Belarusian Army: Between Disarmament and Optimisation
On 4 January, the Belarusian army deployed a third battery of the Tor-M2 short-range surface-to-air missile systems, supplied to them by Russia. In December, the first Russian fighter jets arrived at a prospective Russian air force base in Baranavichy. Does this signal that the regional military balance is changing in favour of Minsk and Moscow?
Nominally, Belarus possesses an impressive old Soviet armoury. Yet it acquired few modern arms after gaining its independence. In a rare admission to the situation with the nation's defence two years ago Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka stated that the active lifetime of Belarusian military aircrafts was expiring. The military continues to fly old Soviet aircraft, but then decommissions them without finding any replacements.
Minsk – even with its recent growth in its spending defence budget – spends little on its military. Moscow demands money for its weapons and prefers to deploy its own forces instead of rearming Belarusians oat Russia's expense. This takes away from Lukashenka's ability to leverage Belarus as a provider of security in his dealings with Russia.
Butter Instead of Canons
Some new equipment reportedly will soon arrive — four more divisions of Russian long range surface-to-air missile systems, the S-300. Belarus also concluded with Russia a contract on purchasing four Yak-130s, an advanced jet trainer/light attack aircraft.
Yet this is too little, too late. Firstly, both of these surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems – the Tor and S-300 – were expected be part of the Belarusian army's arsenal many years ago. While they are only now finally being delivered to Belarus, the Russian army is arming itself with the newest line — the S-400s. Belarus is just replacing its old S-200s.
Secondly, modern as it may be, the subsonic Yak-130 cannot replace full-fledged jets like the Su-27s that were decommissioned in 2012. Belarusian officials explained the decommissioning of these aircraft by pointing out the small air space of the country.
Another plausible explanation is that Belarus cannot afford maintenance and purchases of new machines. In the 2000s, the government never allocated more than 1.48 per cent of its GDP for defence. This prolonged neglect created an acute situation and in recent years the defence budget has grown. In 2012, it made up 1.6% of the GDP, in 2013 –1.8%, and this year it is about to reach 1.97%.
However impressive this may sound, the actual sum is about $740m. Meanwhile, one fighter jet like the Su-27 or Su-30 costs $35-50m, and one S-300PMU-1 SAM system is $800m.
Under these circumstances, it is no wonder that the Belarusian establishment lacks a militaristic mood. The secretary of the parliament's National Security Commission Alyaksandr Myazhueu admitted, “There is no military threat per se now, although NATO activity in neighbouring countries causes some concern. On the other hand, without any political and social destabilisation occurring inside the country, it is hardly possible to launch an armed conflict in it.”
Major General Myazhueu also urged them to sort out social issues – “especially housing maintenance and utilities, housing construction, creating employment etc.” He apparently spoke the words that Lukashenka had been wanting to hear and shortly afterwards, in December, Myazhuyeu became State Secretary of the Security Council.
Why Did Moscow Hurry to Send Its Aircraft to Belarus?
The rhetoric of the Belarusian leader often clashes with reality. In August, Alyaksandr Lukashenka proclaimed both air defence and air force as the key priorities for the development of the armed forces. He apparently hoped to receive Russian funding to modernise the country's aging air defence and air forces.
Each have for years had problems with modernising their old Soviet equipment and Belarus still struggles to get enough S-300s from Moscow. Russia helps the Belarusian army only in a limited way and receiving something like an extra couple of Tor systems does not matter much in the grand scheme of things. The last time Russia supplied Belarus with a significant shipment of missile systems was seven years ago.
The situation is not better with the air force – by early 2013 they decommissioned about 50 aircraft due to their age without finding a proper replacement for them afterwards. In addition to the remaining Soviet jets, the army has only ten slightly newer second-hand L-39Cs, which is a military trainer and light ground-attack aircraft.
The Russian leadership has not helped Belarus by providing it with newer Russian aircraft. In September 2012, Lukashenka boasted after a meeting with Putin: "We discussed many issues with the air force. I asked for help and received it. Soon we will get new aircraft to guard our borders."
Putin, however, did not deliver anything. Not even the 18 second-hand Su-30 jets, which were repaired in Baranavichy and for a long time rumoured to be transferred to Belarusian army. Moscow demanded hard currency for the Su-30s, pretending that it is interested only in money.
