Does Belarus have its own missile programme?
On 26 September Belarusian defence minister Andrei Raukou met with Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev. Given the current security concerns of Baku, it's possible that Belarus may have rushed to offer it some means to help neutralise the Iskander missiles recently acquired by Azerbaijan's nemesis, Armenia.
Can Azerbaijan get systems from Belarus similar to those acquired from Russia by Armenia? Most recently, in August, the Russian media reiterated previously voiced suspicions of Belarus' collaboration with Ukrainian firms to produce its own tactical ballistic missile system, a counterpart to Iskander.
Minsk has little money to advance such a missile project alone. So it's plausible that Minsk rushed to not only help Baku but also to gain assistance from Baku in funding the new weapons. As of now, Belarus has succeeded in establishing several partnerships with various countries to design and produce sophisticated equipment which increase its autonomy in military terms.
Too many coincidences
Facing problems with procuring equipment from Russia, Minsk has already been struggling for some years to find other options. Minsk has succeeded in expanding the array of military equipment it produces by having partnered with other countries: initially Ukraine and China.
Thus, this autumn the Ukrainian Pavlohrad Chemical Plant is planning to test its new product, Hrim-2, a tactical ballistic missile system. An undisclosed foreign customer financed its development. Russian experts, such as Alexander Khramchikhin and chief editor of the Eksport vooruzhenii review Andrei Frolov, name Belarus alongside countries such as Saudi Arabia or Pakistan as possible sources of funding. They emphasise, however, that Minsk is not the prime candidate for this role.
Yet they neglect some facts in their analysis. First of all, the timing of the development of the Hrim system and the actions and statements of Belarusian officials. Ukrainian designers revealed that the funding for Hrim came from abroad just over two years ago, around the second half of 2014.
Prior to that, in April 2014 Belarusian president Lukashenka announced that Belarus would cooperate with Ukraine to design new weapons. Other official statements followed in the same vein: by September 2014 the task had been defined as designing and manufacturing firepower means, never previously produced by Belarus. Minsk sent delegations to centres of the Ukrainian defence industry, as well as to the Dnipropetrovs'k region, the location of the enterprises designing Hrim.
Ukraine inherited the Soviet rocket and missile development and production centre. So, the Belarusian leadership apparently hoped for quick results from their cooperation with Ukraine.
In February 2015 Chairman of the Belarusian State Military Industrial Committee, Siarhei Hurulyou, announced that a new system would be demonstrated at the 9 May military parade which would provide the Belarusian army with additional firepower. Many media outlets, such as Russian Svobodnaya Pressa, had few doubts that Minsk would demonstrate an analogue of the Russian Iskander, a tactical ballistic missile.
The analysts referred to more or less explicit statements made by Lukashenka – beginning with his 2008 interview for the Wall Street Journal, in which he announced his intent to design and produce his “own Iskanders.” But then they had to review their analyses due to the 2015 Victory Day Parade in Minsk in which the nation revealed a new system – although of a less ambitious kind – Palanez, a multiple-launch rocket system (MLRS).
Interestingly, the Ukrainian firms designing Hrim complained that the Ukrainian national space agency interfered with their design and did not allow it to be completed more rapidly. In any case, this was another coincidence between the problems of Ukrainian designers and the failure of Minsk to unveil the system it had hinted at.
At the time analysts accepted the Palanez as the weapons promised by the Belarusian leadership and stopped discussing Minsk's plans of developing a ballistic missile. This was the case until this summer, when the theme of possible Belarusian cooperation with Ukraine on developing a tactical ballistic missile resurfaced after an anonymous foreign customer supported the Ukrainian project.
Belarus can afford it
The analysts who doubt that Belarus could be involved in the Hrim project emphasise that Minsk barely has enough money to put forward for such a project. The Belarusian government has always spent little on military hardware. Now its already meagre military budget has even less money remaining after Minsk financed the Palanez MLRS, purchased aircraft and helicopters and modernised older equipment in its air force and air defence.
