The Belarusian arms business: new deals and old collisions

On 14 November, key Belarusian arms exporter Beltech Export signed a deal with the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The Belarusian firm has agreed to maintain and modernise Emirati radars. This means that Minsk has successfully entered a new market, as it has never sold air defence-related products or services to Arab monarchies before.

This news, along with news of further remarkable international contracts entered into by Minsk this autumn, illustrates the silent evolution of the Belarusian defence industries. They have not only succeeded in developing new products anti-tank weapons, rockets, missiles, armoured vehicles and othersand started selling them. They are also establishing cooperation with major foreign defence firms like the Chinese Long March aerospace corporation or the Turkish Roketsan missile firm. Such actions illustrate a promising development toward building autonomous national military industries and making the Belarusian state more economically viable.

Arms and friendship

The latest Belarusian deal – assessed at $15.7m – with the UAE military at the Dubai Airshow in November was widely seen as a coup for Minsk. The Dubaibased Khaleej Times has even listed it among the major contracts concluded at the Dubai Airshow 2017. After all, Belarus had participated in the airshow for the first time, yet Arab countries of the Persian Gulf were seen reluctantly buying non-Western defence products and services.

Image: Denis Fedutinov via bmpd.livejournal.com

In addition, this February, Beltech Export won a contract worth some $14.4m to supply the Emiratis with spare parts, repair services and technical assistance for its Russian-manufactured BMP-3 armoured vehicles. Minsk not only won the contract over Russian arms firms, but the Belarusian offer has political implications, as well. After all, the UAE would currently prefer to avoid working with Russia yet it needs parts and support for its BMP-3s deployed in the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen.

Belarusian defence firms, and the state agencies responsible for them, have been regularly meeting their Emirati counterparts for around two decades. The latest conference of the defence industry officials from the two countries took place on 1516 October. Belarusian president Lukashenka also paid a visit to the UAE between 25 October and 6 November, ostensibly to promote trade between the two countries, including trade in military equipment.

These contacts seem to have borne fruit. Moscow-based Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported that last year Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant (MZKT) successfully received an order for tank transporters without any tender. The delivery was due this year yet no details on the contract have yet been made publicly available. The MZKT has been selling such equipment to the UAE since the early 2000s.

Minsk also relies on arms deals to advance relations with Middle Eastern countries. It therefore came as no surprise that in 201Raman Halouchanka, the deputy chairman of the Belarusian state military industrial committee, was appointed as the Belarusian ambassador to the UAE.

Forthcoming breakthrough in relations with Turkey?

Some unprecedented results have also been achieved in relations with Turkey. Şuay Alpay, Turkey’s deputy defence minister, paid a visit to Belarus from 23 to 26 October. The Belarusian media has kept silent on the content of these negotiations. However, Turkish daily Yeni Ufuk reported that the Turkish defence official had expressed his satisfaction with the cooperation between Turkish and Belarusian companies on “rifle sights, inertial navigation systems for howitzers, electro-optic equipment, avionics, satellite cameras and land vehicles”.

Deputy foreign minister of Belarus Alena Kupchyna talking to then Turkish Foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Image: mfa.gov.tr

Indeed, he brought to Belarus a large delegation which included not only state military industries officials, but also managers of leading Turkish arms firms. Among them were Aselsan (radios, defence electronic), Roketsan (rockets, missiles, satellites), BMC (trucks and tactical vehicles), MKEK (ammunition and various weapons systems). Although Minsk and Ankara first signed an agreement on defence industrial cooperation in 1998, their cooperation effectively started in the late 2000s to coincide with Turkish president Erdoğan’s launch of his assertive foreign policy.

At the same time as starting new cooperation projects, the Belarusian government has worked to advance most of its old partnerships, most importantly the partnership with China. The President of China’s leading Aerospace Long-March International Trade Co., Shi Kelu, came to Minsk on 23 October. Minsk has for many years worked with Beijing in the aerospace arena, even choosing to launch its satellite with Chinese and not Russian help. The Belarusian government has also started its missile programme with China’s assistance after being denied new missile systems by the Kremlin.

Belarusian equipment begins to neutralise Russian products

The business and political interests of Minsk and Moscow collide in the most explicit way in former Soviet nations, especially in terms of relations between Belarus and Azerbaijan. On 810 October, Minsk welcomed Azerbaijani defence minister Zakir Hasanov. A military expert close to the Azerbaijani defence ministry Yaşar Aydəmirov told several Azerbaijani media outlets on 13 October that Baku should purchase Belarusian-made Palanez multiple-launch rocket systems. According to him, given Azerbaijan’s specific geographic and other advantages, Palanez systems would serve as an adequate response to Russian-made Iskanders deployed by Armenia.