This turned out to be a farce when considering the fact that Russia soon after sold the Su-30s to Angola, a country that has an extremely poor credit history with Russia, but is still buying Russian weapons on credit. Strange it may seem, Moscow even had to woo Angola. On the contrary, brotherly Belarus has – due to its international situation – no choice but to stay with Russia, even without any additional incentives in view.
As a matter of fact, Belarus lacks the necessary equipment to guarantee the security of its own air space. In 2012, it established the Single Regional System of Air Defence with Russia. Formally this means that now any breach in Belarusian air security is a breach of Russian defences as well.
By decommissioning its Su-27s at the end of 2012, Minsk has dangerously thinned out its air defence forces in the vicinity of vital Russian economic and political centres like Moscow. It should not take anyone by surprise then that the Kremlin hurried to deploy its own air force to Belarus.
Why Lukashenka Accepted a Russian Base in Belarus?
On 8 December, the first four Russian Su-27 jets arrived in Belarus. Military analyst Alyaksandr Alesin commented on European Radio for Belarus: “That is a complete analogue to what is going on at the air base in [Lithuanian] Šiauliai where NATO's fighter jets stays on alert duty.” Russia is going to establish a full-scale air force base in Belarus in 2015.
Yet this base may change the two nations' bilateral relations. The Belarusian government cultivated for years the image of Belarusian army defending the Russian capital. Lukashenka relied on this image in his disputes with the Kremlin and, in a way, speculated on it to maintain his own popularity with Russians. The loss of this image would seriously undermine Lukashenka's position in his dealings with Russia, so he initially resisted the Kremlin's proposals to deploy Russian forces in Belarus.
Minsk accepted the Russian takeover of some air defence duties only as the technical problems facing the Belarusian armed forces became too conspicuous. Belarus was losing its capacity to control its air space and the Kremlin refused to grant modern arms to its closest ally. Thus Lukashenka accepted something he refused to do for years – a Russian military base on Belarusian soil – to get at least a few SAM systems and jets.
If the current trends resulting from under-funding continue, the national armed forces will gradually loose nearly all of its advanced capabilities. All of its tanks and impressive machinery are useless without air support in the modern era. Minsk also needs advanced weapons and equipment to deal with new terrorist threats on the rise globally and in the post-Soviet region.
Talk coming from Minsk about optimising the size of the army is disarming. It is shifting to light aircrafts, is spending little on defence, and relegates many of its own defence tasks to the Russians. As a result, it is loosing its significance for Russia as a partner in the military realm and will face all the political consequences as a result. Moreover, it is undermining its own sovereignty in the process.
New Orthodox Patriarch, The Future of the Customs Union, New Year Wishes – Belarus State TV Digest
The Eurovision Song Contest became the number one event in terms of the frequency of its coverage on Belarusian state Channel 1.
Belarusian state journalists also afforded viewers a lot of coverage on integration with the Customs Union and other Eurasian structures.
The appointment of patriarch Pavel, the new head of the Belarusian Orthodox Church, attracted less attention on state TV than in the independent media. State TV journalists presented the new patriarch enthusiastically and emphasised that this choice would strengthen the spiritual roots of Belarus.
State TV also proudly reported on the launching of three new logistic centres on the Belarus border with Lithuania and Poland. The centres are supposed to significantly cut border queues with their streamlined services.
A new Orthodox patriarch will protect the spiritual legacy of Rus. Belarusian state TV enthusiastically reported the first service in Minsk of the newly elected head of the Orthodox Church. The journalist pointed out that both previous patriarch, Filaret, and the new one know each well.
The previous work of Patriarch Pavel has been of an international character, TV proudly noted. He was last in Belarus in 2013 as a participant in a conference on the original baptism of Rus and its impact on the nations of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. The news segment added that the selection of the new patriarch is of a somewhat prophetic nature. “The destiny of the Orthodox Church in Belarus is in the hands of the new patriarch Pavel”, the journalist commented.
In the words of Lukashenka, the Orthodox Church's “constructive position allows the citizens of our countries to preserve their loyalty to the true historical roots and protect the proper legacy of our ancestors". He also emphasised that the Orthodox Church supports the integration processes that are taking place in the post-Soviet space.
