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Belarus reluctantly reverses its security policies

Meeting Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka on 14 September, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that in the next year Belarus and Russia would hold joint exercises or similar events almost monthly. Belarusian special operations forces on 21 September joined the...

Meeting Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka on 14 September, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that in the next year Belarus and Russia would hold joint exercises or similar events almost monthly. Belarusian special operations forces on 21 September joined the Russian “Caucasus-2020”  military drills. Simultaneously, an unprecedented number of Russian paratroopers – three battalion tactic groups – are taking part in the so-called Slavic Brotherhood exercise near the Belarusian cities of Brest and Hrodna (14-25 September). Alongside Lukashenka’s fierce anti-Western rhetoric and Belarus’ Russian arms purchases, these new developments demonstrate how much the Belarusian government has had to give in to Putin following the rigged Belarusian parliamentary election on 9 August.

War games on the borders

Just how dramatically Belarusian security policies have changed can be gleaned by looking at the balance of military cooperation between Minsk and Moscow. During his visit to Belarus on 16 September, Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu complained that only 30% of the two countries’ annual cooperation programme had been implemented, and urged that at least 70% be fulfilled by the end of the year. Such low numbers are more to blame on the tension between Minsk and Moscow that existed until August, rather than on the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Image: president.gov.by

Increased military cooperation with Russia fits into the militaristic political campaign recently launched by Lukashenka. Speaking at a women’s forum on 17 September, Lukashenka announced: “we were forced to return the troops from the streets… mobilise half the army and close the state border with the West, above all with Lithuania and Poland… strengthen the border with our brotherly Ukraine.”

This bombastic statement turned out to be an exaggeration. Border crossing points continue working as usual. By “closing the borders”, Lukashenka apparently meant the earlier Belarusian army deployment behind the borderlines. Beginning on 17 August and until the beginning of September, the Belarusian army and border guards held a series of exercises in Belarus’ Hrodna region that borders Lithuania and Poland.

While before that he blamed Russia for disturbances in Belarus, as early as 21 August the Belarusian president switched to accusing the US and EU of organising the protests inside Belarus and increasing military activities on Belarus’ borders. Although he talked about the danger of irredentism in Hrodna region, Lukashenka also emphasised that the “Belarusian problem [of post-election protests] today for Russia is no less important than it is for Belarus. It is Russia that is under attack first of all”. He went on to repeat the same opinion again later.

How sincere is Minsk’s militarism?

Since the beginning, Minsk’s militarism has looked strange. Not least because concurrently with adopting militarism, the Belarusian defence ministry has strived to reduce the damage it is causing. In the second half of August, the ministry held three conferences with foreign military attaches accredited in Minsk to explain the situation. Meanwhile, Belarus’ neighbours have doubted the extent of the threat posed by Minsk. On 17 August Lithuanian defence minister Raimundas Karoblis criticised Belarus for creating tensions by launching extraordinary exercises on the borders with Lithuania and Poland, but added that “we do not see up to now any military threat from Belarus. Although these are extraordinary exercises, they include standard, regular procedures.”

Image: mil.by

Already on 12 September at a conference of the country’s security agencies Lukashenka signalled his willingness to review recent army deployments on the western border. “If NATO troops in Poland and Lithuania have completed the so-called exercises and do not move there anymore, we should respond appropriately. Without need, we cannot keep the armed forces there in such numbers for a long time. Especially since it is not cheap,” stated Lukashenka in an address to defence minister Viktar Khrenin. The latter replied that NATO was effectively only repeating what it had done in the spring by moving one battalion near the Belarusian border. Therefore, Khrenin added, the Belarusian army activities around Hrodna had been wrapped up and the troops returned to garrisons.

The Lithuanian military noticed the Belarusian manoeuvres and on 15 September, supreme commander of Lithuanian armed forces Valdemaras Rupšys said that because of increased military exercises by Belarus and Russia along the Lithuanian border, “there are some concerns, but there is definitely no direct military threat.” Lithuanian defence minister Karoblis added that extraordinary exercises in Belarus were losing their momentum and new drills with Russia were not new, but planned well beforehand. No wonder that on the same day, the head of the international military cooperation department at the Belarusian Defence Ministry Aleh Voinau revealed that as far as international cooperation was concerned, “some tactical-level events with Poland and Lithuania still remain on the agenda,” although he warned that Minsk could stop cooperating with these partners.

Buying arms in exchange for Putin’s support

Minsk also made concessions to Moscow regarding the purchases of military hardware—not a small thing for cash-strapped Belarus, which has always had to buy arms from Russia with hard cash, not on a credit loan. On 24 August, the Belarusian army signed contracts with Russian manufacturers for the purchase of armoured personnel carriers BTR-82A for two battalions as well as four Mi-35M attack helicopters. The army also signed a plan to purchase air defence systems from the Russian firm Almaz-Antei up to 2025.

Mi-35. Image: lemur59.ru

Until this point, the Belarusian army for years had moved towards becoming less expensive and more suited to the needs of the country. In particular, it had successfully resisted the efforts of Russia to sell it BTR-82’s and found a solution by replacing older armoured personnel carriers with Belarusian modernisations of Soviet models or new Belarusian-designed armoured vehicles. The same was true of attack helicopters: Minsk planned to gradually give them up and replace them with a mix of attack drones and Yak-130’s.

These recent contracts, alongside invitations to the Russian army to increase cooperation, indicate a political calculation by the Belarusian leadership. It hopes to find allies in the Russian establishment among those in the security sphere and defence industries. These allies should, the Belarusian government hopes, help Minsk to prevail over more liberal and Lukashenka-critical economic elites inside the Russian government apparatus.

To sum up, the Belarusian government has significantly changed the multi-directional foreign and security policies it had been pursuing over the previous fifteen years. These changes are not the result of a rational revision of the previous course. They were imposed upon Minsk by the difficult situation that the current government finds itself in as it tries to play games with Russian politics by making unprecedented concessions to the Russian military establishment.

In Belarus’ case, any meaningful struggle to change the regime has a geopolitical dimension, and only political dialogue inside the country can reduce the opportunities for external actors to intervene. Dialogue that results in negotiated democratisation and not simply destabilisation of the regime should be the aim of those interested in democratic and independent Belarus.

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Siarhei Bohdan
Siarhei Bohdan
Siarhei Bohdan is an associate analyst at the Ostrogorski Centre.
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