Belarusian military technical cooperation with Central Asia reveals the same tendencies for entering new markets despite Moscow’s disapproval. A case in point is the recent move towards cooperation with Uzbekistan: a country which severed most of its ties with Belarus in the early 2000s. On 4 October, Moscow-based Kommersant daily revealed that the Belarusian 558th Aircraft repairs plant began the overhaul of four Su-25, close air support aircraft and four MiG29, fighter jets owned by Uzbekistan.

Image: vpk.gov.by

Moreover, there are reports that Belarusian firms are to receive contracts for the overhaul of another eight aeroplanes of this type. The 558th Aircraft repairs plant, based in the Belarusian city of Baranavichy, has signed the contract with Uzbekistan despite the fact that the latter had negotiated with the Russians concerning the overhaul of its aircraft in the spring of this year. Kommersant quoted a source from the Russian defence industries as saying that this deal between Minsk and Tashkent has caused “some consternation” in the Russian arms industry.

Uzbekistan is not the only post-Soviet country which has begun to choose Belarusian firms. From 24 to 26 October, the Commander of the air defence forces of Kyrgyzstan, Kylychbek Aydaraliev, also visited Belarus to discuss the possible overhaul and repairs of Kyrgyzstani aircraft, helicopters and air defence equipment in Belarus.

Minsk has to constantly take into account the Kremlin in doing arms business as Moscow dislikes the recent successes of its ally in diversifying its international contacts. Russian rightwing Regnum news agency published a commentary entitled “Mission impossible: Belarus seeks an alternative to Russia for its defence industries” on 14 November. Therefore, although Minsk hardly considers the development of its defence industries in cooperation with non-Russian partners or sales to new markets as a move aimed against Russia, the Russian establishment now sees such deals in exactly those terms.

Yet the Belarusian government is forced to act in this way in order to survive both politically and economically. Not only because Minsk would become a Russian satellite otherwise, but because the Kremlin is actively substituting Belarusian defence products and continues to insist that Minsk must sell its defence firms to Russia lest they go bankrupt without Russian support. So, Minsk has endeavoured to seek and find its own solutions: the examples above serve as irrefutable proof of that.




Belarus Strengthens Defense Sector Cooperation with Ukraine

Last Wednesday, Russia's ambassador to Minsk announced that Belarusian enterprises provide 15% of Russia's national defence purchases (oboronzakaz). This figure may grow —​ Moscow promised to transfer the orders it had with Ukrainian firms to Belarusians.

Yet Russia is also demanding from Minsk that it sells Belarus's defence factories to it. Minsk is doing its best to resist: it develops new products, extends defence exports outside Russia and constantly seeks other partners in post-Soviet and developing countries. The Belarusian government is trying to attract Ukrainian specialists, expertise and technology which can help it in this undertaking.

The development of the national defence industry illustrates how the Belarusian government is seeking to maintain a balance between the huge sums of money coming in from Russia and the need to find alternative markets and opportunities.

Belarusian Electronics for Russian Tanks

Belarus produces few self-sufficient military items — its national defence industries for years focused on air defence equipment, optics, electronics, command and control systems, electronic warfare items. Most of Belarus-made military equipment are destined to be installed on Russian or Ukrainian machines (tanks, aircraft, etc.).

Due to close military cooperation with Russia, Belarusian firms supply Russian products with these sophisticated and expensive kinds of equipment. It explains how Belarus managed to secure for itself such a large share of Russia's military purchases ($7-7.5bn). Belarusian enterprises also participate in Russian arms exports. Little information was published on it, yet out of $950m Russo-Indian tanks deal in late 2000s $90m went to Belarusian Beltekhekspart and Israelis which supplied electronics.

Problems have emerged in Russo-Belarusian ties as a result of another priority of the Belarusian defence industries: the overhaul and modernisation of aircraft, helicopters and armoured vehicles, air defence systems, radars, electronic intelligence and warfare. Even Russian military experts frequently admit: Belarusian firms do it cheaper, and better than their Russian counterparts.

As a result, Russian state corporations frequently make orders to Belarusian enterprises instead of giving them to their own underemployed plants and factories, as one anonymous expert from the Moscow-based Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies close to the Russian military complains.

The Kremlin recently started to alter its cooperation with Belarusian defence industry by demanding that Minsk basically give them away to Russian owners working in the same field — owners who are interested in shutting down Belarus-based production lines in order to get rid of competitors.

