Belarus and War in Syria, Launch of the Single System of Air Defence – Belarus Security Digest
On Sunday, a rally against Russia's military bases in Belarus took place in central Minsk. This national security issue has become a major theme before the presidential elections next Saturday. And not only inside the country.
Moscow keeps leaking information on the base and putting pressure on Minsk. The situation reminds one of the history of the establishment of the Single System of Air Defence of Belarus and Russia in 2009. Minsk managed to delay its creation for years and the system still does not function.
Minsk dismissed information about Belarusians providing military technical support for the Syrian government. Meanwhile, Belarus has been again accused of arming the Syrian opposition and it has been reported that Belarusians helped transport French military cargo for France's intervention in Syria.
Plans for Russia's Military Base: Déjà Vu?
Russia wants Belarus to immediately accept the Russian airbase and Lukashenka to clearly side with the Kremlin in its current confrontation with Ukraine and the West. The Russian media campaign continues to put pressure on Minsk. On 27 September, Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported that the agreement on the Russian airbase in Belarus might be signed by the Defence Ministries of the two countries in October and the base, located in Babruysk, would function as quickly as January 2016.
According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the base will include a regiment of Su-27 fighter jets, one air flight of Su-27 trainer jets and one squadron of Mi-8 transport helicopters. It is unknown whether Moscow is going to pay for the base. The newspaper believes that such a rapid deployment of the base is a response to America's possible deployment of new nuclear arms in Europe.
The situation with the airbase reminds one of how Russia forced Belarus to create a Single System of Air Defence in the late 2000s. Back then, Lukashenka said,
We have signed this agreement because Russia was “making hubbub.” Americans and Europeans have warned us [against this]. I said to the Russian leaders: “Look, why create a disturbance? Our air defence is effectively working in the interests of Russia. […] Why do we need an agreement? To make a PR campaign in the media? Let's wait a little with that.” – “No, no!” So, I said, “Okay, now that it is so necessary, let's sign.”
Minsk and Moscow signed the agreement on establishing the Single Air Defence System in 2009. Then Minsk for years successfully delayed ratification and the coordination of details.
Formally, the governments announced the establishment of the system in 2012. Recently it became known that the system still does not function. The head of the Chief Staff of Aerospace Forces of Russia Pavel Kurachenko, on 8 September announced that the Single System of Air Defence would start working by the end of 2016.
Army Refused to Buy from National Industry?
On 9 September 2015 Belarus signed with a Russian manufacturer a contract about purchasing BTR-82A,armoured personnel carriers for the Belarusian army. Minsk will get them in 2016. It means that the government for unknown reasons has decided to dismiss alternatives offered by Belarusian defence industry.
Belarus produced in recent years at least two similar types of machinery to the one Minsk bought. First, is the Kobra-K, which is a thorough modernisation of the Soviet BTR-70 designed jointly by the Belarusian Barysau 140th Tank Repairment Works and two Slovak firms. Second, is the Umka MZKT-590 100 designed by the Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant (MZKT).
Certainly, both these products represent the first attempts by Belarusian firms to manufacture such equipment. But these attempts obviously were not welcomed by the national army. It apparently did not buy any of the vehicles. That occurred despite public statements by the Belarusian president about the introduction of Belarus-made weapons.
Exercises with Russians, Serbs and Chinese
Most exercises conducted by the Belarusian army involve drills carried out jointly with Russian counterparts. The largest took place on 10-16 September, when Belarus and Russia conducted an operative military exercise called “Shield of the Union-2015” on Russia's territory. More than 8,000 personnel of both countries took part in the drills which included operations by the air force, air defence, infantry and other units.
On 2-5 September, Belarusian special forces took part in a joint tactical drill called “Slavic Brotherhood-2015” with Russian and Serbian special forces near Novorossiysk (Russia). On 30 September-4 October Belarusian Special Operations Forces participated in a military exercise called “Unbreakable Brotherhood” of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). The exercise took place in Armenia and involved military and police units of all the CSTO members.
