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.




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.




Putin expects Belarus to boycott ports of Baltic States

On 16 August, at a conference on transportation in Northwest Russia, Russian president Vladimir Putin demanded that Belarus stop exporting its oil products through Latvian and Lithuanian ports. Instead, Moscow wants Belarus to reroute through Russia’s Baltic ports. This way, Putin intends to put even more pressure on the Baltic states.

The next day, the Belarusian stateaffiliated news agency BelTA published an interview with the acting director general of Belarusian Oil Company, Siarhei Hryb. The article made clear that Minsk wishes to continue its cooperation with the Baltic states.

It seems that Russia and Belarus are heading towards another oil dispute just months after ending the previous one. Minsk refuses to blindly follow the Kremlin’s policy of strangling the Baltic states, if only for pragmatic reasons. To survive as a sovereign state, Belarus needs good relations with all its neighbours, not just Russia.

Moscow wants Belarusians to join in a boycott of the Baltic states

Last year, Belarus exported 13m tons of oil products – a significant number for such a small country. In comparison, Russia exported 156m tons in 2016. Traditionally, Minsk has exported its oil products through Lithuanian and Latvian ports due to their geographic proximity. Notably, Belarusian cargo, mostly oil and potash products, made up 36 percent of the total volume of shipments of Lithuanian railways last year.

The Russian Kaliningrad Province. Image: Encyclopedia Britannica

In contrast, Russia has decided to put a complete halt to export of its oil products through the Baltic states by 2018, opting to use its own ports on the Black and Baltic seas instead. The director of Russian Railways, Oleg Belozerov, told Putin at a conference on 16 August that Belarusian firms are refusing to use Russian railways and ports to export goods. Belarus has made this decision despite Russian Railway’s offer to double the standing discount for transporting Belarusian oil products to Russian Baltic Sea ports to 50 percent. According to Belozerov, Belarusians cite their long term contracts with Baltic state ports.

Putin supported the complaints of Russian Railways: ‘Belarusian oil refineries reprocess only our oil, they have no oil from other suppliers… hence we shall offer it [to Belarus] as a package: if they get our oil they use our infrastructure.’

The conference also dealt with a related issue which demonstrates that Moscow is making no distinction between friend and foe in its renewed effort to strangle the region. Russian officials discussed establishing transport routes between Russia’s Kaliningrad Province and the rest of Russia and circumvent foreign states. Moscow aims to develop a direct communication line which would link its exclave to Russia proper and stop transiting through both Lithuania and Belarus.

Two months ago, acting Governor of Kaliningrad Anton Alikhanov announced plans to triple  the capacities of ferry lines between Kaliningrad province and the Ust-Luga port near Saint Petersburg by 2020. In his own words: ‘This is an important step because our dear neighbours – Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, and Belarus – love to exploit the transportation factor, the isolation of Kaliningrad from the rest of Russia.’

Belarus unlikely to join Putin’s continental blockade

Moscow has so far failed to pressure Belarus into using Russian ports instead of Lithuanian or Latvian ones. Now, both the Belarusian government and the business sector intend to resist Putin’s demands, even at the risk of a new oil dispute.

Even in March, when Russian Railways offered Minsk a 50 percent discount on oil products shipments, Belarusian Transport minister Anatol Sivak outrightly dismissed the offer. Commenting on Putin’s recent initiative, Hryb told BelTA on 17 August that even the high discount offered by Russia would not make much difference. It is still cheaper to send Belarusian oil products through the Baltic states. In addition, the Russian Baltic sea ports have had problems processing oil products and ensuring they remain undamaged by the elements in winter. Hryb maintains that his company offers customers the option of transporting oil products through Russian ports. However, the customers choose ports in the Baltic states.

TUT.by, the largest Belarusian news portal, quoted an anonymous oil trader who brought up the fact that it is not only the transportation tariff that matters, other factors are important too: how much time it takes to transport cargo, which port infrastructure is available, which services are offered, and so forth. The Baltic state ports win out over their Russian competitors in all these regards.

A strategic sector

Purchase and refining of predominantly Russian oil, along with the subsequent export of its products, are a key sector of the Belarusian economy. Talking in June at a government conference, Lukashenka called the oil refining industry ‘strategic.’

Belarusian government holds a conference on oil refining industry. Image: CTV.by

According to calculations by the IPM Research Centre, if in 2018 Russia supplies 23m tons of oil (the standard volume in earlier years when bilateral relations were good), then the Belarusian GDP would grow by 2.7 percent. If the strained situation of 2016 or 2017 is repeated and Moscow cuts supplies (which would then make up just 18m tons) the Belarusian GDP would increase by just 0.5 percent.

TASS news agency quoted several experts as saying that for Belarus, switching to Russian ports would cost up to $150m in financial terms. However, this sum is insignificant in perspective: after all, Minsk currently earns about $1.4bn on cheap oil it gets from Moscow.

Minsk looks for solutions abroad and inside the country

To counter the Kremlin’s repeated oil threats, Minsk is looking for alternative sources of oil by making new attempts to import Azerbaijani and Iranian oil. Out of the 18.6m tons of oil imported by Belarus in 2016, 0.5m tons were imported not from Russia, but most probably from Azerbaijan.

On the other hand, Minsk is working on a strategic long-term modernisation of the Belarusian petrochemical industry. In March, Alyaksandr Dzyamidau, the newly appointed director of Naftan, a Navapolatskbased refinery, explained to the media that Lukashenka had asked him to accelerate the modernisation of Naftan. The aim, according to Dzyamidau, is to make Belarusian refineries capable of processing oil of any brand and from various countries.

