Belarus is strengthening military cooperation with UAE
From 25 October to 6 November 2017, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka held an official visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The Belarusian delegation included two of Lukashenka’s sons: the elder, Viktar, and the youngest, Mikalaj. Despite taking time off for some autumn vacationing, the Belarusian leader also managed to make a couple of important agreements in the security sphere.
Belarus is developing both economic and security relations with UAE. This will likely result in new contracts in the defence industry. In addition, the UAE is providing more financial help and investment for Belarus.
An official, working vacation
Despite the fact that this year marks 25 years of diplomatic relations between Belarus and the UAE, the United Arab Emirates cannot be called a state of great importance for Belarusian foreign policy. The frequency of the Belarusian president’s visits there confirms this: one can count five visits throughout the last ten years. In 2014 and 2016, Alexander Lukashenka visited the UAE accompanied by his younger son Mikalaj and his eldest son Viktar. In 2014, he even managed to play hockey in Abu Dhabi. Lukashenka also flew to the UAE in 2007 and 2013.
It is not the first time Lukashenka scheduled a trip to the UAE from the end of October to the beginning of November. In fact, this period is usually the time for autumn vacation in Belarusian schools. Apparently, 13-year-old Mikalaj Lukashenka, in particular, enjoys these sorts of “working visits.”
Another important detail is that Lukashenka donned a tie only once during his 12-day visit. The tie made its appearance at a meeting with the Abu Dhabi crown prince. This suggests the primary reason for the visit was to take a rest and to provide a good vacation for the family, especially for his beloved youngest son Mikalaj. At the same time, the Belarusian leader managed to combine vacation with business. Indeed, Lukashenka discussed important issues in the security field.
On 2 November, Alexander Lukashenka met with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who was visiting the United Arab Emirates, too. In addition to discussing the implementation of previously reached agreements, the two presidents also brought up security cooperation. For example, they highlighted the resumption of work by a bilateral commission to properly demarcate the Belarusian-Ukrainian border. The meeting between Poroshenko and Lukashenka highlighted urgent issues in Belarus-Ukraine relations, which need to be solved at the highest level.
Earlier, on 27 October, the Belarus’s presidential press-office reported the agreement of a loan between the Development Bank of Belarus and the Khalifa Fund for Entrepreneurship Development. The Fund will provide the Bank with about $25m for the development of private initiatives, innovation and regional projects, and the creation of jobs in Belarus.
Economic relations between the two states are improving. From January to August 2017, exports from Belarus to the UAE amounted to $44.8m (an approximately 318 per cent increase compared to the same period last year). For the first 6 months of 2017, the amount of direct UAE investment to Belarus exceeded $11m (more, than for the whole last year).
On 5 November, Alexander Lukashenka met with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander-in-Chief Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. They discussed spheres of bilateral cooperation and prospects for the further development of relations. It is probable, though, the main item on the agenda was security and defence. Especially, taking recent developments into consideration.
On 15–16 October 2017, Abu Dhabi hosted the eighth meeting of the Joint Belarusian-UAE Committee for Military-Technical Cooperation. According to the official press-release, committee members discussed the implementation of previous decisions and their aftereffects. New cooperation projects were also put forward. The sides noted the high level of cooperation achieved and confirmed their mutual interest in the further development of military-technical cooperation between Belarus and the UAE.
Earlier, during a military parade in Minsk on 3 July 2017, people could observe an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), the BELAR YS-EX, which is a modification of the Yabhon Flash 20 UAV manufactured by UAE company ADCOM Systems. For their part, UAE representatives showed interest in Belarus’s own Berkut UAV, which is developed by the 558 Aircraft Repair Plant.
Four enterprises will represent the Belarusian military industry at the 2017 Dubai Airshow from 12–16 November 2017: (1) Closed joint stock company BelTechExport; (2) Open joint stock company (OJSC) KB Radar—the management company for Radar Systems holding; (3) OJSC 2566 Electronic Weapons Repair Plant; and (4) the Scientific and Production Centre of Multifunctional Unmanned Systems at the Belarusian National Academy of Sciences (which is a state unitary enterprise).
