Moscow-Minsk Military Axis
On 16 October, the High Command of the Belarusian military conducted a detailed analysis of West-2013 exercise, which played out in Belarus in late September. The event became the largest show of force by the Union State of Russia and Belarus in four years.
Second in scope only to the controversial West-2009 exercise, West-2013 has become another milestone in the Russia-driven military integration in the post-Soviet space. Whether the exercise helped the Belarusian leader to strike non-military bargains with Kremlin remains to be seen.
Russian-Belarusian Integration: Guns for Butter
Pro-regime commentators in Belarus often compare the Union State of Belarus and Russia with the European Union. While regular economic “wars” and top-level spats make the comparison hollow, in one area the Union project has probably achieved more success than its European counterpart. The area is military integration.
The roots of the close cooperation between the two militaries lie in the wake of the dissolution of the USSR. The collapse of the Soviet Union did not affect the military ties between the two countries as much as their economic and political trajectories. In the early 1990s, the transitional Communist-dominated government ensured the conservation of the Belarusian military-industrial complex, which was created to serve the needs of the Soviet military.
After the 1994 presidential elections, Alexander Lukashenka reinforced this trend. On the one hand, he turned the conservative Belarusian military, which was nostalgic of the Soviet military might, into his loyal base during the power struggle of the mid-1990s. On the other, his policy of generous military allowances made servicemen and military retirees Lukashenka’s core constituency.
Moscow-Minsk Military Axis: 1990s to 2000s
Empty political declarations and still-born agreements of the 1990s aside, effective cooperation between the two militaries originated from within the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).
The year 1998 saw the launching of yearly air defence exercises of CIS member-states' Combat Community. The exercises enabled Moscow to maintain control over the air defence capabilities of the former Soviet republics, particularly its Central Asia states. However, by 2013 the Combat Community was reduced to little more than pre-sales testing of advanced Russian air defence technology.
The early 2000s marked a time of maturation for the Belarusian military. Three major military exercises took place within a three-year period – a defensive Nioman-2001, a counter-offensive Biarezina-2002 and a comprehensive air force and air defence exercise “Clear Sky-2003”. The latter became the first instance of major Russian military involvement in Belarus.
On 13 October 2003, in a statement summarising the outcome of Clear Sky-2003, President Lukashenka claimed that the exercise reflected the lessons learned from the NATO campaigns in Yugoslavia and Iraq and aimed to counter an identical scenario in Belarus.
The first truly joint military exercise Union Shield-2006 took place three years later. The pivotal points of this staff-centred exercise were air defence and the coordination of the newly created Joint Military Force, which comprised the military forces of Belarus and the Russian 20th Army.
West-2009: a Milestone
In 2009, the militaries of Russia and Belarus conducted their first full-scale joint field exercise West-2009, which became the largest field exercise in the region since the dissolution of the USSR. It came as a surprise to Belarus' Western neighbours and caused significant angst in the Baltic republic and Poland.
West-2009 lasted for two weeks and played out across several locations, including the Kaliningrad enclave and Belarus. The exercise imitated a full-blown military conflict, involving strategic bombing, airborne and seaborne landings and a tank attack spread over a large front. The scenario of West-2009 leaves no doubt that the exercise had a distinct offensive character.
The following major Union State military exercise Union Shield-2011 received little attention in the West, largely due to the fact that it was conducted far from the borders of the EU. Thus, Poland and the Baltic states saw the return of a large joint Russian-Belarusian military force to their borders in 2013 as a repetition of the 2009 scenario.
West-2013: Who Benefits
However, the similarities between the two West exercises are only superficial. While comparable in scope and the number of military personnel involved, the exercises differed significantly in the composition of their forces and set objectives. The official exercise plan of West-2013 foresaw the neutralising of a group of terrorists invading the Union State.
Most military analysts rightly qualified the choice of Belarus and Kaliningrad region for a large-scale anti-terrorist operation as misguided. However, the absence of ground operations over a large front or a serious air component de facto limited the exercise to a number of intense tactical operations completed by elite task forces.
This exercise did not display any clear defensive or offensive characteristics. Rather, it was reminiscent of a coordinated anti-insurgency mission. The skills trained during such an exercise would prove useful in a conflict similar to the current situation in Syria or in a potential political breakdown scenario in a Central Asian republic.
Coupled with the absence of heated anti-Western rhetoric in the state-controlled media, which marked West-2009, it appears unlikely that Lukashenka prepared West-2013 as an opportunity to flex his muscles in the face of his Western critics.
In 2009, the impending elections and Russia’s economic backing allowed him to reap the fruits of publicly defying the West with impunity. However, in the late 2013 the Belarusian leader finds himself making cautious advances towards the EU and IMF in the face of a looming currency crisis in Belarus. An aggressive military move simply would go against President Lukashenka’s current game.
On a different note, the exercise provided Alexander Lukashenka a rare opportunity to hold circumstantial negotiations with President Putin. Lukashenka used the traditional joint inspection of the troops to raise the issues on Uralkali and extending new credit lines to Minsk. The coming weeks will show whether these talks yielded any practical results.
Quite predictably, the exercises ended with enthusiastic reports from both the Russian and Belarusian military commands. In contrast to West-2009 and Union Shield-2011, the planners of West-2013 indeed managed to avoid both international incidents and any highly embarrassing loss of life.