Mozyr oil refinery. Image: BelTA

The government is investing huge amounts of money to modernise the two oil refineries, and the process should be complete by 2019. However, in 2011-2015 alone, investments in Naftan development exceeded $1.2bn, and the refinery continues to receive millions to the present day. Another refinery in Mazyr has received $1.47bn for ongoing modernisation.

The Kremlin’s impossible political demands of Belarus threaten to drive it into a corner. Moscow could even endanger the alliance between Minsk and Moscow. However important Russia is for Belarus, Minsk cannot radically reduce its relations with its other neighbours, even if the Kremlin insists.

For Belarus, cutting links to the Baltics would mean significant financial losses and deterioration of political relations with the EU, as well as a return to political isolation. This would also lead to a fatal dependence on Russia and its oligarchic capital, reducing Belarusian statehood to a nominal status like that of Abkhazia or South Ossetia. There is no reasons to believe such a situation would be acceptable for the current Belarusian leadership.




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.




Redrawing the geopolitical map: Belarus and its neighbours connect the Black and Baltic seas

Belarus and Poland are advancing a project to connect the Black and Baltic Seas via the E40 waterway. The 2,000 km-long waterway will run through rivers and canals in Belarus, Ukraine, and Poland and provide better access to seaports for landlocked Belarus.

Having already conducted a feasibility study, the participating countries are now considering ways to finance the project before making their final decision.

However, in July, several environmental organisations and public associations launched a campaign against the E40 waterway. About two dozen organisations from Belarus, Poland, and Ukraine signed a petition to halt the project.

If anything can ensure the sovereignty of Belarus and its neighbours, it is such projects which modify the political geography of the region. Unfortunately, many experts and politicians in the region do not seem to understand this matter.

Is the project really as large as it seems?

Linking up the Black and Baltic Seas, the proposed E40 route also connects many of the region’s major cities: Brest and Pinsk in Belarus, Gdańsk and Warsaw in Poland, and Kyiv and Kherson in Ukraine. The designers of the E40 project emphasise that their intention is to restore a previously existing waterway to move both people and cargo. In most parts of the waterway, ships are navigating even today.

The Polish leg of the project will require the most work, while Belarus has only to partially streamline the Prypiats’ River, construct seven locks, and build several other hydro-technical facilities.

Map of the proposed E40 waterway. Image: e40restoration.eu

The Polish Maritime Institute in Gdańsk carried out a feasibility study on the project with EU support. According to the institute, construction of facilities on the Prypiats’, i.e., the Belarusian part of the undertaking, would cost $150m. In comparison, about 12bn euros is to be spent on construction of the Polish part of the route.

Criticism from activists

On 19 July, certain environmentalists and economists expressed their concerns over Е40 during a press conference in Minsk. Ales’ Herasimenka, the press secretary of the Business Union of Entrepreneurs and Employers, criticised the project for the high investment risks it carries and the negative consequences for the Belarusian economy.

According to him, internal waterways are generally less efficient than automotive and rail transport in terms of rapidness, necessity of reloading cargo, and seasonal limitations. Therefore, according to Herasimenka: ‘We believe that government and institutional investors should come to terms with the decline of the role of inland water transport. … Waterways were relevant at the beginning of civilisation.’

However, such cursory dismissal of inland water transport is misjudged. In other European countries, this form of infrastructure shows no obvious signs of decline. Between 1990 and 2015, despite some ups and downs, the cargo volume of German inland water transport remained more or less static, at slightly more than 220m tons.

Likewise, some types of cargo, especially liquid bulk and dry bulk cargo, can be profitably transported through inland waterways, despite the limitations on speed. Several major firms in southern Belarus could take advantage of the waterway to transport large volumes of cargo. The Mikashevichy-based firm Hranit has been using the Prypiats to transport its granite for many years. Likewise, the Mazyr oil refinery or the Salihorskbased potash company Belaruskali could transport their products using water transport.

Tourism cannot replace trade

Image: Nasha Niva

Environmentalists insist that the project could have grave consequences for the local bird population, including several vulnerable species. Moreover, they claim it could potentially destroy the unique wetlands ecosystem.

However, the project does not envision any direct destruction of the wetlands. Moreover, nature in the area is not pristine anyway. In the 20th century, most swamps were drained in southern Belarus, and intensive economic activity altered the region significantly.

What’s more, the local environment is transforming because of global climate change. The water level in southern Belarusian rivers has been low for several years. Last year, because of the low water level in the Prypiats’, navigation on the river stopped much earlier than usual: by the beginning of autumn. On the other hand, because of rising temperatures and earlier springs, last year the company Belarusian Riverine Steamships started navigation on the Prypiats’ a month earlier than normal, in March.

One critic of the project, a representative of the Polish organisation Ratujmy Rzeki, Przemyslaw Nawrocki, urges Belarus to develop tourism along the Prypiats’. However, despite the beautiful landscapes along the river, the tourism industry is unlikely to be able to compete with the income brought by the E40. Belarus is simply too poor to leave the region undeveloped to satisfy environmental activists.

The waterway as a political game-changer

The E40 project also has political significance. ‘Death of Palissie [the name of the region in the Pripyats River Basin] or an alliance against Russia?’ exclaimed the US-financed and administered Radio Liberty, writing about the project on 24 July.

Meanwhile, the Belarusian government is negotiating a waterway which would help it use Polish and Ukrainian ports at the time when the Kremlin is urging Minsk to reroute its cargo away from Latvian and Lithuanian ports towards Russian Baltic ports. Minsk is not only resisting Moscow’s plans in this area, it even wants to make more intensive use of ports in countries Moscow considers unfriendly.