From harems to tank tractors
In late March 2016, the Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant (MWTP) and the Al Badie Trading Establishment, a company from the United Arab Emirates, signed a contract to supply the UAE Defence Ministry with tank tractors. The all-wheel drive (8×8) MZKT-741351 tractor—equipped with either the MZKT-999 421 or the MZKT-837 211 trailer—can carry up to three tracked and wheeled armoured vehicles or 20 to 40-feet containers weighing up to 136 tons.
For Belarus, the purchase of these particular vehicles is significant. The UAE already has 20 American Oshkosh M1070A0 tractors. The Belarusian and American vehicles are propelled by the same engine, the Caterpillar C18 diesel. However, the key difference is that the Belarusian MWTP tractor has more power (812 hp). Given the almost two-fold superiority in load capacity (136 tons vs. 75), a slight lag in the maximum speed (70 km/h vs. 80 km/h) is negligible.
Indeed, MWTP has been somewhat of a success story in the UAE market. MWTP’s first contract dates back to a private order by a sheikh in 1997. The sheikh wished to have a “mobile apartment” when he took falconry trips into the desert. The full motorcade consisted of three heavy vehicles: the first one for the sheikh, the second for his harem, and the third one for goods.
MWTP successfully fulfilled the order, fitting special wheeled chassis to the MZKT-79097-30 for the desert conditions. The extraordinary contract was delivered on time and with high quality. After that, UAE leaders saw MWTP as a trusted supplier, capable of developing and fitting tractors for different needs.
While the finance and investment statistics continue to improve, Belarus-UAE relations are focusing not just on economic issues, but on security cooperation, too. The Emirates are looking for new, and relatively cheap, technologies and products in Belarus. Belarusian officials are trying to attract Arab investments and to gain access to Western military technologies, which are restricted due to sanctions. One can expect joint projects in electronic and radioelectronic warfare, as well as information security. Belarus will also try to get more involved in the UAV high-tech market in order to improve its own force capabilities and to become influential in this fast-developing, niche market.
Have Belarus’s neighbours convinced its military to open up?
Minsk continues to face fall–out from the West-2017 military exercises. Earlier this month, Russian media outlets, such as Nezavisimaya gazeta, criticised Belarus for “excessive openness” in allowing foreigners to observe its military drills. Remarkably, this openness in regards to military drills corresponds with signs of increasing openness inside Belarus itself.
On 1 November, Tatsyana Karatkevich and Andrei Dzmitryeu, leaders of the Tell the Truth social movement, met a group of leading Belarusian military officials to put forward proposals to solve various issues facing the national army. Even the Chief of General Staff, Aleh Belakoneu, was at the meeting. Top military officials meeting with opposition activists is unprecedented in Belarus.
Indeed, the 1 November meeting is the latest in a series of moves by the Belarusian government, which seems to be cautiously taking steps to make the Belarusian military more transparent. Now, officials in Minsk are responding to negative incidents not simply by meting out punishment against perpetrators. It appears the army leadership want to enable soldiers to communicate more freely with the world outside the barracks, promising open investigations and installing new technology to help prevent abuse.
Generals swear to reveal details of investigation into the death of a soldier
On 3 October, a soldier in Barysau most probably committed suicide, because of mistreatment. The army, and even Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka, responded to the incident with more attention than in previous cases. The reaction may go to improve transparency and responsibility in the army. On the one hand, Lukashenka fired the head and other officers at the facility where the victim had served. In fact, the army began checks of all local commissioned and non-commissioned officers at the facility. So far, a dozen military personnel have been detained.
On the other hand, the Defence Ministry is expressing a willingness to keep the public informed. On 25 October, the Defence Ministry issued a statement in which it offered guarantees that the public would get all the details of the Barysau investigation. Never before have the Belarusian armed forces seemed to care so much about public opinion.