Finally, on 30 September, Belarusian and Russian special forces participated in a joint company-level tactical exercise near Vitsebsk. Speaking to journalists in August, the commander of Russia's Airborne Forces, Colonel General Vladimir Shamanov commented, “interaction with Belarusians is a model for other CSTO countries in terms of development of a partnership between the countries. The bilateral cooperation plan for Russian and Belarusian special forces for this year includes more than 30 joint combat deployments.”
On 22-24 September, the 61st Fighter Airbase conducted exercises involving the landing of MiG-29 fighters, An-26 transport aircraft and Su-25 close air support aircraft on a road. Minsk claimed that nobody has ever done that with an An-26. Representatives of the Chinese army attended the exercises.
Belarus and Wars in Ukraine and Syria
Minsk avoids risks related to the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria. On 22-24 September, representatives of Belarus' and Ukraine's armed forces came together in Kyiv for a working meeting to assess the implementation of the Belarus-Ukrainian Agreement on Additional Confidence- and Security-Building Measures in 2015. The representatives also discussed bilateral cooperation in 2016.
On 2 October, the Belarusian State Military Industrial Committee announced that no Belarusian specialists were currently working for the Syrian government. On 17 March, BuzzFeedNews published a story about the reexport of 700 old Konkurs anti-tank missiles from Belarus through Bulgaria to the US-funded opposition in Syria. The news lacked any proof and many details, such as the time of the transfer. Furthermore, it was published by a web-site which usually does not write about such issues.
Nevertheless, it could be true. Earlier this year, Reuters wrote about an undisclosed UN report accusing Minsk of supplying ammunition to some Libyan forces backed by conservative Arab regimes allied with the West (above all, the traditional Belarusian ally, Qatar). Belarus since the early 2010s refocused its foreign policy in the Middle East from relations with the West's opponents (for example, Libya, Syria, Iran) to the West's allies (like Qatar, UAE, Turkey).
Also in September some authoritative Russian military bloggers like Alexander Ermakov revealed that Belarusian firm Transaviaexport was transporting military cargo for French forces participating in airstrikes in Syria. The reports concern the flights in August and September and are partially confirmed by the French Defence Ministry.
Lukashenka Defends Futile Causes, Showcases Young Son at the UN
Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenka went to New York on 26–29 September to attend the world leaders' meetings at the United Nations. The country’s servile state-run media stubbornly called his trip a “working visit to the United States”.
Meanwhile, the sojourn in New York lacked any bilateral dimension. In fact, Lukashenka is still under the United States’ travel ban, and multilateral events remain his only excuse to set foot on the US soil.
While Lukashenka stuck to his traditional criticism of Western policies, his statements at the UN this year were far less confrontational than his speech from the same rostrum ten years ago. The Belarusian leader emphasised several linchpins of Belarus’ multilateral agenda, such as the promotion of 'integration of integrations' and the protection of the traditional family.
However, this visit is likely to be remembered not for these blind-alley initiatives but for his young son’s prominent presence at some official events.
Development Goals Yield to Geopolitics
This was Lukashenka’s fourth trip to New York during his 21 years in office. All of them took place on so-called UN jubilee years (1995, 2000, 2005 and 2015). On these occasions, the UN rostrum provides a unique opportunity for national leaders to bring their positions on global and local issues to the attention of their counterparts and the international community. This year, Alexander Lukashenka had two opportunities to share his world vision.
Speaking at the UN Sustainable Development Summit, the Belarusian leader boasted briefly about Belarus’ achievements in eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, achieving 100% adult literacy, promoting gender equality, and drastically reducing maternal and child mortality. He never mentioned the country’s failure to fully achieve three millennium development goals, in particular, halting the spread of HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, an area where Belarus has long been receiving substantial international assistance.
The rest of his statement was all about his regrets about the “balance of power that was lost with the disintegration of the Soviet Union”. He routinely denounced “the policy of hegemony and national egoism lead[ing] to wide use of pressure, sanctions, restrictions and military actions” and preached every country’s “right to choose its own development path”.