Map of the Baltic ports used by Belarus. Image: Tut.by

However, this concerns more than just Russia. Minsk is increasingly interested in the Polish port of Gdańsk and various Ukrainian ports because of very probable problems with using the Lithuanian port of Klaipėda

The Lithuanian government has become unfriendly towards Minsk in recent years because of Belarus’s decision to build a nuclear power plant near the Lithuanian border. Moreover, on 14 July, the Klaipėda City council voted to expand the city at the expense of its port – a priority destination for maritime export of Belarusian products. Belarus had invested in the Klaipėda port and there was long-standing bilateral cooperation on using the port for Belarusian foreign trade. This decision of local authorities dissmisses the plans of the port administration to construct a new deep-water port for ocean-going ships a dream for Belarusian exporters.

In sum, projects like E40 alter the geopolitics of the region, opening it up and providing it with further and better connections to the sea. Belarus cannot change its location, but it can develop its infrastructure in a way which mitigates its disadvantage as a landlocked country. Minsk can diversify its exports and reduce its dependence on Russia; it can also better integrate with its neighbours and the EU.

The environmental and economic arguments against the project are unconvincing, at least as far as Belarus is concerned. To survive, Belarus must reach the sea; the E40 is one way to do this.




Belarus finally reaps tangible benefits from its neutrality policy

On 18-19 July, Belarus officially welcomed a delegation from the European parliament along with the Latvian foreign minister, who spoke up for Belarus’s policy of neutrality. These developments are signs that Belarus’s rapprochement with the EU and other Western structures continues.

The annual session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in Minsk on 5-7 July was a milestone in this process. Indeed, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka commented that just three years ago he could not imagine a session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in Minsk.

The Belarusian government is finally reaping the rewards of its pursuit of neutrality between Russia and its opponents. Although this position has caused consternation in the Russian political establishment, Minsk has so far succeeded in minimising the damage.

No more questions for Belarus?

In a recent interview with the Spanish daily El Pais, Belarusian foreign minister Uladzimir Makei announced that his country is now in ‘a qualitatively different situation.’ In particular, he noted: ‘Our independence has been strengthened as a result of our efforts in developing relations … with our European and North American partners.’

Thus, it seems that Belarusian leadership perceives the recent OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in Minsk as a success.

The Belarusian authorities wish to build on this triumph: at the event’s opening meeting on 5 July, Lukashenka presented an ambitious idea for holding a major international conference aimed at achieving a détente between ‘Euroatlantic’ and ‘Eurasian’ countries – promoting trust, security, and peace, a so-called ‘Helsinki-2’.

Minsk also has several other achievements under its belt vis–à–vis relations with the EU and European structures. On 19 July, after meeting his Belarusian counterpart, Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs announced that Riga no longer had any questions for Minsk concerning the forthcoming West-2017 military exercise.

Rinkēvičs noted that while Latvia is a NATO member and Belarus is participating in the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, Riga ‘is respecting the choice of [its] neighbours in the field of security.’ At a press conference, Rinkēvičs agreed that Belarus-EU relations in recent years have become more rational and constructive.

Andrejs Mamikins. Image: euroradio.fmOn 18 July in Minsk, for the first time in fourteen years, there was an official meeting between the deputies of the lower chamber of the Belarusian Parliament and members of the European Parliament (EP).

Andrejs Mamikins, an EP member who attended the meeting, described the discussions there as ‘fierce’ but ‘completely friendly and sincere’ on Facebook. The first time in recent years that an EP delegation came to Minsk was in June 2015, but this did not constitute an official meeting.

On the following day, the head of the EU delegation, Bogdan Zdrojewski, underlined that the meeting would not be considered official recognition for the Belarusian parliamentarians as ‘democratically elected’. Nevertheless, he believes it necessary to resume dialogue with Belarus. Moreover, the EP is studying possible ways to invite Belarusian parliamentarians to Euronest Parliamentary Assembly events.

Dzyanis Melyantsou, a senior analyst at the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, commented that ‘The Belarusian parliament is recognised by the EP. Security matters.’

Ambiguous statements about Russia

Meanwhile, Belarusian government officials made ambiguous statements regarding relations with Russia. On 12 July, Lukashenka characterised the recent meeting of the Supreme State Council of the Union State of Belarus and Russia as unprecedentedly open, sincere, and fruitful. With regard to the prospects of the Union State, he added: ‘To be honest, today there is no reason to be too optimistic. But after all […] the process has started.’

The statement is remarkably not only because of the president’s reservations regarding Belarus-Russia integration. Lukashenka was quoting a well-known Russian phrase coined by Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, ‘the process has started’ [protses poshol]. Since Gorbachev used it to comment on developments which later turned out to be out of his control, the phrase in this context has an ironic undertone.

Speaking on 1 July at an official meeting dedicated to Independence Day, Lukashenka also stated that ‘Not everything always goes smoothly in our relations with brotherly Russia.’ Moments later, he went as far as to compare Belarusian-Russian relations with Belarus’s relations with China, saying, ‘It’s just luck that we have established such friendly relations with this great empire … They are practically at the level of our relations with Russia.’

Belarusian Foreign Minister Makei made similar comments: in an interview with El Pais, he criticised the deployment of NATO troops in the region. However, he also mentioned how Minsk refused to host a Russian air base.

We are categorically against the deployment of a NATO contingent in the Baltic countries and Poland because this forces the other party to respond and contributes to an escalation… a new [Russian] foreign military base in Belarus does not make sense, because modern armaments allow Russia to react equally rapidly from its own territory.

