First Belarusian Rockets, Modern Aircraft Instead of Russian Airbase – Belarus Security Digest
On Friday, Aleksandr Lukashenka approved a five-year plan for the deployment of a joint Belarus-Russian military group, which will be adopted at a forthcoming meeting with the Russian President.
Just before this news became public, Delfi.it reported that US General Ben Hodges had lamented that a joint operation of Belarusian and Russian troops stationed in Kaliningrad might easily cut off NATO's Baltic members from the rest of the alliance.
Yet the newest developments in the security sphere illustrate that such a situation looks extremely improbable.
Aircraft Instead of a Russian Airbase?
Just before the presidential elections in October Alyaksandr Lukashenka announced that he knew of no plans to establish a Russian airbase in Belarus. He later talked about it with President Putin in Kazakhstan. The results of their conversation became clear only indirectly, from ensuing events. Lukashenka apparently prevailed.
That is, Minsk returned to its initial position: it needs only new Russian aircraft to defend the Belarusian part of the joint defence perimeter, not Russian bases on Belarusian soil. On 20 October the Commander of the Air Defence and Air Force of Belarus Major General Aleh Dvihalyou announced that Belarus is considering the possible acquisition of Russian Su-30SM fighter jets after 2020 to replace existing MiG-29s.
On 23 October Defence Minister Raukou said that consultations on a prospective Russian base had been completed emphasising that he did not see any use for a Russian airbase in Belarus. In response to possible new NATO bases in neighbouring countries, he proposed that rather than establish a new Russian airbase, Belarus should acquire the means to eliminate these facilities. The implication of his statement was the need to acquire rocket and missile systems (like Palanez) which Belarus is developing now.
On 31 October, Lukashenka himself commented on the prospective Russian airbase that “neither we nor Russia need.” He explained that in peacetime existing joint air defence forces should suffice and referred to Belarusian MiG-29s and Russian Su-27P fighter jets deployed in Baranavichy. The latter stay in Belarus on a temporary basis, and are a defensive type of Su-27 which can only interdict air targets.
Fighting Infiltration and Insurgency
Talking about priorities in the development of armed forces, on 31 October, Lukashenka said that the government should focus on special operation forces, rapid response forces, intelligence and control systems.
The army does exactly that. For instance, on 5-6 October, a joint Belarus-Russian company level tactical exercise took place at an exercise site in Vitsebsk Province. The paratrooper companies from the two countries drilled in a mock fight with illegal armed formation which crossed into Belarus from abroad. In the last week of October, 339th Mechanised Battalion hold tactical exercise of fighting intelligence-gathering and diversionary groups and illegal armed formations, also in urban areas.
New equipment also shows that Minsk focuses on fighting armed groups like those which opposed Ukrainian army in Donbas. During recent Lukashenka's visit to 120th Mechanised Brigade, he inspected equipment and arms, and some of them prove that Belarus pays close attention to the current conflicts, especially in Eastern Ukraine.
Thus, the Brigade demonstrated type of side-screen protecting tanks T-72, infantry fighting vehicle BMP-2 and APC BTR-80 against high-explosive anti-tank warheads. Even more remarkable was a decision to install a 23-mm anti-aircraft twin-barreled autocannon ZU-23-2 on Ural truck. This combination gives a mobile source of firepower widely used in local wars. All these measures means that Minsk is preparing for quite a low-technology local conflict like the one in Donbas.
Minsk Checking the Weapons It Has
On 12 November official Belorusskaya Voennaya Gazeta reported that some time ago a decision on checking the entire equipment of the Belarusian armed forces had been taken. It failed to specify who, when and why it was taken. Most probably President Lukashenka ordered the check last year after he saw the disastrous consequences of neglecting military equipment in neighbouring Ukraine. This lack of equipment contributed to Kyiv losing control of Eastern Ukraine.
Belorusskaya Voennaya Gazeta quoted the head of the Mechanised Armour Directorate of the Defence Ministry Colonel Aleh Famin as saying that all mechanised armour had been checked and found in good working order. He added, that earlier the army undertook a complete check-up of its military hardware every five or ten years, but now the leadership decided to do it more frequently.
