Minsk struggling to reassure its neighbours about the West-2017 military exercises
At a press briefing on 29 August, Aleh Belakoneu, Head of the Belarusian General Staff, promised that by 30 September all Russian troops participating in the West–2017 Belarusian-Russian military exercises would leave the territory of Belarus. He also emphasised that Minsk had chosen sites for the exercises which were as far as possible from the borders of neighbouring countries.
The Belarusian government is struggling to reassure its neighbours, who continue to express their concerns about the drills. Lukashenka himself has repeatedly visited Ukraine to persuade Kyiv of Belarus’s peaceful intentions. In contrast, the Kremlin craves an intimidating military show. Thus, Minsk and Moscow are jointly holding an exercise which both countries see in very different ways. It is unsurprising that their policy regarding West 2017 is vastly different.
Minsk wants a transparent exercise, Moscow prefers discretion
Nothing illustrates the different approaches of Minsk and Moscow to the exercises better than the issue of foreign observers. Belarus and Russia invited observers to the West-2017 separately, and both are offering them different observation programmes. While Minsk invited observers to the forthcoming exercise for five days, Russia invited them for only one. The week-long exercise will last from 14 to 20 September.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka invited NATO observers as early as 20 March, after neighbouring states voiced their concerns over the drills. On 13 July, Belarus issued formal invitations to Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Norway, Sweden, and Poland, as well as the UN, CIS, OSCE, CSTO, ICRC, and military attaches accredited in Minsk.
The Kremlin disregarded the issue of inviting foreign observers as long as possible, issuing invitations to military attaches accredited in Moscow on 15 August without much publicity.
The Kremlin-linked Russian media also took advantage of the drills to demonstrate its contempt for the concerns of other countries. On 8 August, the anniversary of the 2008 Russian–Georgian war, the Kremlin-associated media outlet Sputnik published a column on West-2017 which contained explicit threats. Its author, Aleksandr Khrolenko, a political commentator for the Russian government-affiliated Rossiya Segodnya, wrote:
‘Our partners’ [US] efforts are in vain [in bringing reinforcements to Lithuania before West-2017]. In 2008, Georgia also relied on the presence of the US military and NATO-standard weapons. This did not prevent Russia from successfully bringing peace to Georgia… Since that time, the Russian army … has only increased its capacities.’
Needless to say, the Belarusian government-affiliated media has published nothing of the kind.
A purely regional affair?
Moscow’s aspiration to put on an intimidating military display has triggered fierce reactions throughout the region. However, it is up to Minsk to deal with the fallout, which comes in the form of numerous statements by officials and the media of neighbouring countries.
Belarus’s neighbours reiterate that West-2017 could be larger than announced: Russian troops might remain in Belarus, and Moscow might even take advantage of the exercise to occupy Belarus and invade Ukraine. The Ukrainian and Lithuanian defence ministers, the Polish deputy defence minister, the Lithuanian president, a former Georgian president, the secretary of Ukraine’s National Security Council, and other prominent leaders are just a few examples of important political figures to express concerns.
However, outside Belarus’s immediate neighbourhood, few are worrying about the exercises. Speaking on 23 August to the Belarusian-language service of Radio Free Europe, Arkady Moshes of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs dismissed concerns over West-2017. He claimed that these worries were sparked by certain Belarusian commentators and remain mostly limited to speculation rather than evidence-based argument.
On 17 August, Deutsche Welle published a report on the drills, maintaining that they should indeed be cause for concern in the West. However, the only Western expert cited, Margarete Klein of the German think tank SWP, simply suggested waiting to see how the exercise turns out.
No money for big projects
Russia certainly wants to use the forthcoming drills to prove its military might. In all likelihood, however, the Kremlin harbours no plans to put its strength to use.
A research paper published in July by the Valdai Club, a Kremlin-affiliated expert community, illustrates this attitude. The paper stresses that ‘In fact, Belarus is a buffer zone between Russia and NATO.
Changing the existing status would absolutely not suit either Moscow’s or the West’s interests.’ The paper’s author, Prokhor Tebin, cites the deployment of Russian troops in Belarus on one hand, and NATO’s increasing pressure on Minsk on the other, to back up his argument.