‘A second Ukraine’

Minsk’s rapprochement with the EU and Ukraine and its ambiguous attitude towards Russia are causing a reaction in the pro-Kremlin Russian media. One article, entitled ‘The EU’s “Eastern Partnership” Threatens to Turn Belarus Into a “Second Ukraine,’” published on 9 July by Russia’s government-affiliated Sputnik media in English, is a case in point.

The author of this warning to Minsk was Vladimir Lepekhin, a former Russian politician turned political analyst. This is clearly more than his own personal opinion, as the text has been distributed by major Kremlin-affiliated media outlets worldwide. Before it was published by Sputnik in English, the article appeared in Russian on another Kremlin-affiliated website: the news agency RIA Novosti. This pedigree of the Lepekhin’s text made it another obvious black spot sent to Minsk.

Image: mzv.czLepekhin urged Minsk to struggle against ‘the forces of globalism, which can be characterised as modern-day fascism … For many years, Belarus had held out as being among the countries which were most resistant to these forces’ siren call.’

Among the projects pursued by these forces, according to the Russian commentator, is the EU Eastern Partnership programme. Lepekhin also voiced concern over Belarus’s participation in the programme: ‘The transformation of Minsk, following Kiev, into an instrument of anti-Russian forces – this is the real goal of the Eastern Partnership.’

Likewise, Moscow’s steps in the security field show that the Kremlin puts little trust in its Belarusian ally. In his interview for El Pais, Belarusian foreign minister Makei complained that Russia and pro-Russian Donbas entities had also rejected Minsk’s offer to deploy Belarusian forces to enforce control on the Russian-Ukrainian border.

In April, Russia also chose to promote an Armenian rather than a Belarusian as the new CSTO Secretary General, after it finally decided to replace Russian general Nikolay Bordyuzha. Bordyuzha had run this largely symbolic organisation, dominated by Russia, since its establishment 14 years ago.

Thus, because of the changed security situation in the region, Minsk has adjusted its external relations to place more of an emphasis on neutrality. For the same reason, it has succeeded in improving its relations with Western and regional countries. At the same time, the Belarusian government continued to assure the Kremlin of its Russia-friendly policies.

Combining these policies is a difficult task, as the regular outcries from Russia prove. Nevertheless, recent developments show that Minsk is already benefiting from this stance without encountering serious consequences. In other words, Belarus can continue to pursue neutrality.




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.




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.




Is Belarus just ‘Greater Russia’? Neighbouring states dismiss Belarusian sovereignty

Despite all of Minsk’s efforts to present itself as a neutral country, some of its neighbours doubt not only its neutrality but even its sovereignty and commitment to peace. On 5 June, Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaitė described Belarus as a threat to the region; meanwhile, her foreign minister repeatedly alludes to the ‘remnants of Belarusian sovereignty.’

Speaking on 19 June at the Ostrogorski Forum, Ukrainian Ambassador to Belarus Ihor Kizima criticised Minsk for refusing to allow foreign observers to monitor a Belarus-Russian-Serbian military exercise in Belarus near the Ukrainian border earlier this month. Kyiv put its army on higher alert because of the exercise.

Belarus’s neighbours are voicing their concern with Minsk’s foreign policy. On 2 June, Belarusian foreign minister Uladzimir Makey admitted that it is difficult for Belarus to balance between different sides in the current confrontation involving Russia given ‘how far all sides have gone in militant rhetoric and mutual accusations.’

Belarus as part of ‘Greater Russia’

Lithuania has been the source of the harshest criticism of Minsk in recent years. In an interview to LRT Radijo on 5 June, Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaitė described the main ‘challenge and threat’ to the Baltic states and Poland as:

the presence of Russia and Belarus to our east. Certainly… the militarization we see in Kaliningrad, the use of Belarusian territory for various experimental and aggressive games directed against the West. Including the upcoming military exercise [West-2017].

These controversial statement caused protests in the Belarusian foreign ministry. Vilnius, however, refused to apologise or modify its remarks. Foreign minister Linkevičius only reiterated the words of the president.

Earlier, speaking to the Belarusian service of Radio Free Europe on 31 May, Linkevičius voiced his concern over the West-2017 exercise by pointing out: ‘Belarus is completely integrated with Russia. 4,000 train wagons will bring a huge amount of weapons and military equipment to Belarus.’ Moreover, Linkevičius pointed to the length of Lithuania’s borders with Russia and Belarus and stated: ‘that would be almost one thousand kilometres of frontier with ‘greater Russia’ and huge amounts of weapons for this exercise.’ The Lithuanian minister insisted that Russian troops would probably remain in Belarus.

Linkevičius believes that the Belarusian government should realise the dangers of the drills ‘if it wants to preserve a fragment of its sovereignty.’ Earlier this year, Linkevičius had already spoken with Deutsche Welle about ‘Belarusian sovereignty, what remains of it’, causing a harsh reaction from the Belarusian foreign ministry. Nonetheless, he is once again dismissing Belarus’s ability to act autonomously.

This dismissive stance towards Belarusian independence seems to be widespread among the Lithuanian political establishment. On 24 May, former Lithuanian defence minister Rasa Juknevičienė commented on the forthcoming military exercise to Belarusian internet portal TUT.by: ‘I have only one question about this. How much sovereignty does Lukashenka have, how much sovereignty has he kept for himself?’

She added:

I want to say that many experts, not only in Lithuania, believe that Belarus is not a sovereign military force. Personally, I have more hope than representatives of other states who have forgotten that Belarus is sovereign and consider it a part of Russia.

Meanwhile, Vilnius also dismisses the Astravets nuclear power plant project as ‘not Belarusian’. Belarus is building the plant near the Lithuanian border with the participation of the Russian corporation Rosatom. Regarding Astraviets, Lithuanian foreign minister Linkevičius stated on 31 May: ‘We cannot allow them [the Belarusian authorities] to do whatever they wish. It’s not even them, since it is a Russian project, Russian money and technologies.’