However, Minsk could have contributed something other than money to the Ukrainian Hrim project. First of all the chassis of the Minsk Wheeled Tractors Plant (MZKT) on which many Soviet- and Russian-produced missile systems were installed. Military expert Andrei Frolov in his commentaries for Russian media also pointed out that pictures of Hrim seem to show MZKT chassis.
The future Hrim could be not only driven on Belarusian chassis but it could also get its guidance system from Belarus. Belarusian firms are known to produce significant components of guidance systems for the Russian Iskander tactical ballistic missile systems.
Last but not least, if Belarus did indeed finance the Ukrainian project, it could have done so in partnership. Minsk frequently proposes undertaking joint projects with other governments in third countries. Belarusian officials reiterated such proposals to Saudi Arabia in recent years, yet Minsk had already tried to obtain Saudi financing for Belarusian projects in Sudan as early as the beginning of the 2000s.
Belarus also launched intensive cooperation of a mostly undisclosed nature with Pakistan in 2014. Moreover, since the very beginning of this cooperation Minsk has been working with Pakistani defence officials, including the minister in charge of defence industry, Rana Tanveer Hossein. Interestingly, on 26 September, after meeting with the Belarusian defence minister, Azerbaijani leader Aliyev received Hossein as well. This detail sets the Baku news in an even more striking context.
Belarus-Ukrainian cooperating along proven lines?
While some experts, such as the Russian defence blog BMPD, have insisted that Saudi Arabia is financing Hrim, details known about the deal cast doubt on this. First of all, according to the conditions of the August deal with an unrevealed foreign customer, the Ukrainians will retain the intellectual property rights for the system. That is not Saudi-style business. In a similar deal with the Ukrainian aircraft design and manufacturing firm Antonov, Saudi Arabia financed the designing of the An-132 aircraft on the condition that all intellectual rights for the plane remained with Saudi Arabia.
The August deal more closely resembles the conditions on which Minsk has previously dealt with Kyiv. When cooperating with Ukraine on anti-tank weapons for example, Belarusian firms shared the intellectual property rights for the systems.
Moreover, Belarus has in recent years negotiated with the Ukrainian Motor Sich corporation to launch the production of the Ukrainian R95-300 turbofan engine at a Motor Sich-owned factory in the Belarusian city of Orsha. This engine is used in cruise missiles. Minsk reportedly wishes to design its own cruise missile named Aist. This seems strange because Belarus has no platforms to launch this type of missile.
Everything becomes clear however if it is assumed that the development of Aist is linked to the Hrim project. Ukrainian designers have stated that the Hrim system would be capable of launching both tactical ballistic missiles and cruise missiles. That would be a feature which puts the Ukrainian-designed Hrim on a par with Russian Iskander.
In sum, there are multiple indications that Minsk is working on strengthening its tactical missile capacities. The Belarusian government is pursuing the aim of achieving at least relative autonomy in this field. However, a country as small as Belarus can do this only by teaming up with other nations.
Parliamentary elections, refugee crisis, oil price dispute – Western press digest
This month, the attention of the international media on Belarus largely focused on whether there would be any credible improvements in Belarusian electoral policy during the parliamentary elections.
Despite scepticism regarding how long the thaw between Belarus and the West could really last, Belarusian economic relations with Russia have been strained and confrontational. Meanwhile, the Belarusian nuclear power plant under construction in Astraviec has become a concern not merely to the Lithuanian government but also to the European Commission.
Belarus has appeared in the news this month in the escalating conflict in Syria, the growing migration crisis, and the Paralympic games in Rio de Janeiro. Its unwillingness to gradually adjust to liberal and market economy rhythms, and thereby obtain much-expected loans and credits from foreign investors, has also captured the attention of the international media.
Scepticism towards Belarusian parliamentary elections. Aljazeera and Reuters questioned whether the recent parliamentary elections in Belarus were really fair and free. The election results yet again confirmed that the slight improvements in the election process and campaigns and the ‘appointment’ of two representatives of the political opposition in parliament are nothing but a gesture from the ruling regime signalling its willingness to proceed with the motions of nominally improving cooperation with the West. This cooperation, having little if any effect on the Belarusian political landscape, is therefore of a pragmatic and interest-based nature.