Lukashenka: The crisis in Ukraine is a 'fratricidal slaughter' and a 'civil war' Read more
Without naming the country, Lukashenka attacked at length the US policy in the Middle East claiming that it had destroyed Iraq and Libya and was bringing destruction to Syria. At the same time, he spared a few words for the issue of “fratricidal slaughter” happening in neighbouring Ukraine. The Belarusian president chose to call this conflict, which the international community sees as inspired and sustained by Russia, a “civil war”.
Belarus’ Foreign Policy Priorities Voiced
Lukashenka’s statement in the general debate at the 70th session of the UN General Assembly started with the traditional complaints about “efforts to impose a certain development model on other countries” as well as “export of 'colour' revolutions and controlled regime change”.
Apart from some general and universally acceptable theses, such as prioritising dialogue over military solutions, Alexander Lukashenka voiced several ideas and initiatives, which are likely to define Belarus’ foreign policy during the next few years.
First, he reiterated the idea of ‘integration of integrations’ as “the most topical trend of the modern world”. For Belarus, this idea relates in the first place to the integration between the European Union and the Eurasian Economic Union or a “Greater Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok”, in Vladimir Putin’s terms. Minsk remains enchanted by the verbal beauty of the formula, which, however, stands no realistic chance of implementation.
Second, the Belarusian president denounced “irresponsible social ideas” and “social innovators” who treated someone’s “perverted whims” as a norm thus giving a "green light to social degradation, decay of moral principles and values”. Indeed, during the last few years, Belarus championed the cause of the traditional family rallying countries that rejected same-sex marriages. Belarusian diplomacy has strived to make this initiative as successful as its internationally acclaimed fight against human trafficking. Unfortunately, the battle against the “destruction of the traditional family” looks like a lost cause from its very inception since it failed to gather the support of any Western nation and even the majority of the developing world.
Lukashenka: 'Artificial cult of individual rights and freedoms' is a reason for today's crises Read more
Third, Alexander Lukashenka lambasted the “artificial cult of individual rights and freedoms to the detriment of the collective social interest”, which he sees as a deep-lying root of today’s crises. The president’s recipe against global threats and challenges is an alliance of “strong, responsible and efficient states”. In his view, such states should not be based on the respect of human rights and freedoms, open society, good governance and a market economy, as their application often results in “anarchy, lawlessness and violence”. Rather, their foundation should be stability, a socially oriented economy, “socially nurtured moral values, good traditions of spirituality and culture”, which are ensured by the government’s dominant role in all spheres of public life.
Non-impressive agenda and Kolya in the spotlight
In New York, the Belarusian president met with Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, High Commissioner for Human Rights. The office of the High Commissioner reported nothing about this meeting. Lukashenka’s press service emphasised his ritual denunciation of the politicisation of human rights. However, the very fact of the meeting fits well into the latest trend of Belarus’ dialogue with the international community on human rights issues.
Alexander Lukashenka met with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, IMF managing director Christine Lagarde as well as the leaders of Cuba, Egypt and Ecuador, Belarus’ traditional partners. He also had a very brief standing encounter with the federal president of Austria. Hardly an impressive agenda for a trip lasting several days to the United Nations.
The visit would have gone unnoticed by the international media if it were not for Lukashenka’s decision to showcase his 11-year-old son Kolya at UN official functions. The Guardian ran a story about this fact describing the young boy as Lukashenka’s “preferred successor” and “heir”.
Pictures show Kolya taking the second-best seat on the Belarusian bench in the General Assembly hall, next to foreign minister Vladimir Makei during his father’s speech, as well as posing with Barack and Michelle Obama for a protocol photo. This is an unprecedented breach of protocol for international meetings of this level. Even the Middle East sheikhs refrain from exposing their offspring at similar events.
Despite his commendable efforts to reduce the intensity of confrontation in Belarus’ relations with the West, Lukashenka failed to seize the unique opportunity to bring in one way or the other the topic of Russia’s assertiveness in expanding its domination on the post-Soviet space and the threat to Belarus's independence that it creates. Instead, Kolya’s appearance is likely to be first thing that comes to mind when others recall Lukashenka's visit to the UN.