New Belarusian military doctrine responds to Putin’s policies
On 22 January, President Alexander Lukashenka approved changes to Belarus' military doctrine. This document reveals fundamental changes in the mindset of the Belarusian establishment. Learning Ukrainian lessons, Minsk is putting issues of military security at the top of its priority list.
Belarusian strategists have also identified which threats are to be countered. They include violent political changes, which Minsk suspects may come from Ukraine and pro-Moscow forces' attempts to repeat in Belarus their exploits in Ukraine.
Minsk is also reevaluating its alliance with Russia. The Kremlin for years ignored Minsk's interests and is embarking on an increasingly chauvinist path. Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin criticised Soviet-era international borders as 'arbitrary', implying that they could be changed through a Crimea- or Donbas-like scenario.
Minsk identifies threats
On 22 January, Lukashenka approved changes to Belarus' military doctrine, which had remained unchanged since 2001.
the new edition of the doctrine points to 'hybrid warfare' and 'colour revolutions' Read more
Identifying the potential military threats, the new edition of the doctrine points to 'hybrid warfare' and 'colour revolutions', clear terms if taken in the Belarusian and regional context.
'Hybrid warfare' refers to possible Russian interventions like those that occurred in Ukraine. Colour revolution means the West, interpreted IHS Jane's Defence Weekly. But that is a moot point.
Minsk indeed harbours suspicions that somebody in the West might be working on toppling Lukashenka, but in recent years Belarusian officials have more frequently named Ukraine as a source of destabilisation in Belarus. For instance, just before the recent October 2015 presidential election a Belarusian government-affiliated TV channel reported about "200 armed Ukrainians" being detained at the border.
Although Lukashenka cites the collapse of the state in Libya, Syria and Yemen as examples of possible scenarios that he wants to prevent, Minsk reviewed its military doctrine only after the crisis and conflict in Ukraine developed. In parallel, it started – however reluctantly – to construct a border with Ukraine.
Beware of Kremlin allies
Commenting on forthcoming changes in the military doctrine, last autumn Defence Minister Andrei Raukou claimed that Belarus did not consider any foreign state an enemy and added, “But we, of course, will not concede our territory and will use any forces and means, including military, to avoid that.”
The official Belarusian parlance sends signals warning to extremist elements in Russia not to try in Belarus anything like they did in Ukraine.
Raukou was merely further developing earlier statements made by Lukashenka who has many times publicly rebuked the Ukrainian government for “giving up its lands [in Crimea]” and neglecting the Ukrainian army which as a result failed to defend the country.
Belarus remains an ally of Russia but Minsk regards this status less and less only as an asset, and hence is trying to reformulate the alliance. The Belarusian leadership sees a danger of the country being enmeshed in somebody else's war as a result of confrontation between Russia and other countries.
In his earlier statements Lukashenka described the alliance with Russia as an obligation with reservations and qualifications. On 30 October, speaking before commanders of the national armed forces, he said, “Having allies is an important factor in ensuring our military security. Nonetheless, we shall build the mechanism of collective protection in accordance with our national interests.”
No arms for Belarusians
The very first reason for Minsk to review the conditions of its alliance with Russia has to do with Moscow itself. The Kremlin frequently refuses to deal with Belarus as an ally and does not hide it. To take only the most known example, Moscow concealed from Minsk the early stages of the Russian operation to annex Crimea.
Russia provides only minimal support for the Belarusian army that is sorely in need of equipment Read more
Despite all lamentation about NATO expansion, Russia provides only minimal support for the Belarusian army that is sorely in need of equipment. This concerns even the most critical sphere for Russia – air defence. The Kremlin after many years of delays gave Belarus second-hand decommissioned S-300 surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems of the oldest possible model. While Moscow is about to supply Iran with the S-300PMU, a model from the 1990s, Minsk receives from Moscow S-300PS, a model from the early 1980s.
Likewise, while proclaiming ever closer military cooperation, Russia attempted to give Belarus only the export models of another SAM system, the Tor-M2E. That means limited – in comparison to the models supplied to Russian army – capacities. Belarus received Tors also only after Moscow forced Minsk to give in on the issue of a Russian airbase.
Other cases also show a hardly ally-like attitude. Many Russian analysts acknowledge that the Belarusian army provides the bulk of force protecting Moscow from the west. Both in the air and on land, Moscow for many years has refused to give Belarusians newer aircraft.
The Belarusian army has only a few old fighter jets and no bombers, and plans to decommission its remaining battlefield close-support aircraft. This has rendered the Belarusian air defence system porous and ground forces useless without air support.
Last rouble for military
The current economic situation in Belarus in comparison with 2010 has considerably worsened, with inflation reaching about 12 per cent in 2015. However, Lukashenka today insists that “if the last rouble remains in the state budget, we shall spend it on the security of our people.” To underline his point he again cited the situation in Ukraine, implying that insufficient care for security allowed that country to become a toy for more powerful forces.
The Belarusian government seems to be taking the matter seriously. Despite economic hardships, it has found resources for projects that should result in military or dual-use products – like designing and manufacturing the multiple rocket launch system SAM and possibly other weapons with Chinese and probably Ukrainian firms. It has also invested in the overhaul of old Belarusian fighter jets, putting national security interests over economic calculations.
While only a few experts have noticed these technical paraphernalia, adoption of an effectively new military doctrine has attracted much more attention. The doctrine, however, is only one small, visible example of fundamental changes triggered in Belarusian foreign and security policy by Putin's policies in the post-Soviet space. Minsk cannot cope with all the new risks without cooperating with other nations in the region and beyond. But it does what it can.