On 16 June, an interview was published with Lithuanian environment minister Kęstutis Navickas, who effectively repeated the words of Linkevičius. The Lithuanian officials call the Astraviets NPP ‘a geopolitical weapon’ and the Lithuanian parliament adopted a law earlier this month calling on the Belarusian government to stop the construction of the Astraviets NPP.

Leaving the door open for Minsk

It remains unclear whether Belarus’s other neighbours are equally dismissive of Belarusian neutrality, peacefulness, and sovereignty. However, there are some signs that their approach is milder. Hannes Hanso, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Estonian parliament and former defence minister of Estonia (2015– 2016), visited Minsk recently to discuss the West-2017 exercise.

As he commented to TUT.by: ‘Belarus is effectively our neighbour. I think I can say for sure that none of the Baltic countries feels that a threat comes from Belarus.’ He welcomed Belarus’s willingness to invite NATO observers and doubted the truthfulness of the rumours that Russian troops would stay in Belarus after the exercise.

Likewise, on 31 May, Andis Kudors, executive director of major Latvian think-tank Centre for East European Policy Studies and a member of the Foreign Policy Council of Latvia’s Foreign Ministry, presented a book on Belarusian foreign policy and stated:

The Belarusian authorities have limited opportunities to manoeuvre. It is important for Western countries to be cautious. When Lukashenko is bargaining for energy prices with Moscow, he is looking towards Europe. On one hand, we must keep the doors open, while on the other hand we must not be naive, so as not to become an argument in the game of Minsk and Moscow. I think that now it is not only bargaining.

The first visit of a Belarusian defence minister to a NATO member state

Minsk is taking measures in the military sphere to make its position credible and remain on the sidelines of the spat between Russia and its opponents. In an article in the Belarusian military daily Belorusskaya Voennaya Gazeta on 12 May, the head of the international military cooperation department of the Belarusian Defence ministry, Major General Aleh Voinau, along with his deputy Colonel Valery Ravenka, emphasised the development of cooperation with neighbouring countries and only marginally mentioned the deployment of NATO troops there.

They listed some specific steps which the Belarusian military officials took last year to gain the trust of its neighbours and NATO. Among them were four mutual verification visits conducted by Belarusian and Ukrainian military officials on each other’s territories.

Regarding Lithuania, they mentioned a visit of the former head of staff of the Lithuanian armed forces, Vilmantas Tamošaitis, to Minsk. He met with the head of Belarusian General Staff, Aleh Belakoneu, resulting in ‘a not easy, but open exchange of opinions on the development of the military-political situation.’

Interactions with Latvia proved more successful, according to Voinau and Ravenka. Belarusian defence minister Andrei Raukou even visited Latvia, which was the first official visit by a Belarusian defence minister to a NATO member state. In addition, the Belarusian military developed contacts with a key NATO country, the US: on 8 August 2016, the Belarusian defence ministry finally accredited a US defence attaché after a prolonged interruption.

In the current charged atmosphere of confrontation in the region, Minsk does whatever it can to be friends with everybody. As a result, nobody is happy. Belarusian efforts to remain neutral on a number of issues already caused an uproar in the right-wing segment of the Russian political establishment. Evgenii Satanovski, a political commentator close to the Kremlin, named Belarus as a member of an ‘alliance of back-stabbing nations.’

Minsk’s efforts have failed to please at least some of its non-Russian neighbours, too, which would like to see Belarus distance itself more clearly from Moscow. The Belarusian government, however, can hardly pursue a policy other than a very cautious and incremental build-up of neutrality if it wants to survive as an independent state.




Can new companies replace state giants in Belarus?

Deputy Prime Minister Uladzimir Syamashka recently announced that full-cycle car production is to start in Belarus this month; this will be a first for the country. So far, only Chinese-designed cars have been assembled in Belarus.

Meanwhile, the holding Amkodor presented its first tractor at the Belagro exhibition on 6-10 June in Minsk. This means that the Belarusian government has made another concession to the privately-owned holding, allowing it to challenge the national industrial giant MTZ, which has manufactured tractors for many decades.

As most major Belarusian machine-building firms such as MAZ and MTZ struggle with problems, the government supports them to avoid social disturbances. Nevertheless, it also supports new projects, which create competition for existing enterprises and thus tacitly change the political economy of the state.

Chinese cars for Belarusian public servants

Once, there was a private-sector initiative to launch joint car production with the American company Ford and the Iranian company Iran Khodro. Both projects were terminated after assembling only several hundred cars. Thus, the forthcoming launch of a full-cycle car production factory makes the joint Belarusian-Chinese project a remarkable achievement.

Assembly production of Chinese-designed Geely cars began in Belarus in 2013. The new factory, near the city of Barysau, is set to reach a production level amounting to 60,000 cars a year by the end of 2017.

From the outset, the government has emphasised that 90 per cent of these cars would be exported. Some exports to Russia and Kazakhstan have succeeded, albeit perhaps with Beijing's assistance.

However, Minsk has also taken measures to ensure sales within the country. In April 2016, president Lukashenka announced that 'There will be no imported cars for civil servants, except for the prime minister, vice premiers, and top-ranking officials,' and stipulated that only Geely cars manufactured in Belarus be used for state needs. Moreover, as Tut.by noted, the new law regulating taxi firms looks as if it compels taxi drivers to buy Geelys.