On 19 October the Russian TASS news agency quoted its source in the Russian defence industry as saying that according to the contract signed in September, Belarus would get 32 armoured personnel carrier BTR-82As. Later on, Belarus' Defence Minister Andrei Raukou said that his ministry was now applying for funds to pay for the new equipment.
He said that the Belarusian army would nonetheless modernise the equipment it had and added that one new BTR-82A costs $900,000 while the overhaul and modernisation of an armoured personnel carrier (APC) already possessed by Belarusian army costs about $300,000.
It sounded ambiguous: did he mean that the modernisation of an old APC was not worth doing, or vice versa? In addition, buying such a small quantity of equipment did not satisfy the needs of the army, although it could help strengthen special operations forces who are currently considered a priority.
Yet on 30 October, President Lukashenka criticised buying bullet-proof vests, drones and armoured vehicles abroad. “I raise a simple question: why do we need that? Do not we have these items? Modernise what we have.” He emphasised that Belarus produced some of this equipment, and though its quality might be not on a par with world renowned brands, national industry and the army should work on improving domestic equipment.
The Defence Ministry reacted rapidly. On 12 November the head of the Mechanised Armour Directorate, Famin reported that indeed the Ministry had studied the proposals for the modernisation of the BTR-70 submitted by the State Military Industrial Committee. Belarus has hundreds of these older APCs.
A Top Chinese Military Official Comes to Minsk
On 10-12 October a high-level Chinese delegation led by Admiral Sun Jianguo, deputy chief of the general staff of China's Army, visited Belarus. Although Sun Jianguo is a key figure in the Chinese military hierarchy, Minsk provided zero information about the visit.
Xinhua news agency quoted Chinese admiral as saying,
“China and Belarus have reached a consensus on a series of issues concerning the China-Belarus comprehensive strategic partnership development […] China is willing to work with Belarus to deepen pragmatic cooperation in various fields.”
The following news may indicate what issues have been discussed. After the visit, on 4 November, the Belarusian government announced success in the launching of production line rockets for the Palanez multiple-launch rocket systems in the Dzyarzhynsk District.
The Palanez systems designed and built with Chinese assistance had been first demonstrated in May, yet Belarus first used Chinese-made rockets for them. Military expert Alyaksandr Alesin argued that China may have invested in the Dzyarzhynsk factory. Beijing is interested in promoting its own military exports and Belarus can be a showcase to advance Chinese products in the post-Soviet world.
Belarus – US Relations: Lukashenka No Longer Viewed as a Russian Puppet
Following “peaceful” elections in Belarus, the United States sent two medium-level diplomats to Minsk on 4-5 November. Bridget Brink and Robert Berschinski came to reiterate America’s willingness to uphold the “virtuous cycle” in bilateral relations when one's positive steps are responded to in kind.
Continuing this trend, the two countries may agree on expanding their embassies’ staff and increasing US economic assistance in exchange for some symbolic liberalisation steps by the Belarusian authorities. However, a major breakthrough is nowhere to be seen.
The Ukraine Crisis Jump-starts a Thaw in Relations
The US and Belarus communicated at a working level even during the most difficult times of their bilateral relationship. However, after the brutal crackdown on the opposition in the aftermath of the 2010 presidential elections, the contacts were reduced to once-a-year visits by minor State Department officials.
Minsk's position on Ukraine helps dialogue with the US Read more
Things began to change in mid-2014. Minsk then asserted its displeasure with Moscow's new 'Russian world' policy, crafting a carefully expressed solidarity with Ukraine. Washington responded by an increased frequency of contacts. Nevertheless, the intensity of the dialogue with America remained far inferior to the one Belarus began to maintain with Europe.
Among the frequent bilateral consultations, one stood out. An interagency US team, which included officials from the State Department, the Agency for International Development and the Department of Defence, visited Minsk on 8-10 September 2014.
During this meeting Belarus and the United States reviewed the potential for cooperation if and when bilateral relations begin to normalise. A US official even described the visit as a "restoration of bilateral relations".
