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.
Why is the West afraid of the West-2017 exercises?
On 21 July 2017, Alexander Lukashenka visited Kyiv and met with Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko. After the meeting, Poroshenko stated that he had received guarantees of security and that Ukraine would never be threatened from Belarusian territory.
However, the very same day, Ukrainian Minister of Defence Stepan Poltorak voiced a different view: ‘Ukraine and the world have a common vision of the possible prospects of the exercises of the Russian Armed Forces. The forthcoming West-2017 exercises are extremely large; they can be used to launch an aggression not only against Ukraine, but against any other country in Europe that shares a common border with Russia.’
Ukraine sounds the alarm
Poltorak was not the only one to voice his concerns: on 7 July 2017, the Chief of General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Viktor Muzhenko, also spoke about the possibility of Russian troops remaining in Belarus after the exercises were over. He underlined the high probability of Russia leaving behind hidden stores of weapons, military equipment, and material and technical means in Belarus.
Muzhenko also stressed that the West-2017 exercises pose a threat to Ukraine and NATO: ‘According to our information, the number of Russian troops to participate in the exercises has now been increased from the declared 3,000 to 5,000 people. This can be regarded as a measure to build up Russia’s combat potential on the borders of our state, as well as on the borders of Poland and the Baltic states.’ However, given that no reliable sources were provided to back up these claims, they could very well be provocation against Belarus.
Ukraine’s position as a first-line whistle-blower in relation to the Belarusian-Russian exercises is mainly promoted by the Ukrainian military establishment. Their statements are immediately broadcast by Ukrainian and foreign media, which strengthens the image of Belarus as an object or at least a base for Russian military aggression. In this context, Belarus is not seen as an independent actor on the international arena.
These alarmist statements from Ukrainian military leaders can be explained by the fact that the country is undergoing military reforms to bring it up to NATO standards; these reforms include a radical decrease in the number of command staff (especially generals). Thus, Ukrainian generals may be employing tough rhetoric regarding West-2017 in order to create the image of a serious threat, thereby making themselves seem less dispensable.
A Trojan horse
At the same time, certain NATO states have been expressing fears about West-2017 since the beginning of the year. On 14 March 2017, Polish Defence Minister Antoni Macierewicz stated: ‘we should be ready for Russian troops possibly staying on the territory of Belarus after the forthcoming West-2017 exercises.’ Earlier, on 29 April 2017, Estonian Minister of Defence Margus Tsahkna stated that Russia could take advantage of the large-scale military exercises to deploy thousands of soldiers in Belarus as a warning to NATO. He added that he had got his information from Estonian intelligence.
On 21 July 2017, Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, Commanding General of the U.S. Army in Europe, called West-2017 a ‘Trojan horse’. He added that although Russia speaks of ‘exercises’, nevertheless its forces could end up staying.
Belarus’s only neighbour (apart from Russia, of course) which appears unfazed by the exercises is Latvia. On 19 July 2017, Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics, following a meeting with Uladzimir Makiej in Minsk, stated: ‘We have no more questions about the West-2017 exercises. My Belarusian colleague explained the position of Belarus very thoroughly, and I’m satisfied.’
The main problem with the West-2017 exercises is that they are being held at the exact same time as the Russian large-scale exercise ‘West’. These are two different events, but they have almost the same name and are being held at the same time. Thus, the joint exercises in Belarus are perceived to be part of a larger Russian event. The Ukrainian, Western, and especially Russian media often fail to differentiate between the two exercises.
Notably, this coincidence is reflected in the position of Belarusian Defence Minister Andrej Raŭkoŭ, who once stated that West-2017 would cover a territory from the Barents Sea to Brest. By making such statements, as well as by categorically refusing to comment on the possibility of Russian troops staying in Belarus after the exercises, the Belarusian Defence Ministry only provides fodder for speculation.
Misunderstandings abound: media coverage of the exercises makes it seem like Russia really is holding a large-scale exercise with an offensive agenda in Belarus. However, this is far from reality. The ultimate goal of this information wave is to undermine Belarus’s image and harm its relations with the West and Ukraine. So far, it seems like this endeavour has met with some success.
A strong need for transparency
Russia certainly benefits from being perceived as a threat. Moreover, it is the only regional actor interested in the deterioration of relations between Belarus and the West: it wants to demonstrate its exclusive influence in Belarus and diminish Belarus’s role on the international arena, showing to be part of the Russian military system. This attitude often encourages the government in Minsk to be relatively complaisant in negotiations concerning political, economic, and military issues; it also pushes it to further integrate with Russia.
If Belarus wants to be perceived as a more or less ‘neutral’ state, it should make West-2017 as transparent as possible. Maximum media coverage with complete explanations would go a long way. Likewise, inviting foreign observers to all stages of the exercises would be the bare minimum needed to assuage sceptics.
Naturally, Russia would not welcome such measures and would surely grumble in retaliation. Alexander Lukashenka has spoken repeatedly about his willingness to provide the best conditions for foreign observers and guarantee the full transparency of the exercises. It is crucial that he stick to this word: at the moment, the image of the Belarusian state depends to a large degree on his success in fulfilling this task.