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Belarusian government fears spill-over from Russian war in Ukraine

On 10 May, Belarusian General Staff Head Viktar Hulevich announced the country was facing a growing “military threat.” Minsk is worried about both the short-term danger of the war spill-over into Belarus after Putin’s failures in Ukraine and more...

On 10 May, Belarusian General Staff Head Viktar Hulevich announced the country was facing a growing “military threat.” Minsk is worried about both the short-term danger of the war spill-over into Belarus after Putin’s failures in Ukraine and more distant risks related to the rapidly increasing militarisation of the region. Driven by these concerns, the Belarusian military held exercises along the border with Poland and Ukraine, deployed troops there, and publicly discussed new arms acquisitions.

Unprecedented visits and drills

On 11 May, the State Secretary of Security Council Alyaksandr Valfovich made an unprecedented, publicised visit to Belarusian army units deployed on the Ukrainian border. They were stationed there following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Their numbers were reinforced after 4 May, when the army conducted a surprise check of its rapid response forces. Troops took positions along the Ukrainian border and with bordering NATO countries.

Belarusian state media gave extensive coverage of these troop movements but provided no context. In fact, it was escalation along the Russia-Ukrainian border that triggered these reinforcements and readiness checks along Belarus’ borders. In recent weeks, Ukrainian troops have finally begun to fire on Russian territory. Minsk apparently is worried the Ukrainian army could do the same to Belarus. After all, some Russian troops remain stationed in Belarus and, most probably, continue to be involved in Putin’s military operations in Ukraine.

Belarusian territorial defence troops. Image: BelVPO.

Belarusian state media also omitted other crucial details about the deployments. First, while the deployment on the border with Poland and the Baltics has added to numerous units already there, the units deployed on the Ukrainian border are only temporary.

The second omitted detail is the 10 May military exercises in the Kobryn and Lida districts began with about 430 territorial troops. In the past, such exercises only featured half this number of soldiers. The increased numbers demonstrate Minsk’s increased concern.

No new money for arms

Concurrently, Minsk has demonstrated its armament plans. On 10 May, Belarusian security officials held a conference to discuss its annual plan for military purchases. Reporting from the meeting, state media revealed that last year Belarus purchased 80 armoured personnel carriers (Russian-made BTR-82A), four drones, more than 2,000 anti-tank guided missiles, and 10 aircraft were overhauled.

Belarusian Defence Minister Viktar Khrenin, however, announced that Minsk was not going to increase its defence budget. Moreover, Khrenin said the army would buy as much as possible from the national arms industry. As for the purchases abroad, Khrenin said that some expensive weapons—like Su-30SM aircraft, helicopters, Tor-M2 missile systems, etc…—would be purchased by drawing from the remainder of a Russian loan used for the construction of a nuclear power plant.

Belarusian Defence Minister Viktar Khrenin. Image: president.gov.by.

Minsk aspires to continue an earlier course aimed at building an army that fits Belarusian needs by discarding heavy and costly equipment. Talking at the conference on 10 May, Belarusian dictator President Alexander Lukashenka said the emphasis laid a decade ago on increasing Belarusian army mobility had proven right.

Lukashenka went on to discuss “some lessons of Ukrainian war.” In this regard, he even cautiously praised the Ukrainian army saying, “The most efficient, including on the part of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, were mobile groups that instantly, unexpectedly approached the enemy, which is much superior to them in power.”

To emulate this approach, Lukashenko continued, vehicles are needed so that within an hour or two using the developed road infrastructure of Belarus, they can approach enemy units detected by reconnaissance and strike:

We need very agile units. And we need to concentrate on this. Of course, the S-400 [surface-to-air missile system], ultra-modern aircraft, etcetera, are good. But, as we have seen, large high-tech forces, whether it be the United States or NATO, have a tremendous capability to destroy all sorts of airfields, etcetera, in one-to-two hours. And where will you land your planes? Moreover, the survivability of these planes is next to zero. Therefore, wherever you look, mobility is needed.

The Belarusian government is also continuing its missile programme. On 10 May, the State Committee for Military Industry Chairman, Dzmitry Pantus, announced that Belarus was about to test new missiles in May and August for the Palanez, a multiple-launch rocket system (apparently adapted for cruise missiles, as well), and for the BUK surface-to-air missile system. “Manufacturing rockets and missiles today is one of the key priorities of the State Committee for Military Industry,” Pantus stated.

Russian nukes and Minsk

Of course, Belarusian officials also referred to military cooperation with Russia. Lukashenka stated this week:

We were always aware of what our army could do against NATO (this is a colossus!) … But we must not forget that behind us stands Russia, a nuclear power. And we have a corresponding agreement. And we have been talking on this topic very often lately with the president of Russia.

This statement appears to be in reaction to recent regional developments. First among them is the finalisation in April of a Polish contract with the United States on the purchase of Abrams tanks. And second is in reaction to Polish Deputy Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s statement to the effect that Warsaw is willing to deploy American nuclear weapons and more American troops on its territory.

A mock-up of a Belarusian missile, supposedly an analogue to the Russian Iskander model. Image: 4esnok-by.

Besides the general rhetoric of Russian nuclear might, Minsk recently revealed more specific arrangements with Moscow. Reportedly, S-400 air defence systems will “be left” in Belarus (it was not clear, under whose command). Minsk is going to purchase Russian Iskander ballistic missile systems currently deployed in the country.

Besides this, Moscow promised Russian experts’ help in developing a Belarusian missile, “similar to the Russian Iskander” ballistic missile. Minsk may try to develop such a missile to be launched from its own Palanez platform. So far, the Palanez has been developed with non-Russian, mostly Chinese technology, in a probable collaboration with Azerbaijan. Even the testing for the Palanez has taken place outside in Russia.

Belarus is sending somewhat contradictory signals about its intentions in the security sphere. These contradictions reflect pressures from different directions. On the one side, there is the deep dependence on Russia that developed after the 2020 collapse in relations with all other neighbours. On the other side, there is a fear of over-dependence on Russia combined with an aversion to fighting with Putin against Ukraine. This suggests Belarus is not hopelessly lost to Putin and there are still ways to prevent it from being dragged into the ongoing war in Ukraine.

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