Brothers in arms: Russia in Belarus’s new military doctrine
On 20 July 2016 Belarus’s new military doctrine came into force. Although there was lively discussion about the contents of the new doctrine earlier this year, its text was not then public.
Early speculation focused on officials’ references to new threats including “hybrid warfare.” Even Jane’s Defence Weekly, a highly credible source of military information and analysis, interpreted this as a reference to Russia.
However, contrary to the expectations of some Western commentators, the new doctrine consolidates Belarus’s alliance with Russia and its obligations under the Collective Security Treaty.
Although the doctrine proceeds from the claim “that no one state (or coalition of states) presents itself to Belarus as an adversary,” we can infer that the main threats identified are NATO expansion and prospective regime change in Belarus.
The two may go hand-in-hand, and we should understand references to hybrid war (the term itself does not appear in the text of the doctrine) – an admixture of traditional and non-traditional methods – in this context.
There is no significant change about the origins of security threats in the new doctrine; the claimed expansion of “the spectrum of sources of military threat” is a vague formulation that signifies little. It is the nature of the threats that is perceived differently from in the past.
As Stanislaŭ Zaś, State Secretary of the Security Council, told CTV in January: “emphasis … is more on information warfare. This is one of the components of present-day hostilities.”
A more complicated security environment
the original military doctrine of 1992 advocated “armed neutrality” Read more
This is Belarus’s third such doctrine, and it complements the military doctrine of the Union State of Belarus and Russia. Sources at the time said that the original military doctrine of 1992 advocated “armed neutrality,” the policy of not participating in any alliance during wartime. Belarus under Lukashenka never seriously contemplated armed neutrality, despite occasional remarks that Belarus will not commit troops outside its borders.
The doctrine adopted in 2002 was more compatible with Belarus’s membership since 1994 of a military alliance (the Collective Security Treaty Organisation), and its ostensible integration into a Union State with Russia. However, the European security environment changed significantly after the previous version came into force.
These changes necessitated a new doctrine. First, NATO’s 2004 enlargement brought the three Baltic states – two of which have borders with Belarus – into its fold. Secondly, Belarus’s leaders watched the “colour revolutions” in former Soviet states nervously.
the doctrine does not solely respond to recent events in Ukraine Read more
Accordingly, work on the new doctrine was announced long before the annexation of Crimea and the war in Ukraine. On the one hand, the doctrine does not solely respond to recent events in Ukraine. On the other hand, regional instability gave impetus to work on the doctrine. References to “illegal armed groups,” “non-state subjects,” and “private military formations” in its pages are reactions to events in the Middle East as well as Ukraine.
The Russian threat
This does not mean no threat is perceived as originating from Russia. Despite tight military cooperation between the two states, Belarus’s military would be acting responsibly if it considers the possibility of Russian moves against Belarus.
Russia’s persistent refusal to provide Belarus with requested military equipment is consistent with efforts to minimise Belarus’s autonomy Read more
The Belarusians do not know what discussions go on in the Kremlin; for example, details of Russia’s operation in Crimea were probably not shared with Belarus. Russia’s persistent refusal to provide Belarus with requested military equipment is consistent with efforts to minimise Belarus’s autonomy, and has left Belarus dependent on Soviet-era stock.
Moreover, in the event of a war between NATO member states and Russia, a land corridor between Russia and the semi-enclave of Kaliningrad becomes a vital strategic interest to Russia. Russia will want to ensure reliable supply lines to its military facilities in Kaliningrad. Belarus needs to think through the implications of such a conflict.
Security policy inevitably demands speculation about threats. As Viktar Šadurski, Dean of the International Relations faculty at the Belarusian State University, remarked recently: “I don’t think NATO is a direct threat to Belarus, but I could not think that Russia was a direct threat to Ukraine a few years ago.”
Whose hybrid war?
Certain Western analysts mistakenly think that all references to “hybrid warfare” imply Russia. For sure, the term hybrid warfare gained currency in the Western press against the backdrop of Ukraine, which link the concept to Russia.