Likewise, on 8 November, the media reported that henceforth soldiers serving at the Barysau military facility would be allowed to carry mobile phones with them at all times. Previously, soldiers were allowed to use mobile phones, however, their phones were stored in specially designated areas, which meant they were inaccessible most of the time. The Defence Ministry praised the decision by Barysau facility’s commander and, thereby, appears to support introducing this more liberal regime at similar military facilities.
Earlier on 4 November, answering questions online, Defence Minister Andrej Raukou said that ICTV cameras would be installed in barracks to help prevent mistreatment and abuse. The minister’s decision to communicate with citizens directly online also appears to be a response to the tragic events that took place in October.
Is the Belarusian army about to open up to NATO?
In a similar vein, the Belarusian government has for some years struggled to demonstrate its peaceful intentions. On 3 November, Moscow-based newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta criticised the “exaggerated openness at the West-2017” military exercises. Indeed, Minsk made a point of pursuing its own policy with regards to the exercises. Unlike Moscow, people were invited to view Belarusian maneuvers: it invited more than 80 diplomats and admitted almost 280 foreign journalists to watch Belarusian parts of the exercises, in which about 10,000 soldiers participated.
Speaking to Verdens Gang, a Norwegian daily, Ragnhild Valle Hustad, Chief of the Army Control Office at Norway’s Defense Ministry, said her office considers Minsk’s invitation “as a kind of reciprocation after we had invited Belarusians to observe the Cold Response exercises in Norway two years ago.”
The Belarusian government believes this level of openness has paid off. OSCE observers from Norway and Sweden on 20 September told Verdens Gang—which otherwise reported on the joint Belarus–Russia military exercises in a highly critical tone—that they had not found anything to condemn in Belarus’s own exercises. Indeed, Colonel Lieutenant Thomas Möller, sent by the Swedish Defence Ministry, called the question of whether neighbouring states have reasons to be wary of Minsk and Moscow “a political question.” That is, Minsk managed to secure relatively positive assessments of its drills from military professionals of influential Western countries.
Successful confidence-building with Ukraine
Minsk can see increasing military transparency as not just some abstract norm, but as an effective means of increasing mutual trust with its neighbours. The increased openness of the West military drills have, perhaps, helped produce a positive development in military relations with Ukraine. Kyiv invited two Belarusian military observers to watch the active phase of the Ukrainian-American Rapid Trident–2017 drills in September near Lviv.
The invitation was not only remarkable, but unprecedented. After all, in June, speaking at Ostrogorski Forum, Ukrainian Ambassador Ihor Kyzym accused the Belarusian government of lacking transparency in its military drills. Belarusian foreign ministry responded by pointing out that
At our invitation, the military observers of Ukraine, as well as other neighbouring states, observed the active phases of all the main military exercises—beginning with Nyoman-2001 to West-2013… [While] Ukraine, within the framework of the Vienna documents in this period, has never invited military observers from Belarus to monitor the largest military activities conducted on Ukraine’s territory. [Even] the representatives of the Belarusian military attaché apparatus in Ukraine since 2013 have not been invited to any military multinational or national exercise conducted on Ukraine’s territory.
The dispute between Minsk and Kyiv over observing each other’s military preparations continued as Ukrainian military observers in September fiercely criticised Minsk after watching the West drills. According to them, the exercise had been only “conditionally open” and offensive in character. Therefore, Belarusians observing Rapid Trident–2017 has become a major move to further improve bilateral relations.
The examples cited above prove that the Belarusian state is transforming. Even the army is choosing to admit its shortcomings and deal with them. Some of these reform decisions have been taken because of tragic events, like the death of the soldier in Barysau on 3 October.
Other decisions have been taken by officials perhaps after learning of positive practices in other Europeans countries. The Belarusian military’s decision to open up the West-2017 exercises after earlier seeing military drills in NATO countries supports this idea. Greater openness and responsibility will help to solve a host of problems. Inside Belarus, this can assist the army not only to become more efficient, but also to been seen as more professional and secure by citizens. Carrying on this sort of behaviour with other states, Minsk can so reduce tensions in the region.