In March 2013 Moscow forced Minsk into an agreement to sell controlling block of shares of the Minsk-based MZKT works which supplies Russian missile forces with chassis. So far Belarus managed to delay it knowing that if Russian KAMAZ buys the Minsk works it will not last for long.

Russia Is Not Helping With the Belarusian Arms Industry's Development

To survive in its unequal relationship with Russia, Belarus has to look for markets and opportunities outside of Russia.

Although Lukashenka said that national defence industry would create new product lines in cooperation with Russia, such as aircraft, Moscow's attitude towards Belarus's needs have more than once disappointed Minsk. Defence issues fit into this paradigm as well. Russia has avoided giving Belarus many newest weapons. Lukashenka himself recently complained that "the others, alas, not Russians, are helping us."

Undoubtedly, one of the these unspecified 'helpers' is Ukraine. Belarusian military industrial firms for years have cooperated with their Ukrainian counterparts. They successfully created new joint products such as anti-tank weapons and air defence systems sold mostly to post-Soviet Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.

In cooperation with Motor Sich, the world-reknown Ukrainian manufacturer of aircraft and helicopter engines, Belarusians were able to establish a joint venture for the complete overhaul and future production of its Mil helicopters (first and foremost, the Mi-8 model) in Orsha.

Moscow does not like the Orsha project as it is in direct competition with Russian firms. In October, a Jane's Defence Industry publication even claimed that “Belarus threatens to terminate the Motor Sich share holding in Orsha aircraft plant.” This news, however, resembles a rumour disseminated to disrupt Belarus-Ukrainian relation.

Other reports following the October visit of Motor Sich delegation to Belarus spoke only of ordinary problems with delays in the implementation of previous agreements with the Ukrainian firm. Minsk obviously tried to put pressure on Motor Sich to proceed more quickly with its plans in Belarus.

Attracting Ukrainians

In September, the Belarusian president demanded from the industry to create a closed cycle of production for some national defence products. To produce them without serious dependence on imports, Minsk can attract specialists, technologies and capital from the war-torn Eastern Ukraine.

In April, visiting the Baranavichy 558th Aviation Repairs Works, Lukashenka stated: "Let's try to make deals with the Ukrainians and work together so that Ukraine's intellectual and engineering centres and designers do not perish. Now is the right moment… we shall use this moment not only for ourselves but for external markets as well".

Meeting with the Motor Sich managers in October, he declared his willingness “to accept all Ukrainians who want to live and work in Belarus.” The Belarusian leader asked his Ukrainian visitors, “you should work with Russia through Belarus. I do not conceal it, it is the right way”. Given Russia's dependence on many Ukrainian components and even complete defence or dual use products (like aviation engines), Minsk has some good chances to make this a reality.

According to military expert Alyaksandr Alesin in late September, a delegation from the Belarusian military industrial complex headed to Ukrainian military enterprises. They paid particular interest in factories and design organisations in Kyiv, Lviv, Dnipropetrovsk and Chernyhiv which dealt with missiles and missile components (i.e. air defence, surface-to-surface and cruise missiles). Insiders from the Belarusian defence industry confirm that some Ukrainians already have arrived.

First Belarusian Missiles

Minsk is careful to not antagonise Moscow too much, yet it also defends its interests against the Kremlin's pressure

Ukrainians can offer significant help with air defence items which remain to this day the main speciality of Belarusian defence industry. Belarus currently modernises Soviet-era surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems and effectively develops new types of them for several post-Soviet and developing countries. Some of these products already involve no foreign cooperation and contain no foreign components with one very significant exception – missiles.

Until now, Belarus produced no lethal equipment. Recently, Belspetszneshtekhnika hinted at plans to produce missiles for SAM systems in Belarus. They will have to deal with any number of technical difficulties to realise their plans, however Alesin believes that the decision to launch missile production may have been taken at the highest levels of government some time ago. And it is precisely the Ukrainian experts who will be able to establish their production. The centre of Soviet missile development and production has always been in Eastern Ukraine.

The Belarusian defence industries emerged during the Soviet times as a part of a larger Soviet military industrial complex. They had few chances to survive on their own, yet they managed to find new markets and now may even find a means to expand. In its military industrial policies, Minsk is careful to not antagonise Moscow too much, yet it also defends its interests against the Kremlin's pressure (the Motor Sich project is a case in point).

Belarus is using its proximity to Russia to its advantage, while actively looking for other opportunities as well. In the period of October-December alone, Belarus has held talks on military technical cooperation with China, Vietnam, Turkmenistan, Angola and Pakistan. National defence industries can contribute to the consolidation of a viable independent state.