However, hybrid warfare has more pedigree than this acknowledges. Debates in military circles date to at least the early 2000s. Russia has used cyber warfare and proxies in Ukraine, and is as capable (if not more so) than Western states of bringing about regime change in Belarus. However, in the Russian literature, which the Belarusian elites read, references to hybrid warfare methods are shorthand for perceived US-led tactics to bring about regime change. Hybrid warfare thus refers to the “colour revolutions” that brought down governments in the mid-2000s.
A little ambiguity in the doctrine – it does not name an enemy – serves Belarus well in this respect Read more
A little ambiguity in the doctrine – it does not name an enemy – serves Belarus well in this respect. It is a mistake, though, to think that Belarus is doing anything other than consolidating its military alliance with Russia. The process of consolidation includes establishing the limits of alliance commitments, and the doctrine is part of a process of ongoing negotiations with Russia.
The focus on NATO appears elsewhere in the doctrine. Although declaring that any military-political alliances ambitions for “global functions” threaten world order, this is primarily a reaction to mission creep within NATO. The relevant Article confirms this by invoking as its subject military-political organisations “to which Belarus does not belong.” Meanwhile, Belarus strives “to strengthen the status of the CSTO in the international arena.”
The Union State framework
Earlier this year Russian sources announced revisions to the military doctrine of the Union State. This will take into account and nest with both Belarus and Russia’s (December 2014) new doctrines. Both states’ national doctrines underscore the concept of strategic deterrence or containment (strategicheskoe sderzhivanie), which suggests some coordination. Indeed, Andras Racz at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs says it would be “scandalous” if Russia was not consulted on the draft.
Belarus will continue to trust Russia knowing it cannot defend itself against an attack by its ally. Russia spends more of its GDP on defence than any other major state; 5.42% in 2015 according to the International Institute of Strategic Studies’ annual Military Balance. In absolute terms this is far less than the USA spends (3.27% of GDP), but a comparison of total expenditure does not tell us very much of interest; the USA’s distant location limits the direct military threat.
The leadership in Belarus thinks it has no alternative to alliance with Russia, because Russia would not consent to Belarus’s neutrality. The coming-into-force of an integrated air defence system covering Belarus and Russia reminds us that a break with Russia is neither imminent nor likely in the medium term.
The revised military doctrine is part of a process of consolidation and negotiation of the two states’ alliance, and reflects a security environment that greatly changed over the past fifteen years.
Paul has degrees from the University of London and the University of Oxford. He is currently a doctoral candidate in International Relations, also at the University of Oxford.
Belarus opens up? The government announces visa-free entrance
On 26 October 2016 a new visa-free area along the Augustow Canal, a conservation protection zone in the Hrodna region on the border with Poland and Lithuania became effective.
Tourists will also be able to visit adjacent districts of Hrodna region as well as the city of Hrodna (population 300,000) visa-free, an unprecedented measure in the history of sovereign Belarus.
The visa-free regime will last until 31 December 2017. This will make it the second visa-free zone in Belarus after the national park Bielaviežskaja Pušča opened up in 2015; foreign citizens can stay in the forest for up to three days.
These initiatives appear to be an experiment before Belarusian authorities implement a more comprehensive simplification of the visa regime: future plans also include the long awaited authorisation of local border traffic. Belarusian authorities have long overlooked tourism as a source of profit, but the crisis in traditional industries has forced them to consider this option.
Is Belarus finally opening up to the world?
On 23 August Aliksandr Lukashenka signed decree No. 318: "Concerning the introduction of visa-free entry and departure for foreigners” which came into effect on 26 October 2016. The document allows visa-free stay in the Augustow Canal nature park and adjacent territories for a period of up to five days. The authorities launched a special web site explaining the visa-free entry procedure.
Foreigners will be required to obtain permission to stay on the territory of the Augustow Canal park. Permission can be requested from Belarusian tour operators and travel agencies.