The next decisive event for US–Belarus ties happened on 27 February 2015. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka received Eric Rubin, a meduim-ranking US diplomat. Lukashenka may have desired to keep up to date on the ongoing negotiations. This may explain the baffling disregard for protocol.
Two other important US appearances in Belarus took place on the eve of the presidential elections. On 2–4 August, a three-person US congressional delegation led by Dana Rohrabacher, the chairman of the subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and emerging threats met with Alexander Lukashenka and the heads of several government agencies. On 11 September, Under Secretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy became the highest-ranking State Department official to visit Belarus during Lukashenka’s era.
Release of Political Prisoners Provides Major Impetus
The Under Secretary of State’s visit became possible only after Lukashenka pardoned all remaining political prisoners in Belarus on 22 August. Patrick Kennedy, whose primary sphere of responsibility includes human resources, budget and foreign missions, came to Minsk to discuss the modalities of the gradual resumption of the US embassy in Minsk's normal functions.
As the two countries agreed in their bilateral step-by-step understanding, the United States waited until after the 11 October presidential elections to respond to Belarus’ releasing of political prisoners. While, according to the State Department, “the elections fell significantly short of Belarus’ international obligations and commitments for free and fair elections”, the Belarusian regime managed to abstain from a violent backlash against rare street protesters.
The US: "Suspension of sanctions is focused on supporting the Belarusian economy" Read more
On 29 October, the US suspended sanctions on nine Belarusian companies for six months. Announcing this decision at a meeting with leaders of the Belarusian opposition, a US embassy official Monica Bland pointed out that the sanctions reprieve failed to include Belarusian officials.
Indeed, sixteen Belarusians have remained on the US assets freeze list. The United States refused to go as far as their European partners did, even if they insisted that they coordinated their decisions on sanctions.
In her media statement made a week later, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Bridget Brink stressed that the suspension of sanctions was “limited, and future-oriented, and focused on supporting the Belarusian economy”. Indeed, all companies concerned are petrochemical enterprises. They represent the backbone of Belarusian industry and are a steady source of hard-currency revenue for the Belarusian economy.
“Complex Issues” Discussed, Not Cushioned
Bridget Brink and her colleague, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Robert Berschinski, visited Minsk on 4–5 November. There, they met with Belarusian officials as well as members of the opposition, civil society, human rights activists, and the business community.
Unlike Brink’s predecessor Eriс Rubin, the diplomats failed to get the privilege of a personal audience with Alexander Lukashenka. However, Bridget Brink and Robert Berschinski discussed “complex issues and ways to address them” at a meeting with foreign minister Vladimir Makei.
At their meeting with leaders of all opposition parties and movements, the US diplomats confined themselves to short introductory statements and preferred to listen to opposition activists rather than divulge information about their plans towards the Belarusian regime.
The US no longer regards Lukashenka as a Russian puppet Read more
Some participants in the meeting noted ongoing changes in the US approach towards the Belarusian authorities. They described the American diplomats’ mood as “cautiously optimistic” about future positive developments. At the same time, the US officials reassured the opposition that the United States had no intention in reducing their contacts with civil society despite the authorities’ attitude towards such contacts.
A participant in the meeting told Belarus Digest that the United States no longer regarded Lukashenka as a Russian puppet but rather as a leader who is heavily dependent on Moscow but makes his own decisions.
In order to contain Russia’s growing assertiveness in the region and beyond, the United States is willing to exploit Lukashenka’s aversion to the “Russian world” doctrine. To do so, it may help him reduce the economic dependence on Russia by assisting with securing an IMF loan and facilitating trade and investments.
As payback, Belarus offers its self-appointed role as a "donor of stability" in the region. The regime proposes cooperation on a wide range of issues affecting global and regional security, including the non-proliferation of WMDs, export controls and disarmament.
For the moment, the United States appears to be unwilling to satisfy itself with this offer. If Belarus seeks further improvement of its relations with the world’s superpower, a gradual political liberalisation should be in order.