Belarus’s new Russian arms: what Minsk has given in exchange
In an interview published on 23 February, Belarusian defence minister Andrei Raukou announced the forthcoming purchases of state-of-the-art Russian weaponry.
He specifically mentioned the Su-30SM fighter aircraft and 120mm Nona-M1 heavy mortars. Earlier, on 4 February, armament director of the Belarusian armed forces Major General Ihar Latsyankou said that Minsk would purchase these systems this year.
In other words, despite its dependence on Moscow, Minsk has prevailed in its dispute with the Kremlin over defence issues. Moscow initially did not wish to provide Minsk with weapons, intending instead to replace Belarusian with Russian troops. However, it has conceded one positions after another. Minsk has thus emerged victorious in this spat.
Minsk receives arms after agreeing to a military exercise
Minsk's first attempts to procure Su-30 from Moscow date back to the late 2000s. However, a flurry of official statements over the past year indicate that the deal may be in its final stages: Moscow has decided to sell the airplanes to Minsk at a minimal price, and the parties are hashing out the deal and its specific conditions.
As for the Belarusian government, it most probably succeeded in getting the new equipment delivered more rapidly than foreseen by promising to host a joint military exercise with Russia in September. The large-scale exercise Zapad-2017 had already caused a fall-out between Belarus, its other neighbours, and the West. It only makes sense for Minsk to agree to the exercise, which has undermined its recently repaired relations with the West, if it gets something valuable in exchange from the Kremlin.
The newest military equipment – which Russia had refused to provide to Minsk before – is a logical exchange. As recently as 23 November 2016, Belarusian Air Force and air defence commander Aleh Dvihalyou had spoken about general plans to buy at least a squadron of Su-30SM fighter jets from Russia as late as 2020. Now Moscow, eager to conduct a large show of its military might in the centre of Europe, promptly agreed to give Belarus the fighter jets.
A Triple Alliance
However, the Russian government would like to minimise the costs of rearming Belarus. The Kremlin would prefer not to bear these costs at all, and for years it has refused to give Minsk sophisticated weapons such as the Su-30. As the Soviet-era fighter jets of the Belarusian air force gradually became obsolete, a growing hole emerged in the single air defence system of Belarus and Russia. Speculating on this danger, Moscow tried to stop relying on the Belarusian air force altogether. For three years, it has been putting pressure on Minsk to host the Russian air force in the country rather than rearming the Belarusian air force.
Minsk refused to increase foreign military presence in the country. Nevertheless, the problem of maintaining the joint system of air defence remained. Thus, against its will, Moscow was forced to provide Belarus new aircraft to keep the system functioning properly. Minsk, certainly, will not pay very much for the aircraft. Given its status as a critical ally of Russia, this is a logical stance. Therefore, the Kremlin has invented a scheme to simultaneously arm Minsk and reduce its own costs.
The most likely scheme is trilateral and involves Serbia. Last year, Russia promised Serbia's Russia-friendly government six MiG-29 second-hand fighter jets and some Buk surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems. The Buk deal failed, and anyway the six airplanes from Russia would not have sufficed for Serbia to rebuild its air force, which it lost in 1999. But then, on 27 January, after returning from Minsk, Serbian Defence minister Zoran Đorđević told the Serbian daily Politika that Belarus would supply Serbia with a further eight MiG-29 and two batteries of Buk SAM systems.
There are good reasons to believe that Moscow demanded that Minsk help Russia's friends in Belgrade in exchange for new arms for the Belarusian army. That is, Moscow prefers to send Belgrade Belarusian equipment rather than give it its own.
The conditions of the deal between Minsk and Belgrade are very similar to those discussed between Moscow and Belgrade, emphasises Politika. In both cases, Serbia has to pay a minimal price for the hardware and finance, leaving only overhaul and modernisation. The Belarusian government would accept such a deal only if the Kremlin forced its hand or offered it compensation. Otherwise, Minsk would have no reason to be so generous. It has almost always sold its decommissioned aircraft to the customer offering the best price: the most recent example being its sale of Su-24 bombers to Sudan.
Minsk aware of risks
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, in 2012-16 the Belarusian Defence Ministry purchased arms and military equipment from Russia worth $475m. They included multi-purpose Mi-8MTV5 helicopters, Yak-130 trainer jets, and second-hand S-300PS and new Tor-M2 SAM systems. Russia remains the principal source of defence equipment for Belarus. In comparison, in the same period Minsk purchased arms worth $10m and $2m respectively from its two other major partners, Ukraine and China.
