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Belarus reviews defence policy after Russia disappoints

On 13 February, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka complained about Russia’s unwillingness to arm the Belarusian army. On 23 February, the ideological periodical of Belarusian government published an article by the defence minister, Andrei Raukou, who described how Belarus would defend itself...

On 13 February, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka complained about Russia’s unwillingness to arm the Belarusian army. On 23 February, the ideological periodical of Belarusian government published an article by the defence minister, Andrei Raukou, who described how Belarus would defend itself without mentioning any Russian role in it.

According to him, Belarusian army focuses on learning the lessons of hybrid war in Syria. But the concept itself is much more linked to the war in Eastern Ukraine and the minister most probably kept silence about it just to not irritate the Kremlin.

Minsk, in recent years, has been rebuilding its army according to its own needs and opportunities while ignoring Moscow’s wishes. This conclusion follows from official statements and from the Belarusian army’s rearmament plans. As a result, the Belarusian armed forces increasingly resemble the army of a small European nation.

More military selfsufficiency

Speaking on 22 February at a ceremony marking Defenders of the Fatherland and Armed Forces Day, Lukashenka again repeated his criticism of increasing militarisation in Belarus’s neighbourhood and throughout the world. His statements on Belarusian preparations for defence and rearmament included some remarkable points.

First, probably for the first time, he suggested that Belarus should defend itself on its own. That is, he did not mention Russia in this context at all:

In the event of a military threat, we must be ready for the nationwide defence of Belarus. 70,000 men of our army cannot defend our state. … the land must be protected by the whole people. … In the event of a military conflict, we are able, within a short period of time, to arm half a million people and defend the most important facilities by the territorial defence forces. This is the essence of our defence doctrine.

This statement follows related developments in Belarusian government’s views of defence issues. Ironically, they involve militarisation as well. In March 2017 the government demanded that border security agencies increase their military [voiskovoi] components.

Meanwhile, on 7 December Belarusian parliament amended the Law on the Fight Against Terrorism, adding national armed forces to the list of agencies expected to fight against terrorism. Given the fact that neighbouring Ukraine designated a full-scale war in its eastern regions as an “antiterrorist operation,” this probably means Minsk is taking further precautions against Donbas scenario.

Chinese friends and problems acquiring new fighter jets from the Kremlin

Chinese armoured vehicles arriving in Belarus. Image: VoenTV.

Secondly, on 22 February Lukashenka emphasised the Belarusian army’s receipt of new arms to respond to new challenges. He praised… not Russia, but China for its help in this sphere. Indeed, on 18 February, Belarusian state media reported that the national army received the second batch of CS/VN3 Dajiang armoured vehicles from China. The first five vehicles arrived back in June 2017 and were even deployed in the “West-2017″ drills.

Speaking in the Security Council on 13 February, Lukashenka criticised Russia for its reluctance to equip the Belarusian army as well as the armies of other Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) members. He said,

Russia itself is modernising its armed forces. We are trying, together with other members [of the CSTO], to somehow arm, modernise ourselves and so on. Everyone on its own … But the leadership of Russia today lacks a serious understanding that it is necessary to strengthen the national armed forces … [of] Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia and other countries – that, say, Belarus is the main outpost, including for Russia, in the western direction.

Minsk clearly expects more Russian help to develop and maintain the Belarusian army. Too often it suffers disappointment. In recent months, Belarusian officials – from the president to the to the defence minister and air force commander – either keep silent or sound remarkably uncertain about the most important arms deal between Minsk and Moscow of recent times, namely the purchase of new Su-30 fighter jets.

Defence minister Andrei Raukou. Image: BelTA.

For instance, at a news conference on 14 February, defence minister Andrei Raukou announced that the delivery of Su30 aircraft to Belarus may not start until 2019. Even more remarkably he completely omitted the Su30 deal in his major interview to BelTA news agency on 23 February in which he described at length the equipment Belarus plans to purchase for its army.

About a year ago top Belarusian defence officials clearly insisted that the Belarusian army would receive twelve new Su30s with delivery beginning in 2018. The official reason for the delay cites the Western embargo on the supply of some components for the aeroplanes to Russia, a result of Moscow’s meddling in eastern Ukraine. But it sounds odd given that Russia continues production of the same jets for other countries. Most probably, Minsk still needs to find a way to pay for the jets. After all, it earlier indicated its wish both to get maximum discount and to pay as much as possible with goods and not money.

Historical context casts a different light on the story around rearming the Belarusian army with Russian weapons. To put it plainly, today Minsk strives to acquire from Russia a dozen of Su30 aircraft – not even a regiment. Belarus fought for about a decade and yet, apparently, the problems persist. These are definitely not the “good old days” of Belarus-Russian partnership when, as recently as the early 2000s, Minsk and Moscow even negotiated over assembly production of essentially the same aircraft, the Su27, in Belarus.

An army fit for Belarusian needs

No wonder that, faced with Moscow’s reluctance to arm its Belarusian allies, Minsk simply rearranges its armed forces to suit its own needs and thinks ever less about the wishes of the Kremlin. Describing the process of rearmament in an interview to the BelTA news agency on 23 February, the defence minister, Raukou, called it “selective” and “pointed” [tochechnaya].

In particular, according to Raukou, Minsk will soon modernise its T-72 tanks in both Belarusian and Russian factories, as well as deploy more Belarusianmanufactured armoured vehicles V1 and Kaiman, and Belarusian-modernised BTR-70MB1. Among its planned acquisitions for 2018, the armed forces will obtain additional Yak-130 training and light-attack aircraftTOR-M2 surface-to-air missile systems, radars, and drones.

That means the Belarusian army avoids any comprehensive rearming. It decommissions some equipment without like-for-like replacement if Belarus, as a small country, does not need it itself and Russia refuses to supply a replacement either.

Postage stamps dedicated to the 100th anniversary of Belarusian army and its predecessor, the Red Army.

President Lukashenka, speaking on occasion of the Defenders of the Fatherland and Armed Forces Day, praised new products of national industries being deployed by the state army. He specifically mentioned a new ballistic missile for the Palanez multiple-launch rocket system, a surface-to-air missile system and lightly armoured vehicles. And he altogether failed to mention the new aircraft to be bought from Russia.

To sum up, on the one hand, Belarus fulfils its dues as Russia’s ally and participates in the air defence of the core Russian regions as much as it can. Hence so much attention to surfacetoair missiles, radars and similar equipment.

On the other hand, in other spheres, Minsk prefers to care for its own minimal needs if Russia is not willing to arm its ally. Hence attention to less sophisticated types of armoured vehicles, drones and aircraft. They suffice for Belarus’s security needs however inadequate they seem from the Russian perspective, which believes that “bigger is better” and focuses on global confrontation with the West. In the longer-term perspective, that means Minsk is going its own way and deciding that “small is beautiful.”

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