Shakutin rising

Another new project in the machine-building sector involves launching the production of a tractor by the holding Amkodor; this will compete with models offered by MTZ, a state-owned firm. The government has not only allowed Alyaksandr Shakutin, a co-owner of Amkodor, to challenge MTZ, it even intends to use Chinese loans to fund the project, including construction of a new plant.

At first glance, this seems logical. Belarusian authorities consistently support the rising business empire of Shakutin. For example, on 24 May, Industry Minister Vital Vouk remarked on Shakutin's holdings Amkodor and Saleo's intention to invest $2.1bn in further expansion in 2016—2030.

Both holdings have enjoyed success. Saleo was established by Shakutin and his partners in 2014 as a firm producing hydraulics for mobile machinery which had earlier been imported. By now, as Vouk emphasises, 30-60 per cent of necessary hydraulics are manufactured in Belarus.

A patriotic business?

Shakutin emphasises that his business is all about manufacturing and insists on his patriotism.

The Belarusian web-portal Tut.by, however, has pointed out that a very large share of his firms' sales involve Belarusian state purchases. He has also acquired several formerly state-owned enterprises without competition and for little money. Likewise, Shakutin used to employ a number of formerly high-level Belarusian state officials, such as Lukashenka's former economy assistant Siarhei Tkachou, BRSM (a pro-government youth union) leader Alyaksandr Nakhaenka, MAZ director Mikalai Kasten', transportation minister Ivan Shcherba, and others. This obviously strengthens his ties to the government, Tut.by points out.

Shakutin responds to these comments by emphasising his efforts to export, underlining that the factories he bought were destitute and he salvaged them. He also claims that he employed former officials because of their superb managerial qualities.

Nevertheless, Shakutin's ties to the government are obvious. For many years, he worked in the upper chamber of the Belarusian parliament and held a key role in the organisation of the pro-goverment Belaya Rus' movement. There has even been talk of EU sanctions, as he is 'Lukashenka's oligarch.' However, this is an unfair characterisation, as Shakutin is merely a tool for the Belarusian leadership.

MTZ vs. Amkodor

The government's decision to allow Shakutin to launch a project which could have an adverse impact on a Belarusian state-run company must be understood in context. A number of older, state-owned companies are seriously struggling. While three years ago MAZ was producing 24,000 trucks a year, this year the enterprise expects to manufacture less than 11,000.

The government plans to provide financial support for the branch. On 24 May, Deputy Prime Minister Syamashka announced that the government was to invest $500m in MAZ, and $645m in Homselmash, an agricultural equipment manufacturer. For 2016-2030, MTZ needs $1.1bn of investments and has almost no funds of its own.

It will take Minsk a significant amount of money to develop the plant, but the struggle may succeed. The case of BelAZ has served as an example for the Belarusian government: it invested $800m into the firm, which manufactures huge trucks. As a result, BelAZ developed new models and succeeded in increasing its share on the global market, which is now estimated at almost 30 per cent.

Between Russia and China

Where exactly Minsk will find the money to invest in its machine building industry remains unclear. Government officials refer, inter alia, to Chinese loans; recent contacts with Beijing also support this hypothesis. Less clear is how Minsk will involve Russia in developing Belarusian industry: will it strive to limit cooperation or will it be willing to give the Russians anything if they can save companies from bankruptcy?

Most probably, the government policy on Russian involvement will remain ad hoc and pragmatic. On 24 May, Deputy Prime Minister Syamashka revealed that during the recent Belarus-Russian negotiations on oil and gas, the two governments agreed to prepare proposals on three industrial integration projects – these concern the petrochemical and machine building enterprise.

In 2011—2014, Belarus and Russia had already agreed on five industrial integration projects involving the Belarusian firms MAZ, Intehral, MZKT, Pelenh and Hrodna Azot. In recent years, however, Minsk and Moscow have kept silent on these projects.

Minsk will certainly use cooperation with Russia to develop its machine building sector, but the Belarusian government is considering all its options. Thus, the authorities are promoting new privately-owned production projects. In the future, these could replace giants like MTZ. In addition, Minsk hopes to use China as a source of loan-funding and technology.

In general, the development and state support of major Belarusian businesses such as Shakutin's holdings resemble the famous post-WWII South Korean business conglomerates called chaebols, the most famous of which are Samsung and Daewoo. These helped the government adapt and develop the national economy in exchange for state support.




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.




Minsk and Kyiv successfully revive bilateral relations after a dramatic fallout

On 1 May, Ukrainian border guards prevented three Belarusian citizens from entering Ukraine, suspecting them of planning subversive activities in Ukraine. A month earlier, Belarusian security agencies had detained several Ukrainian citizens for alleged plans to undermine public order in Belarus.

Nevertheless, both Kyiv and Minsk prefer to downplay such incidents, angry rhetoric notwithstanding. Both governments make consistent efforts to continue cooperation and development. The results of a meeting between the Belarusian and Ukrainian presidents on 26 April in Chernobyl demonstrate this.

The two countries assured each other of continued friendship despite the Kremlin's pressure, promised to resolve border issues, and spoke of possible economic deals including renewed electricity imports.

Although the meeting occurred on the anniversary of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the two leaders used the occasion to discuss real and sensitive issues.

Lukashenka's word

Arguably one of the most pressing issues in Belarusian-Ukrainian relations is the question of Belarus's position in the regional confrontation involving Russia. On 20 April, just days before the Lukashenka-Poroshenko meeting, the Secretary of Ukraine's Security Council, Oleksandr Turchynov, added his name to the growing list of Ukrainian officials denouncing the joint Belarusian-Russian military exercise West-2017, to take place in Belarus.

According to him, the drills might be a cover for preparation of an offensive against Ukraine. Turchynov believes that after the end of the exercise, Russian troops might well stay in Belarus.

