suppliers. Given the share of aircraft in its exports and the fact that Belarus effectively no longer has aircraft to sell, Belarus will face a significant decline in its revenues from arms exports.

This can be avoided only if it decommissions the Su-25, a close air-support aircraft of the Belarusian armed forces, and sells them. Such plans have in fact been articulated repeatedly in recent years. Another possible option – the sale of some of the Belarusian military's MiG-29s – is improbable, as this would undermine Minsk's commitments to the Single Air Defence System with Moscow.

The three largest importers of Belarusian arms in 2012-2016 were China ($170m), Vietnam ($150m), and Sudan ($113m). China and Vietnam have been traditional Belarusian partners in the defence sphere since Soviet times. Export to Sudan became possible when certain conservative Arab regimes, namely Saudi Arabia and the UAE, bankrolled the Sudanese.

Belarusian arms in the Middle East and Southeast Asia

Cooperation with Western-allied Arab regimes continues. On 21 February, Belarus's State Military-Industrial Committee and the UAE's Tawazun Economic Council – the UAE's national agency dealing with defence equipment procurements – signed an undisclosed agreement.

While the Russian media described the document merely as a 'memorandum of understanding,' an IHS Jane's Defence Industry analysis insisted that Belarus and the UAE had signed a 'defence technology transfer agreement.'

The agreement followed another weapons deal concluded between Belarus and the UAE just days before. According to the $14.37m deal, the Emirati military contracted the Belarusian defence firm Beltech Export to supply spares and provide repair services and technical support for the BMP-3 infantry fighting vehicles of the UAE armed forces.

Meanwhile, Belarusian defence industries are also actively working in Southeast Asia. In 2016, Belarusian firms concluded two major arms deals there by delivering surface-to-air missile systems and radars worth $51m and $30m to Myanmar and Vietnam respectively.

Currently, the Belarusian 558th Aircraft repair plant is struggling to get a contract on modernisation of Malaysian MiG-29s. It has a chance: the speaker of the lower chamber of the Malaysian parliament Pandikar Amin Mulia visited the plant in December.

Is the Kremlin spending tens of millions to undercut Belarusian partners?

Belarusian defence industries are still mostly oriented towards post-Soviet nations. Yet fundamental changes are afoot. Without much publicity, Russian defence industries are consistently undercutting Belarusian suppliers. Russian government agencies are planning to replace Belarusian-manufactured components – alongside Ukrainian and Western-supplied defence equipment parts – with Russian state programmes.

Russian officials openly boast about their successes in substituting Belarusian imports with Russian products and services. A case in point is the company Remdizel, a unit of KamAZ corporation, which separated from the latter and took KamAZ's military projects with it.

Initially, Remdizel repaired and overhauled KamAZ chassis and trucks. However, in an interview recently published by Russian the defence review Eksport Vooruzhenii, Faiz Hafizov, director general of Remdizel, announced an expansion. His enterprise will now provide maintenance and overhaul services for Belarusian MAZ-543 and prepares to do the same for Belarusian MZKT-7930. The Russian army widely uses both to carry missiles.

This squeezing out of MAZ and MZKT from the Russian market is not a private initiative of Remdizel, as proven by respective agreements it has concluded with the Russian defence ministry and its departments. The director of Remdizel expects that in 2017 the revenue his firm gets from maintenance and overhaul of MAZ and MZKT of only military types can increase by at least 8-9%. This means a corresponding decrease in revenues of Belarusian firms.

Can Russia live without MZKT?

The sixth issue of the review Russia in Global Affairs last year featured an article summarising the achievements of the Russian defence industries in substituting imports. Belarusian supplies were listed among foreign imports to be replaced by Russian analogues. Furthermore, the author, Russian defence analyst Andrei Frolov, admitted that although the Kremlin started adopting defence imports substitution programmes in 2013-2014, the Russian government had begun to get rid of post-Soviet partners years before.

For instance, the Russian Zavod Spetsialnykh Avtomobilei, based in Naberezhnye Chelny, since 2010 has been developing a series of chassis to replace the Belarusian MZKT analogues as prospective arms platforms. Moreover, Putin signed an order on respective R&D works as early as 2007.

This is only the beginning. In July 2016, the local daily Biznes Online revealed that the project in Naberezhnye Chelny had failed, and now Russia is launching a second large-scale programme to substitute Belarusian-manufactured chassis. The costs already amount to tens of millions of US dollars, but the Kremlin seems intent on getting rid of Belarusian MZKT at any cost.

Other Belarusian defence exports to Russia will be affected as well. For instance, the same Russia in Global Affairs review announced the 'production of [Russian] night vision sight matrices instead of French and Belarusian products' as another major achievement of Russia's defence industry. Given that Belarusian firms traditionally supplied sights and other optics for Russian-made tanks and armoured vehicles, it seems that the Kremlin is making no exceptions for Belarus in its drive towards autarchy.

Belarusian defence industries are undergoing arduous but relatively successful transformations. On the one hand, they are forced to develop new products, as their Soviet legacy has already been sold. On the other hand, Putin's policies have left Minsk with no choice in the long-term perspective: it must survive with less support from Russia. As the SIPRI report has shown, Minsk is so far surviving. Minsk's marketing efforts pursue a consistent and fastidious strategy by focusing on solvent customers, including certain former Soviet allies, conservative regimes in the Middle East, and beyond.