However, an implausible legend and the secrecy around the event cast doubts about whether its planners had clarity about the ultimate purpose of the exercise. In the wake of West-2013, it appears that its only clear consequence is the further consolidation of Moscow’s hold over the Belarusian military. However, this alone might as well be considered by the Russian military strategists to constitute a success.
This article won a best article prize in a recent Belarus Digest contest.
Azerbaijan Elections Praised, Corruption in Construction Industry, IMF – Belarus State TV Digest
State TV Channel 1 widely covered the presidential elections which recently took place in Azerbaijan. A visit of Ukrainian Prime Minister Nikolai Azarov to Minsk resulted in the signing of a package of agreements. Alexander Lukashenka also made it clear that he would not oppose the Western ambitions of Kiev.
The IMF mission will be monitoring the economic situation of Belarus, but state TV noted that Minsk already appeared to be a trustworthy partner not only for the IMF, but also for other international organisations.
The elections in Azerbaijan: complied with all democratic standards. Belarusian journalists widely reported on recent presidential elections in Azerbaijan. Reporters pointed out that all (unnamed) experts were stating that the current president Ilham Aliyev remained the indisputable leader of the country and the people would re-elect him. Although 10 other opposition candidates took part in the elections, the victory of Aliyev was all but completely assured.
52 thousand observers monitored the elections, including an observatory mission from members of the CIS. Lidzija Jermoshyna, the head of the Central Electoral Committee, headed the Belarusian delegation. Both she and other experts shared the same views on the elections, “they went in compliance with democratic norms, with an exceptionally high turnout of voters”.
Belarusian state TV also showed happy supporters of Aliyev who were glorifying the current president.
It is not surprising that the opposition did not win, TV noted. It just became famous for the scandals during the electoral campaign. None of the opposition politicians presented a clear political programme. In the aftermath of the turbulent 1990s, the Azerbaijani people do not wish to go through the same situation again. All it wants is stability which only the current leader can offer, journalists explained.
Minsk: “Yes” to the integration of Ukraine with the EU. Last week the Ukrainian Prime Minister Nikolai Azarov visited Belarus. Both countries have been closely co-operating over the last years in the sphere of industry, agriculture, energy and transport. Also the trade turnover between Minsk and Kiev, which in 2012 reached $4.5bln, is proof of this growing co-operation. According to Belarusian journalists, this course for co-operation will be continued.
Belarusian authorities sent also a positive message to their Ukrainian colleagues. During the meeting with Azarov, Lukashenka clearly stated that Minsk had no objections against Kiev signing the association agreement with the EU. The whole issue was being politicised, he added. However, apart from the co-operation with the West and its institutions, Ukraine should not close the door on potential integration with the Customs Union.
Lukashenka’s dialogue with the Russian media: open and honest. State television reported on the traditional press conference of the head of the state and Russian journalists from over 70 regional media outlets. Several times it emphasized how open and honest the “dialogue” was. This impressed Russian journalists who could not believe how open and honest a leader Lukashenka is.
The Belarusian head of the state pointed out one of his main achievements was formation of a “sovereign and independent Belarus”. Apart from telling jokes, he replied to all questions from social policy to relations with Russia, often in a concise and clever way, according to the state TV report. The Russian journalists expressed their full support for the Belarusian leader.
A warning to officials on utility costs. Lukashenka chaired a meeting on the key aspects of economic and social development of Belarus. He warned officials not to increase the utility costs as a remedy for the state's budget issues. “I will not allow to suffocate the people. And this is not populism”, he added. Increase of the costs should correspond to increase of the salaries.
The head of the state criticised the government for its insufficient work. “And what do we have here: the government is sleeping, then wakes up after a half a year and we should increase the costs by 40%”, Lukashenka continued.
World Hockey Cup: all hands on board. The state channel continues to report on preparations for the international sporting event. This time Lukashenka met with officials to demand from them their maximum effort to make sure the event is as professional as possible. The Cup should become also an economic forum that will bring money to Belarus in the future.
Apart from that, it will be a chance to improve the international image of Belarus. “We should show to the whole world that we are a normal civilised Central-European country”, Lukashenka pointed out. Belarusian journalists reminded viewers that Minsk has already simplified its visa regime system for foreigners who would come to the event.
Belarusian investigators: corruption scandals in construction industry. The TV channel reported on shady practices in the construction sector. The whole porblem has brought about a few million USD in losses to the state.
Journalists described how the illegal scheme worked over a period of 7 years. Over the 7 years around 200 illegal houses were constructed. The company was buying old houses and building new ones. Instead of two-bedroom flats, it built houses with more rooms and sold them then for around $300,000 a piece. Now a special working group will investigate the whole issue and find out how these illegal practises were possible and whether any officials supported its operations.
Minsk as a trustworthy partner to the International Monetary Fund. Representatives of the IMF arrived to Belarus to monitor the economic situation of the country. Journalists reported that in 2009-2010 Minsk implemented a stand-by programme supported by a $3.5 bln IMF loan. According to state television, Belarus proved to be a trustworthy partner for the IMF, because it fulfilled all its obligations on time.
Partnership with the IMF remains beneficial for Minsk. The interest rate is relatively low and repayment conditions do not put too much stress on the Belarusian economy. According to the Belarusian TV, further co-operation also could country attract other international organisations and potential investors to Belarus.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials available on the web site of Belarusian State Television 1 (BT1). Freedom of the press in Belarus remains restricted and state media convey primarily the point of view of the Belarusian authorities. This review attempts to give the English-speaking audience a better understanding of how Belarusian state media shape public opinion in the country.