The Belarusian government strives to achieve the greatest possible independence in the defence sphere. Thus, after the personal intervention of president Lukashenka, the defence ministry stopped the negotiations on purchasing Russian BTR-82A. The Belarusian leader instead insisted upon the use of alternatives already developed by the national defence industry. As a result, in January 2017 after government tests, the Belarusian army deployed modernised BTR-70MB1.
This was not an isolated case. Armament director of Belarusian armed forces Latsyankou stated in a recent interview that a major task of national defence industries this year would be re-installing various multiple rocket launch systems on Belarusian-manufactured chassis. Until now, they had been installed on chassis manufactured mostly in Russia.
In sum, the situation of Belarusian-Russian military cooperation is more complex than the basic figures of equipment procurement or personnel training suggest. Belarus and Russia are largely interdependent.
Belarus depends on Russia disproportionately for procuring military equipment, as it lacks money to buy from alternative sources. Russia critically depends on Belarus strategically. It needs Belarus because the latter is located in the vicinity of Russia's core region around Moscow and contributes to its security. Moreover, Belarus, as one of Moscow's few allies, helps the Kremlin keep the remnants of its imperial prestige by participating in demonstrative shows of Russian strength, despite avoiding backing Putin's adventurous moves in Ukraine, the Middle East, or the Caucasus.
Both governments try to diminish their dependence, but Minsk has more chances of success in the long run. The situation surrounding Russian plans for an airbase in Belarus in 2013-2015 and Minsk's final success in getting modern aircraft proves it.
Second Annual London Conference, growing Belarus-Russia tension, Bologna process – Ostrogorski Centre digest
The Ostrogorski Centre co-organised the Second Annual London Conference on Belarusian Studies in cooperation with University College London and the Belarusian Francis Skaryna Library and Museum.
In February, analysts of the Ostrogorski Centre discussed Russia’s attempts to destabilise the region around Belarus, the possibility of Moscow toppling Lukashenka, and the outcomes of Belarusian foreign policy in 2016.
The Centre has also released an analytical paper entitled ‘Challenges to Belarus joining the European Higher Education Area’, which resulted from the Fourth Annual Dutch-Belarusian-Polish Conference.
Second Annual London Conference on Belarusian Studies
On Saturday 25 February, the Second Annual London Conference on Belarusian Studies was organised by the Ostrogorski Centre in cooperation with University College London and the Belarusian Francis Skaryna Library and Museum.
Speakers from Belarus, the United Kingdom, Japan, Germany, the United States, and other countries presented and discussed Belarus-related research. The conference panels covered Francis Skaryna’s work and legacy, problems of Belarusian national identity, foreign policy of Belarus and comparative politics, social and political movements, and language and literature.
The main conference was followed by the Annual Lecture on Belarusian Studies, delivered by Dr Ales Susha, Deputy Director of the National Library of Belarus and Chairman of the International Association of Belarusian Language and Culture Specialists.
All conference presentations will be uploaded online in podcast form and selected papers from the conference will be published in the Journal of Belarusian Studies.
Siarhei Bohdan analyses Moscow’s actions to erect a border with Belarus and undermine its links with Ukraine and the Baltics. Russia accuses the West and its allies in the region of undermining links between Eastern European countries. However, its own policies pursue exactly the same aim. Minsk must fight hard to resist these efforts by the Kremlin.
Igar Gubarevich provides an overview of Belarusian diplomacy’s achievements and failures in 2016. In 2016, Belarusian diplomats succeeded in getting rid of most Western sanctions, improving the international legitimacy of the national parliament, regularising dialogue with Europe, and converting Poland from a strong critic into a reliable partner. Nevertheless, they failed to make Lukashenka fully presentable to his peers in Europe, alienated Ukraine’s political elite, botched export growth and diversification of the export market, and turned Lithuania from a supporter into a foe.
Ryhor Astapenia discusses whether scenarios in which the Kremlin attempts to topple Lukashenka are possible. Recently, rhetoric surrounding Russian-Belarusian relations has become so sharp that some journalists and analysts believe the Kremlin plans to overthrow Aliaksandr Lukashenka or occupy Belarus. However, off and on conflict remain a fixture of Belarusian-Russian relations. Despite belligerent grumbling, Lukashenka mostly upholds the Kremlin’s interests, promoting cooperation between the two countries.
Analytical paper: Challenges to Belarus joining the European Higher Education Area
The Ostrogorski Centre releases an analytical paper which resulted from the Fourth Annual Dutch-Belarusian-Polish Conference ‘Education as a Human Right: Modernising Higher Education to Meet the Challenges of the 21st Century’.