The fact that Moscow backed down regarding building an airbase on Belarusian territory lends credence to the argument that Russia accepts the situation as it is. Indeed, on 30 March, the Russian ambassador to Minsk Aleksandr Surikov announced that the issue of the Russian military base ‘had never been there.’ He added that even a legal basis for such a facility was lacking.
The reasons behind this restraint are unsurprising: simply put, there is no money. The issue of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), designed to be a ‘post-Soviet NATO,‘ is a case in point. In May, the CSTO’s Deputy Secretary General, Valery Semerikov, officially admitted that Moscow had recently stopped providing supplies to its allies through CSTO channels because of financial troubles caused by Russia’s economic decline and international sanctions.
In sum, Belarus is doing its best to counterbalance the Kremlin’s provocative moves and assuage its neighbours. Thus, the Belarusian government has made the Belarusian part of the exercise as transparent as possible, despite Moscow’s wishes. Minsk is also de-escalating tension by holding the drills far from its borders and removing the traditional CSTO components.
So far, Minsk has been able to hold its ground. This is because the Belarusian government has one trump card when it comes to dealing with Moscow: Belarus’s key strategic location. This factor makes the country an irreplaceable ally for Russia.
Moreover, Belarus remains too close to Russian civilians for the Kremlin to be able to lash out – as it as it does usually in its relations with post-Soviet nations – without risking widespread indignation domestically. As Russia continues to struggle with economic decline and international isolation, its opportunities to put pressure on Belarus are slowly but surely dwindling.
Not all roads lead to Moscow: Belarusian arms industries between Russia and China
The government–affiliated Belarusian daily Zvyazda recently announced that 30 percent of military equipment types presented at the 3 July military parade in Minsk had been produced or modernised domestically. Meanwhile, Belarus exported $1bn worth of arms last year.
These achievements, impressive given that Belarus has only been an independent state for three decades, are the result of some uneasy partnerships. Belarusian defence firms interact closely with the Russian arms industry. For example, on 3 August, the media reported that a Belarusian aircraft repair plant had overhauled fighter jets for Indonesia – the order was secured via Russia. Earlier, the media also reported a similar deal with Angola.
Nevertheless, years of experience show that Russia’s support for Minsk in the defence industry is surprisingly limited and comes at a hefty price. Minsk has thus been prompted to look for alternatives by cooperating with China.
How a Belarusian company secured lucrative deals
On 3 August, the Indonesian media reported the arrival of two refurbished Su-27SK aircraft from ‘Russia.’ However, it was the Belarusian 558th Aircraft Repair Plant (ARP), located in the city of Baranavichy in Belarus, which had really overhauled them. The same firm in Baranavichy is now overhauling two Indonesian Su–30MK aircraft, the orders for which it also received from Russia.
On 21 July, the Moscow-based daily Kommersant reported a similar sale of Russian arms to a third country involving Belarus. Reportedly, Moscow negotiated the sale of six second-hand Su-30K fighter jets with Angola; for years the weapons had remained in storage in Baranavichy. In 2013, Moscow had closed another deal with the African country on 12 such jets, also stored in Baranavichy.
These jets are set to be overhauled and modernised at the 558th ARP. Belarus’s role in the deal with Angola goes further than repairs: Kommersant reports that a source in the Russian aviation industry had earlier reported that ‘Russian and Belarusian specialists are looking for customers to sell the six Su-30 fighter jets stored in Belarus’; this was also confirmed for Kommersant by the director of the 558th ARP.
A closer look, however, reveals that Russia’s role in procuring deals for Baranavichy may not be so benevolent: in exchange, Moscow may expect to wrest control over this key Belarusian company. As early as 2014, the United Aircraft Corporation, a company owned mostly by the Russian government, signalled its interest in acquiring a share in the 558th ARP and integrating it into its business. In addition to new prospects for development, the Belarusian plant was promised orders for repairing Russian Yak–130 training jets and overhauling fighter jets for Indonesia. Thus, it is possible that the Indonesia-Baranavichy deal is an advance payment for the shares.
