How many divisions does Lukashenka have?
On 18 February President Alexander Lukashenka offered to deploy a 10,000-strong Belarusian contingent as peacekeepers to eastern Ukraine. This represents a rather large commitment for the Belarusian army comprising in total 46,000 military personnel.
Minsk pays increasing attention to its military and has even raised its spending on armed forces by a fifth. But the Belarusian army still faces problems, which go beyond the acquisition of expensive weaponry. It also has fewer conscripts than it would like. Consequently it employs additional professional soldiers and relies ever more on reservists. In this way the army adjusts to the needs of the country.
Arms or soldiers? Minsk’s spending dilemma
This year Belarusian government spending on the national army amounted to $576m; about a fifth more than last year. This remains a small figure, as even its neighbours with considerably smaller armies manage to spend more (see Table 1). To be sure, one has to take into account that the Baltic states pay a lot for Western equipment, while Minsk still has Soviet stores and national defence industries producing some equipment at affordable prices.
As Belarus increased its army budget, initially it looked as if it had allocated more funds in order to purchase costly new fighter jets from Russia. With time it appears that the decision relates to more than equipment. First, the deal on aircraft, according to recent news, is not yet finalised. Second, the growth in spending may partly stem from personnel costs. In 2017 the government raised salaries of all military personnel three times, and wages of civil personnel – twice.
In addition, for several years the Belarusian armed forces have been increasing the share of professionals — so-called contracted soldiers. Defence minister Andreij Raukou, in an interview for BelTA news agency on 23 February, revealed that, whereas in 2014 professional servicemen and women made up 16 per cent of all soldiers and sergeants, this figure has now reached 20%. The remainder comprises conscripts and regularly called up reservists. While Belarusian government officials firmly insist that the army will never be entirely professional, the share of professional contracted soldiers grows.
Poorly qualified soldiers and sergeants
The figures hide the occasionally difficult reality concerning the quality of even professional Belarusian military personnel. After a conscript’s suicide at the 72nd Combined Training Centre because of hazing, the control bodies also re-examined all sergeants dealing with trainees at the centre. The results, as reported by Belorusskaya voennaya gazeta on 15 December, shock: about 30 % of sergeants failed to prove they held appropriate qualifications, leading to their dismissal from the facility.
The situation with ordinary soldiers is no better. In recent decades the Belarusian draft system involves conscription of less than a fifth of the whole age group. In the autumn 2017 draft campaign, more than seven-and-a-half thousand men have been called up for compulsory 18 or 12-month military service, and more than one-and-a-half thousand men for service as reservists.
In the news conference on 14 February minister Raukou lamented that about five per cent of conscripts from the latest draft had past criminal convictions. As recently as the early 2000s such people would not be admitted to the army. The minister added that almost two thirds of the conscripts had been detained by police for administrative offences, while the police had 12 per cent under constant observation because of recurrent offences.
No wonder that the army shifts its priorities away from conscripted recruits towards the hiring of professional soldiers, and also towards the deployment of more reservists. The latter mostly have better education than current recruits, and serve in the army for several shorter stints during two years (if they have a university degree) to gain some military qualification. Later on, they can be called up for refresher courses and participation in exercises.
The Belarusian army boasts success in training reservists. On 7 February the official Belarusian military daily, Belorusskaya voennaya gazeta, run a story about the 51st Guards’ Artillery Brigade in which reservists make up ninety per cent of its personnel. They deal with sophisticated systems like the multiple-launch missile system (MLRS) Uragan, the towed 152.4 mm howitzer Msta-B, or the 152 mm self-propelled gun Giatsint-S. Apparently they cope with the task; in 2015–2017 the brigade’s units were acknowledged as the best artillery divisions in the Belarusian army.
Belarus has enough officers
The situation with officers looks better. Speaking at an official event on 18 January, the defence minister, Raukou, said: “The staffing of the posts of officers for some years has been growing in a fairly stable way and has presently reached the highest level for the entire period of the Belarusian army’s existence.”
Most officers receive their education in Belarus. The head of military education department in the defence ministry, Ihar Slutski, told Belarusian military media on 20 December that 277 officers and 1,114 reserve officers graduated from Belarusian colleges in 2017.