In 2015, Belarus joined the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) and committed to putting a Roadmap for higher education reform into effect by 2018. The implementation of the Roadmap is running behind schedule, which poses a threat to the fulfilment of Belarus’s obligations by the due date.
The paper released analyses of the main challenges to implementation of the Roadmap in Belarus; it also provides recommendations which could help to fulfil commitments on time and benefit a wider range of stakeholders.
- Read the full paper: Challenges to Belarus joining the European Higher Education Area
Comments in the media
On Polish radio, Siarhei Bohdan discusses the process of destabilisation around Belarus caused by Russian politics. Moscow has erected a border with Belarus where it never existed before, and tries to curtail Belarusian exports via Baltic ports. Russia accuses the EU of destabilising the region, but actively does so itself. Fragmentation of the region will lead to its impoverishment, Siarhei argues.
Alesia Rudnik discusses the recent political graffiti cases on Polish radio. Political graffiti can be seen as a new form of civic participation which attracts the attention of the public and the media, while the authorities see the phenomenon as a threat.
Ryhor Astapenia comments on the latest developments in Belarusian-Russian relations for the Polish news portal Wirtualna Polska. Contrary to the disinformation of some Russian media sources, Lukashenka does not intend to leave the Eurasian Economic Union and CSTO. However, this does not mean he wants to pursue further military or political integration. Instead, he focuses mostly on the economic aspect.
The website The Conflict Comment quotes Igar Gubarevich in an article about the Russia-Belarus energy dispute. According to Igar, both parties have leverage in this dispute and both are interested in finding an accommodating solution, as was the case on many other occasions. Belarus remains of strategic importance to Russia, both as a trading partner and as a demarcation line for NATO and the EU.
Vadzim Smok discusses whether Belarus stands a chance in a new oil war with Russia on Polish radio. Oil products remain Belarus’s No.1 export commodity, making up a third of Belarus’s export revenues. With no alternative options for hydrocarbon supplies and Minsk’s decreasing political and security leverage, the country will have to play by Moscow’s rules.
The British newspaper The Independent quotes Igar Gubarevich in an article about the legacy of the Chernobyl disaster. According to Igar, Belarus avoids drawing public attention to the legacy of Chernobyl for two main reasons. The image of a contaminated country might hamper its efforts to promote exports and attract foreign investment, and it may be at odds with the government’s newly adopted policy of pursuing nuclear energy by building the BelNPP.
The BelarusProfile.com database now includes the following people: Vitaŭt Rudnik, Alesia Rudnik, Andrej Paŭliučenka, Kaciaryna Siniuk, Anatoĺ Lappo, Dzmitryj Kaliečyc, Uladzimir Aŭhuscinski, Aliaksandr Center, Andrej Bryšcielieŭ, and Siarhiej Savicki.
We have also updated the profiles of Viktar Šynkievič, Siarhiej Pisaryk, Ihar Buzoŭski, Michail Žuraŭkoŭ, Lieanid Maĺcaŭ, Vasiĺ Žarko, Marat Afanaśjeŭ, Aliaksiej Pikulik, Uladzimir Tracciakoŭ, Ivan Dziemidovič, Ivan Žarski, Ihar Vojtaŭ, Aliaksandr Zabaroŭski, and Dzmitryj Kruty.
The Ostrogorski Centre continues to update its database of policy papers on BelarusPolicy.com. The papers of partner institutions added this month include:
Yaraslau Pryhodzich. The anatomy of Belarusian joint stock companies. BEROC, 2017.
Aliaksandr Autushka-Sikorski, Alena Artsiomenka. Work of the High Technology Park: a threefold increase in exports of IT services and what would happen if the park is closed. BISS, 2017.
Vadzim Smok. Challenges to Belarus joining the European Higher Education Area. Ostrogorski Centre, 2017.
Uladzimir Akulich, Yuliya Yafimenka, Uladzislau Ramaniuk, Katsiaryna Aleksiatovich, Viktoriya Smalenskaya, Ales Alachnovič, Sierž Naŭrodski. 8th issue of the Macroeconomic Review of Belarus (4th quarter 2016). CASE-Belarus, 2017.
Think tanks in Belarus are encouraged to submit their research for inclusion into the database by completing this form.
The Ostrogorski Centre is a private, non-profit organisation dedicated to analysis and policy advocacy on problems which Belarus faces in its transition to market economy and the rule of law. Its projects include Belarus Digest, the Journal of Belarusian Studies, BelarusPolicy.com, BelarusProfile.com and Ostro.by.