Tourists will need to submit a form to border authorities via e-mail or post at least 24 hours before their arrival. Visitors to the park will be able to enter Belarus via four border checkpoints – two on the border with Poland and two with Lithuania.Visa-free stay can last up to 5 days, after which foreigners must leave the territory of Belarus.
Importantly, tourists will also be able to stay in adjacent districts of the Hrodna region and the city of Hrodna (population 300,000) visa-free, an unprecedented measure in the history of sovereign Belarus. Minsk and other major cities are outside the visa-free zone, so a trip there would be considered a violation of visa-free entry rules.
According to Deputy Minister of Sports and Tourism Michail Partnoj, this is a preliminary measure before Belarus opens up to the world even more. The first such initiative appeared during the 2014 World Hockey Championship which took place in Minsk. Authorities announced that foreigners with a ticket for the championship could enter Belarus without a visa.
In summer 2015 the government introduced a visa-free regime for tourists entering the national reserve Bielavieža forest on the border with Poland. Visitors need only posses a valid ID and a ticket for the national reserve.
The fact that Poles and Lithuanians will have easier access to Hrodna may indicate that Minsk wants to test the impact of local border traffic. Its authorisation was long delayed because of Poland and Lithuania’s critical position towards the political regime in Belarus.
Furthermore, the government fears that Belarusians will drain foreign currency reserves while shopping in borderland areas of the EU. However, as relations with the EU improve, Minsk may reconsider the local border traffic issue.
A major obstacle to tourism development
Despite being an immediate EU neighbour, Belarus remains the most closed country in Europe when it comes to visas. Except for former Soviet republics with mutual free travel policies, the citizens of only a dozen countries in Latin America and Asia can enter Belarus visa-free, and even then only for 30 or 90 days per year. Russia has a very similar visa regime, but it offers visa-free entrance to a slightly higher number of countries.
In March 2016 Deputy Minister of Sport and Tourism Michail Partnoj, speaking at a seminar on inbound tourism, made a resolute statement: “We need to open up Belarus… We will break down bureaucratic obstacles by the law and authority endowed upon us. Tourism will develop in Belarus.”
The Ministry of Sports and Tourism remains the main advocate of simplification of entrance to Belarus. This is no wonder, since the success of the tourist industry directly depends on the number of tourists entering the country, and visa barriers remain a major obstacle to visiting Belarus.
To give an example, official statistics report that in 2015 Belarus hosted 300,000 organised tourists (the actual figures seem to be smaller), while Lithuania's capital Vilnius, not the most popular destination in Europe by any stretch of the imagination, hosted around one million visitors. What's more, out of these 300,000 tourists the majority came from Russia, which has an open border with Belarus.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has long been reluctant to advocate visa-free travel, as consular fees bring a good deal of income to the ministry. Currently, a person who wants to obtain a Belarusian visa has to pay €60-150 depending on the type of visa. In recent years, however, the ministry has changed its position and supports easing the visa regime.
Belarus security agencies remain the main opponents of a mass inflow of tourists, as they would need to considerably change the way they work. The Border Committee claims the border infrastructure is not capable of handling a larger numbers of visitors, while police will have to cope with much more work registering foreigners and maintaining order in the streets and on roads.
What comes next?
People both inside and outside Belarus have criticised the government for dragging its feet about the visa issue. Many contrast Belarus with Ukraine, which made entrance for all Schengen zone citizens visa-free some 10 years ago.
However, Belarusian authorities are notorious for extreme caution and incrementalism – they never make radical moves when it comes to politically sensitive issues. Therefore, the country opening up all at once seems like a highly unlikely scenario. Moreover, Belarusian authorities are also known for reversing policies if the political environment changes, which happened with local border traffic in 2010.
Nevertheless, these new initiatives indicate an understanding within the government that tourism can become a profit-making industry in times of crisis when traditional industries such as machine building are experiencing stagnation.
Easing the visa-regime will benefit tourism-related businesses, improve Belarus' image in the world, facilitate person-to-person contacts and encourage the integration of Belarus into the European context.
Potential travellers and business owners can only hope that the new visa experiments will lead to a comprehensive simplification of the visa regime shortly after.