Traditionally, a significant number of Belarusian officers train in Russia. Mostly they study there to gain rarer qualifications or because they have interest in higher levels of military education. Official sources provide only general data for this, according to which at present almost 440 Belarusians are being trained in 56 specialities in Russian military colleges. In other words, the ratio of Belarusian officers being educated inside Belarus today and in Russia last year equated to approximately three to one.
Readjustments and cuts
The Belarusian army transforms not only in terms of its equipment where it “selectively” rearms. As described above, the government also reforms military personnel and the general structure.
Most probably, Minsk will further, although not dramatically, reduce the size of its standing army. That follows not only from officials’ statements about problems with conscripts, but also from the evident lack of funds to properly maintain the existing army.
The defence ministry begins to get rid of unnecessary material assets which may indicate the intent to subsequently reduce the number of personnel. At a press conference on 14 February, Raukou announced plans to get rid of 25 per cent of the stored arms, equipment and other military material.
Belarus’s military pursues similar policies with regard to its civil personnel. On 21 December, the head of support services department in the defence ministry, Dzmitry Strashynski, told the official military media that in 2017 they reduced the civilian personnel providing security for military bases by 346 men thanks to the installation of electronic equipment.
Of course, Minsk will not simply cut its military. It also buys the equipment it needs and readjusts the structure of the national armed forces. A case in point provided by the establishment of a new air defence regiment in December. The new unit, located in the city of Baranavichy, operates the modern surface–to–air missile systems Tor–M2. That is, Minsk cares about its air defence capacities because of its commitments vis–a–vis Russia.
For its own needs, Minsk prioritises special operations forces and missile capabilities. Other parts of the military probably will be reduced.
Whatever problems the Belarusian army encounters in terms of equipment and personnel, the government looks for ways to solve them. Above all, by readjusting the army to make it suit Belarus’s own needs and opportunities. Although Minsk carefully takes into account some Russian sensitivities in the defence sphere, say, by maintaining massive air defence components in its armed forces, it sets limits. Otherwise, the Belarusian government decides for itself and pays for itself in respect of military issues. Doing so, it can develop a robust army without fomenting destabilisation in the region.
Belarus reviews defence policy after Russia disappoints
On 13 February, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka complained about Russia’s unwillingness to arm the Belarusian army. On 23 February, the ideological periodical of Belarusian government published an article by the defence minister, Andrei Raukou, who described how Belarus would defend itself without mentioning any Russian role in it.
According to him, Belarusian army focuses on learning the lessons of hybrid war in Syria. But the concept itself is much more linked to the war in Eastern Ukraine and the minister most probably kept silence about it just to not irritate the Kremlin.
Minsk, in recent years, has been rebuilding its army according to its own needs and opportunities while ignoring Moscow’s wishes. This conclusion follows from official statements and from the Belarusian army’s rearmament plans. As a result, the Belarusian armed forces increasingly resemble the army of a small European nation.
More military self–sufficiency
Speaking on 22 February at a ceremony marking Defenders of the Fatherland and Armed Forces Day, Lukashenka again repeated his criticism of increasing militarisation in Belarus’s neighbourhood and throughout the world. His statements on Belarusian preparations for defence and rearmament included some remarkable points.
First, probably for the first time, he suggested that Belarus should defend itself on its own. That is, he did not mention Russia in this context at all:
In the event of a military threat, we must be ready for the nationwide defence of Belarus. 70,000 men of our army cannot defend our state. … the land must be protected by the whole people. … In the event of a military conflict, we are able, within a short period of time, to arm half a million people and defend the most important facilities by the territorial defence forces. This is the essence of our defence doctrine.
This statement follows related developments in Belarusian government’s views of defence issues. Ironically, they involve militarisation as well. In March 2017 the government demanded that border security agencies increase their military [voiskovoi] components.
Meanwhile, on 7 December Belarusian parliament amended the Law on the Fight Against Terrorism, adding national armed forces to the list of agencies expected to fight against terrorism. Given the fact that neighbouring Ukraine designated a full-scale war in its eastern regions as an “anti–terrorist operation,” this probably means Minsk is taking further precautions against Donbas scenario.