Meanwhile, the Belarusian government emphasises the limited scope of the exercise and pledged to make it transparent, going as far as inviting NATO observers. Lukashenka also strived to convince his Ukrainian counterpart of Minsk's friendly stance towards Kyiv. This follows from a speech Ukrainian president Poroshenko made at the meeting on 26 April:

I am sure that the Ukrainian-Belarusian border […] will always remain a border of friendship[…] No one can ever cause a quarrel between Ukraine and Belarus. […] I have received firm assurance from the President of Belarus. No one will ever be able to draw Belarus into the war against Ukraine. The peace-loving people of Belarus and the honourable President Alexander Lukashenka will not allow that.

Lukashenka reciprocated by proclaiming ambiguously: 'whether somebody likes it or not […] we are relatives […] Who can divide us? Nobody.' Given the extent to which Russian officials and media have criticised Belarus's cooperation with Ukraine since 2014, this sounds like ultimate defiance towards the Kremlin's pressure on Kyiv.

A passive ally

Last November, commenting on Minsk's ambiguous stance towards a Ukraine-sponsored UN resolution, the Russian news site Lenta.ru described Belarus as 'a passive ally' of Ukraine. Indeed, top Belarusian officials frequently express their willingness to counter Moscow's militant position towards Kyiv.

In an article in the April issue of Belaruskaya Dumka, a monthly published by the Presidential administration, Belarusian foreign minister Uladzimir Makei stated in the very first paragraph that 'it is extremely important that we did not allow ourselves to be dragged into the confrontation caused by the Ukrainian crisis.'

Makei also stressed the importance of patience and keeping Ukraine in the Commonwealth of Independent States Free Trade Area. As he points out, the CIS already 'lost a lot' after Georgia left. The Belarusian foreign minister openly proclaimed:

[W]e do not see the differently directed integration aspirations of our partners as an obstacle to the development of bilateral ties. This is proven by our active contacts with Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine after their signing of association agreements with the European Union.

Border problems and solutions

Politically, Lukashenka and Poroshenko resolved another major issue: that of their joint border. On 28 April, Ukrainian president Poroshenko announced that Minsk and Kyiv had agreed to complete the demarcation process 'in the near future.'

First and foremost, this means that both governments have decided to accelerate the procedure. Having started demarcation in November 2014, it was officially announced that the process would take approximately eight years to complete, as late as 2022.

Secondly, the Ukrainian government will also contribute to introducing more order at the border. Lawlessness, which emerged on the Ukrainian side of the border last year largely due to illegal amber extraction, caused Belarusian organisations to halt demarcation near the Zherauski Canal.

Moreover, there are rumours that similar problems with controlling and constructing the border emerged last year in at least one other place – the Almanskiya Swamps. Poroshenko implicitly acknowledged that the demarcation process had met with problems, saying that in recent years it had effectively 'stopped.'

An end to catastrophic decline in bilateral trade?

The resolution of political issues is not the only reason for optimism about the prospects of bilateral relations: economic cooperation is on the rise as well.

In economic terms, relations between the two countries were in dire straits for years. Belarusian trade with Ukraine was consistently declining: from a record-breaking $7.87bn in 2012 to its lowest volume, $3.47bn, in 2015.

However, that trend was reversed in 2016, when the volume of bilateral trade increased by 11 per cent, coming to $3.8bn. In the first quarter of this year, the trade volume between the two nations rose by 40 per cent.

Importantly for Minsk, which is struggling with a foreign trade deficit, the trade balance is turning out positively for Belarus. Thus, last year Belarus sold Ukraine $1.87bn more than it bought from it. Today, Belarus is Ukraine's fourth most important trading partner. In fact, every third imported truck or tractor in Ukraine comes from the Minsk-based MAZ and MTZ plants.

Belarus also needs Ukraine in order to consolidate its sovereignty in the economic sphere. In 2006-2013, Minsk succeeded in diversifying its electricity supplies by buying from Kyiv.

However, this came to an end after the beginning of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine in 2014, as Ukraine had no excess energy to sell. At their recent meeting, Lukashenka and Poroshenko discussed the issue and agreed to once again begin importing Ukrainian electricity to Belarus.

Kyiv also played a key role in Minsk's efforts to bring non-Russian alternative oil into the region. Most of the transports of Venezuelan, Azerbaijani, and Iranian oil in 2010-2011 and 2016-2017 respectively arrived in landlocked Belarus via the Ukrainian port of Odesa.

In sum, the political will of the Belarusian and Ukrainian leadership ensured that relations between the two countries remain close, despite political disputes over confrontation with Russia or decline in trade. Moreover, Minsk can rely on Kyiv's cooperation in such strategic projects as diversification of energy supplies.

The recent meeting of the Belarusian and Ukrainian presidents demonstrates that the governments of the two countries can resolve emerging issues on a bilateral basis. This could result in more ambitious regional cooperation. After all, as their reviving economic relations prove, Minsk and Kyiv deliver on their promises to each other.




Minsk wants China’s help countering Russian and Western pressure

Next month, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenka will head for China. While he remains isolated in the West, this will be his tenth visit to Beijing. Addressing the Belarusian parliament on 21 April, Lukashenka gave much attention to Belarusian-Chinese relations and Belarus's key role in the Chinese 'Silk Road' project.

Political contacts between the countries look excellent. On 17-18 April, Zhang Dejiang, Chairman of China's National People's Congress, the third-highest ranked member of the Chinese government, visited Belarus. On 10-11 April, Guo Shengkun, Chinese Minister of Public Security, also came to Minsk.