Russian Media Attack Belarus: Minsk Remains on the Kremlin Radar
Several months after the October presidential elections in Belarus, conservative and Kremlin-affiliated Russian media and commentators have again turned their attention to Belarus.
They warn of an alleged rise in "Russophobia" in Belarus, and criticise the West for plotting to tear the country away from Russia. The last such attack took place in late 2014 but then faded as the Belarusian presidential elections approached.
With Russia's economy in trouble and the regime of President Alexander Lukashenka seeking rapprochement with the West, Kremlin pressure on Belarus may increase.
Belarus Targeted in Russia
Rather aggressive articles targeting Belarus have once again appeared on various Russian online media portals over the past few weeks: Lenta.ru, an influential, state-controlled online outlet; Sputnik i Pogrom, the well-known nationalistic website; and Pravda, the once-powerful communist newspaper – to name just a few.
All texts contain a near-identical set of messages, indicating that they are part of a coordinated media campaign. As is usual, they all criticise the promotion of Belarusian traditions, language and culture in Belarus, and accuse Lukashenka's regime of being tolerant of "Nazis" and '"Russophobes".
"Until recently, Belarusian nationalists were perceived as marginal and were represented in society by a small layer of radical youth and intelligentsia" – writes Lenta.ru in reference to the Belarusian volunteers fighting in Ukraine. "However, the war in Donbass has changed everything. (…) The influence of youth [nationalistic extremist] organisations in Belarus is growing exponentially".
"Recently, elements of [nationalism] have actively started entering the official ideology of Belarus. This has first of all to do with the infiltration of petty local nationalists into government bodies and state-close organisations", writes Sputnik i Pogrom.
Some articles go as far as painting a picture of repression against Russian-speakers in Belarus Read more
Some articles go as far as painting a picture of repression against Russian-speakers in Belarus. This is an absurd accusation given that it is the Belarusian language that remains seriously discriminated against in Belarus. Public life in Belarus continues to be dominated by Russian culture and Russian language.
Russian nationalist groups, including paramilitary cossack organisations, enjoy loyalty from Belarusian state officials and the Russian Orthodox Church, which is the largest religious organisation in Belarus. Most of the articles also criticise Lukashenka's alleged turn to the West and warn Belarus of a scenario of civil unrest like that which Ukraine has faced.
Offline, Belarus-related activity in Russia has increased as well. In Moscow, a conference called BeloRusskiy Dialog took place on January 26, featuring a number of Russian nationalists and Kremlin-affiliated experts, along with a few members of the moderate Belarusian opposition. Three more such conferences are planned for later this year.
The press release summarising the results of the BeloRusskiy Dialog conference states that "The attempts (…) to isolate Russia from political processes in Belarus and its international relations carry serious threats to social economic and political stability in Belarus … In parts of Belarusian society, anti-Russian sentiment is growing; there is a widespread ban on citizens educated in Russia or those with positive feelings towards Russia working in Belarusian state bodies".
"By Russians we mean the triuny of Great Russians, Little Russians (Ukrainians) and Byelorussians" Read more
Just a day earlier on January 25 a group of influential Russian nationalist leaders and writers created a political alliance. "In the future, we must direct our policy towards reunification of the Russian people within one state. By Russians we mean the triuny of Great Russians, Little Russians (Ukrainians) and Byelorussians", wrote one of the members of the alliance when describing its priorities.
Shrinking resources change Kremlin's international agenda
After a rapid decline in oil prices and exacerbated by Western sanctions, the Russian economy now faces problems which it has not faced since the crisis of 1998, if not since the late 1980s. Economic difficulties have already caused some social unrest – from striking truck drivers to protesting foreign currency mortgage holders.
Russia has therefore adjusted its international activity. By involving high-ranking personalities like Vladislav Surkov and Boris Gryzlov, it is showing serious interest in the fulfilment of the Minsk Agreements to partially lift Western sanctions against Russia.
On the other hand, Russia is not the only one in economic trouble. Over the past decades, Lukashenka's regime in Belarus has been heavily dependent on Russian economic support. In the coming years, this help is likely to disappear. This will weaken Lukashenka's authority.
As Russia's resources became more scarce Lukashenka it turning to the West Read more
Belarus needs external economic support and is currently in talks with both the IMF and Russia to receive loans. As Russia's resources became more scarce, it is to the West that Lukashenka is more and more actively looking for help.
Trading loyalty to Russia against economic benefits is what Moscow wants to prevent Lukashenka from doing. The public discussion of a threat of a Ukraine-like scenario for Belarus might therefore be a warning message to Lukashenka from conservative groups in the Kremlin.
Putin's rating and the imaginary Western threat to Belarus
The Russian media for several years painted a picture of a threat from phantomic Western-sponsored enemies to Ukraine and its Russian speaking population. After that, the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbass followed. Now the same picture is being painted of Belarus.
Following the annexation of Crimea and the wider confrontation with the West, Russian President Vladimir Putin's approval ratings in Russia skyrocketed from 45 per cent in November 2013 to 87 per cent in November 2015. A "rescue" of Belarus from a phantomic Western threat might help boost Putin's public support once again, should his ratings fall because of economic problems.
Whether the benefits of unfriendly actions against Belarus will prevail over their costs for the Kremlin is not yet clear. Moscow is likely to have several scenarios on the table and will act depending on the situation.
Aleś Čajčyc is a Moscow-based writer, consultant and member of the Rada of the Belarusian Democratic Republic