Authorities officially congratulated the newly patriarch Pavel. In his open letter, Lukashenka underscores the role of the Orthodox Church in Belarus. He made mention that the mutual relations between the Orthodox Church and the state remain that of a partnership. Both parties will continue to conduct a constructive dialogue aimed at solving important social issues facing Belarus today.
New Year wishes to Belarusians. As is tradition on New Year's Eve, the Belarusian head of state gives a short speech on national television. The Belarusian audience were told about the state's successful activities in helping to stimulate positive demographic trends and building new homes. He went on at great length about the motherland, being able breathe freely and being the master of one’s own life.
According to Lukashenka, the construction of a power plant in Astraviec, and also the high volume of Belarusian exports proved that the state has accomplished many of the goals it set for itself over the past year. Furthermore, 2013 was year in which Belarus witnessed a noticeable increase in the number of marriages and births.
Development of the country in 2014. Belarusian state TV briefly reported that Lukashenka had signed off on several documents related to the nation's plans for development in 2014. On the agenda appeared several items including increasing GDP by 3.3%, attracting more foreign direct investment in Belarus, and the state's continued support for housing construction.
Minsk has become an important political actor. State TV commented upon the Belarus' holding of the presidency in the Commonwealth of Independent States. During its presidency the parties initiated and agreed upon 70 new projects, as the anchor proudly pointed out. Minsk has become known as a city where some of the world's top leaders make serious decisions. “Will Ukraine be able to fulfil its duty when it takes over the presidency?”, the state TV news anchor asked. Kiev’s rapprochement with the EU could disturb its performance in the organisation.
Logistic centres on Belarus' borders. Belarus' does not sufficiently use its transit potential, state TV notes. The Belarusian authorities will support trade through three new logistic centres on its borders with Poland and Lithuania. This unique project will cut the traffic on its borders by up to 30%. The pricetag for the investment was 800bn BYR. Despite its high cost, the news underscored the fact that experts have also praised the project for its ability to better utilise the transit capacity of Belarus.
New currency in Euro-sceptic Latvia. Beginning 1 January 2013 Latvia will officially be using the Euro as its own currency, becoming the 18th EU country to do so. Belarusian State TV notes that according to experts many Latvians remained rather sceptical about joining the European Union. The main reason being that “many people still remember that some EU-member states using the Euro were forced to ask for financial support after the crisis in 2009”, as the anchor explained.
“Unpleasant Christmas gift for the European Union”. State TV reports that the international rating agency, Standard & Poor’s, has decreased the long-term credit rating of the European Union, having ranked its short-term credit rating as “stable”. They noted that, “the locomotives of the EU, such as Germany and France,” could easily achieve a high ranking on their own. However, the EU as a single entity with all of its 28 member states is not able to perform well economically.
Putin, Lukashenka and Nazarbaev discuss the future of the Eurasian Union. Channel 1 also provided extensive coverage to the “productive meeting” of the leaders of the Eurasian Union's three member states, an event which took place in Moscow. Nikolai Azarov, the Prime Minister of Ukraine, as well as the president of Kyrgyzstan also participated in the event. “They reached a mutual understanding practically on all issues [discussed]”, journalist commented. The officials also discussed a road map for Armenia and its membership in the Customs Union and the Eurasian Economic Community.
In its coverage, state TV emphasised the significance of the previous summit in Minsk. The heads of states addressed a number of issues relating to the process of integration. The countries removed nearly all barriers in their markets and two more countries, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan, have since expressed their interest in participating in the integration project.
State TV showed Lukashenka’s elevated position at the Moscow’s meeting. The Belurasian ruler emphasised his support for the idea of integration and, at the same time, in rather harsh words, he named and criticised certain areas that need to be improved upon. He mentioned the need to clarify issues surrounding the union's formal hierarchy, its relation to each nation's domestic laws and establishing guidelines for holding positions its governing organs.
It was also reported that the Customs Union has already brought in money into each of the three member nation's economies at a time when when the world’s economy suffering. In the words of Presidend of Kazakhstan Nazarbaev the Eurasian Union is not a restoration of the Soviet Union, but is rather a project of innovation. “We are moving forward, not backwards.”
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials available on the web site of Belarusian State Television 1 (BT1). Freedom of the press in Belarus remains restricted and state media convey primarily the point of view of the Belarusian authorities. This review attempts to give the English-speaking audience a better understanding of how Belarusian state media shape public opinion in the country.