Economic relations, however, have been somewhat rocky. The trade balance remains hopelessly unfavourable for Belarus. Even the pet project of the Belarusian leadership – a joint industrial park near Minsk – remains almost empty.

Chinese money for Belarus

Lukashenka is taking every opportunity to meet with Chinese leaders. In September 2016, he paid a full-scale state visit to Beijing. Not much later, on 14-15 May, the Belarusian leader will attend the international forum of 'One Belt, One Way' (the Silk Road project) in Beijing.

For Minsk, contacts with Beijing are a useful tool in its complicated balancing act between the West and Russia.

For instance, talking on 20 April to Valeriy Shantsev, the governor of Nizhni Novgorod Province in Russia, President Lukashenka lashed out at the 'fabrications' in the Russian media concerning Belarusian-Russian relations, and made ambiguous hints talking about China's role. According to him, speaking about credit loans granted by foreign countries to Belarus:

It is not Russia which holds the first place on these matters, the first place belongs to the People's Republic of China. It provided us with a credit line of about $15bn for projects to be implemented in Belarus, we have not yet used it in full. Most importantly, they do not reproach us for helping us.

Persuading the Chinese to buy Belarusian

Meanwhile, Belarusian officials have publicly articulated several problems with Belarus-Chinese economic collaboration. Belarusian prime minister Andrei Kabyakou, meeting the Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress of China Zhang Dejiang, stressed: 'It is now time to bring our economic relations to as high a level [as political relations].' President Lukashenka told the visiting Chinese official more bluntly that he was 'very concerned' because of the lack of balance in bilateral trade.

For more than a decade, Belarus has suffered from a huge trade deficit with China. Belarusian and Chinese officials have discussed the problem on numerous occasions and it has been a subject of public discussion at least since 2015. Nevertheless, there have thus far been no results. Thus, last year the value of Belarusian commodities export to China made up $468.3m, while imports reached $2,114m.

The widely-publicised Belarusian-Chinese joint industrial park project near the Minsk airport perfectly illustrates the difficulties which persist in bilateral relations.

An empty park

At a press conference on 14 April, Chairman of Minsk Province Executive Committee Syamyon Shapira acknowledged existing problems in attracting companies to the Great Stone Belarusian-Chinese Industrial Park.

So far, just eight firms have registered there. As of mid-April, only three Chinese firms have started constructing their factories there.

Shapira even went to China in early April to look for solutions to the Park's problems. Although he admits that 'there are not many businesses eager to come [to the Park]' he promptly assured 'there is no catastrophe.'

However, the situation is highly precarious, as the case of Weichai Power – a major Chinese engine-manufacturing company – demonstrates. Last October, Belarusian industry ministry Vitali Vouk announced that Weichai Power signed a memorandum with Minsk regarding joint production of its diesel engines at Great Stone Park.

If implemented, the project would have brought significant gains to both countries. Belarus expected the new joint production line to give a boost to major national enterprises like Minsk Motor Plant (MMZ) and Minsk Automobile Plant (MAZ). China obviously wanted access to the markets of the Eurasian Economic Union.

However, on 19 April, the Russian daily Kommersant reported that the Chinese were considering another option – organising a joint venture with the Russian KamAZ. According to the Russian newspaper, Weichai Power's project in Belarus had failed to take off.

Representatives of the Great Stone Park administration immediately refuted these claims and insisted that the project was advancing. The next day, the Belarusian embassy in Beijing quoted a representative of Weichai Power saying that the firm was sticking to its plans to launch production in Belarus. Moreover, according to him, Weichai Power's joint project with KamAZ would not impact Weichai Power's cooperation with the Belarusian MAZ, a long-time rival of KamAZ.

At any rate, Weichai Power is still not on the list of companies registered in the Park. What's more, given earlier criticism of the idea to establish a joint production of Chinese cars in Belarus by Russian ambassador Aleksandr Surikov, this story looks very much like another case of Moscow's interests colliding with Minsk's.

The 'Chinese Caterpillar' helps Belarusian MAZ

Minsk can certainly boast some achievements in its cooperation with Beijing. Listing the recent economic achievements of Belarusian-Chinese relations on 15 April, Belarusian deputy prime minister Uladzimir Syamashka highlighted the construction of three cement factories (total investment volume – $1.5bn), two power plants ($800m), and BelGee, a soon to be launched car-manufacturing joint venture ($360m) implemented with Geely, a Chinese automotive manufacturing company.

The Great Stone project is – however slowly – advancing, too. Thus, on 15 April, the construction of a $45m-factory for the Chinese Zoomlion corporation started in the Park. Zoomlion is a large Chinese firm manufacturing construction machinery and sanitation equipment or, as Financial Times put it, 'China's answer to Caterpillar.'

Zoomlion has already founded a joint enterprise with Belarusian MAZ, and the two firms plan to instal Chinese equipment and machinery on a Belarusian MAZ chassis. The Chinese reportedly have plans for two production sites in the country: in the Great Stone Park and in an existing plant in Mahilyou.

Cooperation with China remains a challenge for the Belarusian government. In the early 2010s, some oppositional activists, experts, and various media sources made gloomy predictions about possible massive Chinese settlement in Belarus by means of the Great Stone Park. These proved baseless, as the park, like many other Belarus-Chinese enterprises, suffer from the opposite problem: lack of Chinese interest.

Political relations prove to be difficult to translate into economic cooperation. By cooperating with China, Minsk could advance its neutrality model masked as 'multi-directional' foreign policy, yet the Belarusian economy sets limits for how far this policy can go. And it is the Belarusian economy which the Chinese are most hesitant about. Minsk hopes that in the future this can change, as China becomes a global power.