‘Invisible' Belarusian soft power in the Syria humanitarian crisis. The Syrian Arab News Agency reports that 23 tonnes of humanitarian aid were delivered to Aleppo from Belarus. For very good reasons, Belarusian assistance in coping with crises in regions of escalated armed conflicts should be met with appreciation. However, Belarusian generosity seems to have been overshadowed by Russia's military role in the conflict for the international community.
Belarus’s solidarity with Russia at the Paralympic Games in Rio. The Guardian grasps the ambiguous nature of the Belarusian paralympic team's decision to express solidarity with the disqualified Russian team in the 2016 Paralympic Games.
Many actors, including the International Paralympic Committee, considered the gesture nothing but a way to reiterate the undeviating political loyalty of Belarus towards Russia. However, the Belarusian paralympic team renounced any political motives, asserting that their sole motivation was to protest the unjustified restriction against Russian athletes.
Economy and business
Strengthening the outlook of Belarus as a stable and gradually reforming state promises to attract more foreign investments. Global Risk Insights discusses three reasons why Belarus should still be deemed a trustworthy country for foreign investment.
These include: a moderate level of corruption, a promising landscape for starting a business, and a low risk of destabilising socio-political conditions due to possible external or internal turbulence. What still gives rise to concern is the dependence of core large industrial enterprises on government subsidies and the sensitivity of the Belarusian economy to external economies.
Consistent adherence to IMF recommendations will ensure the growth of the Belarusian economy up to 4.5 percent during the 2020-2021 period. Reuters reports on the major conclusions of the IMF’s recent assessment of Belarusian economic development. The IMF recommends that before obtaining a $3 billion loan, Belarusian banks should reduce the number of loans they give to loss-making industries and the government should cut down on subsidies for heavy industry. The IMF assures that steady implementation of market-based reforms will allow the economy to grow more than 2 percent in 2017 succeeded by further gradual growth.
Will another dispute on oil prices hamper Belarus-Russian integration cooperation? The lasting oil price dispute between Belarus and Russia becomes even tenser as Russia decreased its oil supply to Belarus by 22 percent for the third and fourth quarter of the year, reports UAWire. This move follows Russia's refusal to agree on the price proposed by Belarus and is intended to ensure Belarus repays its gas debt to Russia. This has forced Alexander Lukashenka to warn the Kremlin about the potential "optimisation" of Belarus’s participation in integration projects.
Moving closer to a Belarus-China economic partnership? The Xinhua News Agency reports on the readiness of the Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka, to guarantee more favourable conditions for Chinese companies as they proceed in starting new businesses and investing in local enterprises. Shortly after, Belarus announced an official visit to China at the end of September 2016 to agree on certain investment and trade cooperation projects between the two countries.
Security and defence
Unseen refugee emergency on the Belarus-Polish border. Deutsche Welle draws attention to an escalating local emergency on the border between Poland and Belarus, where a growing number of refugees are trying to flee to the EU in an attempt to escape the atrocities and violence inflicted by the authorities in their home countries in Central Asia and the Caucasus.
So far, the Belarusian government has not come up with any clear plan to manage the growing flow or provide necessary aid for the refugees stuck in Brest. All the while, Poland continues to hold off considering asylum requests for people entering Poland from Brest, thereby violating international human rights law.
Reliance on the mission of the IAEA in the Astraviec nuclear power plant. The Baltic Times reports on the Lithuanian government's continued anxiety regarding Belarus's capacity to ensure the safe construction and further expansion of its nuclear power plant in Astraviec.
The Lithuanian government insisted that the European Commission give closer scrutiny to the construction process and demand that the Belarusian government provides the exact dates of stress tests. It also suggests that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) send a mission to the plant.
Katsiaryna is an intern at the Ostrogorski Centre. She holds MA in International Relations from Dublin City University and was a Research Fellow of a CAHR Protective Fellowship at the University of York over 2014-2015.