Moscow has many reasons to covet the Baranavichy air repair plant. The 558th ARP, alongside the company Aerosistema, is the leading Belarusian producer of electronic warfare systems. Both companies sell their products successfully. For example, the 558th ARP has installed its electronic warfare systems on numerous Kazakhstani Su-27 heavy fighter jets and Su-25 close air support aircraft, which the plant started modernising in the late 2000s. Reuben Johnson of the magazine IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly commented that the Belarusian electronic warfare systems displayed at the MILEX 2017 exhibition in Minsk ‘indicate that Russia’s dominance in this sector is declining.’
For this reason, it is in Minsk’s bests interests not to lose valuable assets by cooperating too closely with Moscow. Belarus has experience keeping Russia at arm’s length: it has so far rebuffed the Kremlin’s efforts to take over another Belarusian defence company, MZKT, which produces special vehicles for strategic missile forces.
The Kremlin realises Minsk’s emerging alternatives
Minsk thus cannot put too much trust in Moscow in the defence industry. It understands the risks of losing key national industrial assets, and also remembers failed joint projects. On 20 May, chairman of the Belarusian State military industrial committee Siarhei Hurulyou conceded that a Belarusian-Russian project to design a short-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) system had stalled. ‘As it was [solely] on paper, alas, so it has remained on paper,’ said Hurulyou. It is worth remembering that in 2015, Belarusian Deputy Defence Minister Ihar Latsyankou maintained that this joint project was already underway.
It is thus unsurprising that Belarus has chosen to develop a medium-range SAM system without Russian involvement. According to Belarusian officials, the design of the new system is ready: only the missile is lacking. The mock-up of the new system will be ready by the end of 2017.
Most likely, China has been helping Belarus with the missile for that SAM system, just as it helped Belarus design rockets and probably even missiles in recent years. Minsk even reportedly concluded an agreement with Beijing in the early 2010s on the development of a SAM system of unspecified type.
Russia must thus keep in mind that if it fails to offer Minsk appropriate terms, Beijing can deliver. This gives context to the decision of the Belarusian National Academy of Sciences and the Russian state corporation Roskosmos to sign on 30 June a memorandum on joint design and launch of a satellite for remote sensing of Earth. That naturally involves sensitive technologies of military importance.
Perhaps the Kremlin has learned a lesson from history. In December 2012, Belarus and Russia signed an agreement on cooperation in research and peaceful use of outer space. Once again, however, effusive declarations masked the sad reality of Russia’s reluctance to strengthen its only European ally. The first Belarusian telecommunications satellite was launched not from Russia but from China in January 2016.
The Belarusian leadership is eager to demonstrate its collaboration with China in arms manufacture. In a meeting on 1 August with Xiao Yaqing, head of the State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission under China’s State Council, Belarusian president Lukashenka praised Belarusian–Chinese cooperation, stating: ‘You had vowed to support our defence capabilities and the security of our state – you did it.’ Lukashenka went on to invite Chinese defence firms to the Belarus–Chinese industrial park Great Stone.
In May, the Belarusian government decided to use $192m worth of Chinese loans to finance a project for production of a new product which would both compete with the Russian tractor plant in Saint Petersburg and have military applications. However, the Belarusian government is downplaying these aspects.
Before May, Minsk had not even revealed that Amkodor, a major private Belarusian firm, was going further than designing tractors to compete with the Belarusian tractor firm MTZ: the company was producing a whole new vehicle. At the Belagro Exhibition in June, Amkodor presented the Amkodor–5300, which has movable front and rear frame parts and is more powerful than MTZ types. These features make this kind of vehicles essential both for servicing military airfields and providing platforms to transport heavy artillery and missile systems.
The Belarusian defence industry has found itself a unique niche by balancing traditional Russian domination with China. This looks like a smart move. Russia’s reaction would have been much stronger if Belarus were working with the West. What’s more, in Minsk’s view, China possesses enough technology and money to be a good alternative to Russia in the defence sphere. More importantly, as a result of such deals, Belarus will continue to consolidate its statehood.