Chinese friends and problems acquiring new fighter jets from the Kremlin
Secondly, on 22 February Lukashenka emphasised the Belarusian army’s receipt of new arms to respond to new challenges. He praised… not Russia, but China for its help in this sphere. Indeed, on 18 February, Belarusian state media reported that the national army received the second batch of CS/VN3 Dajiang armoured vehicles from China. The first five vehicles arrived back in June 2017 and were even deployed in the “West-2017″ drills.
Speaking in the Security Council on 13 February, Lukashenka criticised Russia for its reluctance to equip the Belarusian army as well as the armies of other Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) members. He said,
Russia itself is modernising its armed forces. We are trying, together with other members [of the CSTO], to somehow arm, modernise ourselves and so on. Everyone on its own … But the leadership of Russia today lacks a serious understanding that it is necessary to strengthen the national armed forces … [of] Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia and other countries – that, say, Belarus is the main outpost, including for Russia, in the western direction.
Minsk clearly expects more Russian help to develop and maintain the Belarusian army. Too often it suffers disappointment. In recent months, Belarusian officials – from the president to the to the defence minister and air force commander – either keep silent or sound remarkably uncertain about the most important arms deal between Minsk and Moscow of recent times, namely the purchase of new Su-30 fighter jets.
For instance, at a news conference on 14 February, defence minister Andrei Raukou announced that the delivery of Su–30 aircraft to Belarus may not start until 2019. Even more remarkably he completely omitted the Su–30 deal in his major interview to BelTA news agency on 23 February in which he described at length the equipment Belarus plans to purchase for its army.
About a year ago top Belarusian defence officials clearly insisted that the Belarusian army would receive twelve new Su–30s with delivery beginning in 2018. The official reason for the delay cites the Western embargo on the supply of some components for the aeroplanes to Russia, a result of Moscow’s meddling in eastern Ukraine. But it sounds odd given that Russia continues production of the same jets for other countries. Most probably, Minsk still needs to find a way to pay for the jets. After all, it earlier indicated its wish both to get maximum discount and to pay as much as possible with goods and not money.
Historical context casts a different light on the story around rearming the Belarusian army with Russian weapons. To put it plainly, today Minsk strives to acquire from Russia a dozen of Su–30 aircraft – not even a regiment. Belarus fought for about a decade and yet, apparently, the problems persist. These are definitely not the “good old days” of Belarus-Russian partnership when, as recently as the early 2000s, Minsk and Moscow even negotiated over assembly production of essentially the same aircraft, the Su–27, in Belarus.
An army fit for Belarusian needs
No wonder that, faced with Moscow’s reluctance to arm its Belarusian allies, Minsk simply rearranges its armed forces to suit its own needs and thinks ever less about the wishes of the Kremlin. Describing the process of rearmament in an interview to the BelTA news agency on 23 February, the defence minister, Raukou, called it “selective” and “pointed” [tochechnaya].
In particular, according to Raukou, Minsk will soon modernise its T-72 tanks in both Belarusian and Russian factories, as well as deploy more Belarusian–manufactured armoured vehicles V1 and Kaiman, and Belarusian-modernised BTR-70MB1. Among its planned acquisitions for 2018, the armed forces will obtain additional Yak-130 training and light-attack aircraft, TOR-M2 surface-to-air missile systems, radars, and drones.
That means the Belarusian army avoids any comprehensive rearming. It decommissions some equipment without like-for-like replacement if Belarus, as a small country, does not need it itself and Russia refuses to supply a replacement either.
President Lukashenka, speaking on occasion of the Defenders of the Fatherland and Armed Forces Day, praised new products of national industries being deployed by the state army. He specifically mentioned a new ballistic missile for the Palanez multiple-launch rocket system, a surface-to-air missile system and lightly armoured vehicles. And he altogether failed to mention the new aircraft to be bought from Russia.
To sum up, on the one hand, Belarus fulfils its dues as Russia’s ally and participates in the air defence of the core Russian regions as much as it can. Hence so much attention to surface–to–air missiles, radars and similar equipment.
On the other hand, in other spheres, Minsk prefers to care for its own minimal needs if Russia is not willing to arm its ally. Hence attention to less sophisticated types of armoured vehicles, drones and aircraft. They suffice for Belarus’s security needs however inadequate they seem from the Russian perspective, which believes that “bigger is better” and focuses on global confrontation with the West. In the longer-term perspective, that means Minsk is going its own way and deciding that “small is beautiful.”