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.
Belarusian army aims to protect Russian airspace, not to atack other countries
Belarus’s neighbours regularly voice their concerns about Minsk’s role in a potential Russian invasion of the Baltic states or Ukraine. However, on 15 June, Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenka insisted that although Belarusian and Russian troops were operating in the region ‘as one,’ they had no aggressive intentions.
Just a cursory glance at the Belarusian army raises doubts about its ability to engage in any large offensive operations. To make up for its diminishing national army capacities, the Belarusian government went as far as to bring the emergency ministry’s aviation to the 3 July Independence Day parade, along with equipment from the DOSAAF, a paramilitary sport association. In addition, the government invited a large number of Russian military aircraft and helicopters to airshows in Minsk and Mashulishchy, a town nearby.
Many types of equipment operated by the Belarusian army have become old and are being decommissioned without corresponding replacements. The army’s offensive capacities are especially affected by this deterioration. The government takes proper care of only two elements of the military: air defence and special operations forces.
The reality of the Belarusian military’s decline is becoming too evident for even government officials to deny. Writing on 12 May in the official army daily Belorusskaya Voennaya Gazeta, Aleh Voinau, head of international military cooperation department, and his deputy Valery Ravenka, complained that:
There is a gradual decline going on with regard to quantitative indicators of weapons and military equipment [deployed by the Belarusian army]. Alas, this is not true of the states of the so called ‘good-neighborhood belt’, which are carrying out large-scale modernisation and build-up of weapons and military equipment.
To make their point, they cited the figures of the Belarusian army’s troops and equipment for 2016 and 2017. The decline of military might, however, becomes more clear after one compares the numbers from recent years with even the early 2010s, as shows the table below:
Although official figures may be inaccurate, they more probably exaggerate the amount of equipment rather than the other way around. Besides, no cover-ups have been exposed so far, despite numerous inspection, visits, and survey flights of the Belarusian army by foreign military experts. In 2016 there were 28 such events. Russian aviation spotters also recently conducted an analysis of the Belarusian army’s attack helicopter fleet and drew similar conclusions about its dramatic decline.
Last but not least, the figures in the above table represent the army’s total number of weapons, including those kept in reserve, which may be effectively deficient. Belarusian defence minister Andrey Raukou revealed more realistic data regarding equipment in active service in a presentation for the national parliament on 4 April 2016 (see Table 2 below).
A purely defensive force?
The capacities of the Belarusian army have diminished in all regards. However, this has most affected its capacities for offensive operations. A brief overview of some basic components of offensive might, such as firepower and troop mobility capacities, shows that Minsk places virtually no value on these aspects of its military.
Belarus lacks the modern firepower necessary for any large military operation. Thus, in 2012 Minsk decommissioned its last Su-24 bombers, and its military officials openly deliberated possibly decommissioning the few remaining Su-25 close air support aircraft. Although they ostensibly meant for Yak-130 trainer jets to replace the Su-25s, thanks to the absence of independent media in the country such absurd statements went unchallenged.
As follows from the table above, Minsk also has few attack helicopters, which constitute another possible source of firepower on the battlefield. Moreover, it has no plans to replace them. On 22 May, a source from the Russian helicopter-manufacturing Vertolety Rossii Holding told TASS news agency that it had no contracts concluded with Minsk on attack helicopters.
Another crucial premise for offensive operations – troop mobility capacities – is victim to similar circumstances. Thus, Belarus has just two Il-76 operational transport aircraft. As a result, Russia had to send six of its own Il-76s to conduct the latest Belarus-Russian-Serbian military exercise including an airborne operation in Brest Province in Belarus.
Similar trends are visible with smaller equipment, which is also important for offensive operations. The media have reported stories from recent paratrooper exercises in Belarus which demonstrate this. When in early April Russian paratroopers came to Vitsebsk Province to participate in a joint exercise with their Belarusian counterparts, the Russians had to remember how to use old D-6 parachutes. The Russian army had long replaced them with newer systems such as D-10 and T-10V as early as in 2007. Meanwhile, in Belarus only older systems are available, so the Russian troops had to make do.
Thus, in anticipation of the next paratroopers exercise in early June, which were to be held with Belarusians and Serbs in Brest Province, Russians brought their own new D-10 parachutes, while the Belarusian and Serbian troops used older Soviet models.
Why is it so?
To put it briefly, Minsk has no money even for parachutes. This stinginess is logical: it does not crave the capacity to sent its paratroopers to seize NATO capitals. Official data about the structure of the Belarusian army shows that it has other priorities. The situation as of 2016 is presented in table 3, although the structure of the Belarusian army has remained almost unchanged for more than a decade, ever since Minsk shifted to a brigade-based structure for its national armed forces.
Minsk puts emphasis on two military components: air defence (with its air force ever more directed towards the needs of air defence and mobility of counterinsurgency forces rather than providing support to ground troop offensives) and special operations forces. This is a logical decision.
First, Belarus fosters air defence in order to sell its air space protection services to Russia. In exchange for this intangible and invaluable service, Minsk demands everything else – and above all economic benefits.
Secondly, the Belarusian leadership fears the security risks of Donbas-like scenarios of local insurgencies of whatever political colour or orientation, and it prepares for such emergencies. Top Belarusian officials regularly refer to Ukrainian problems. For example, Defence minister Andrei Raukou recently explained the reshuffling of the country’s national massive mobilisation system by citing ‘Ukraine’s experience’ of problems in mobilising the population for war in Eastern Ukraine.
The only two things which interest Minsk
All of Belarus’s military needs yield to two priorities: air defence and preparation for counterinsurgency operations. Thus, Minsk has invested serious money in designing the Palanez multiple-launch rocket system: it is a cheap way of providing fire support for counterinsurgency operations.
In sum, the Belarusian army itself has few resources for modern large-scale offensive operations, such as those conducted by the Russian army in 2008 in Georgia. It can hardly engage in such offensives even in tandem with the Russian army. Belarus keeps its military autonomy at a high level: it hosts neither Russian combat units, nor Russian forwards supply depots.
That is, even if Russia wants merely to send its own forces through Belarusian territory and fight relying only on its own troops, it has so far prepared nothing for that. Even more difficult for the Kremlin would be to integrate the Belarusian army, even as an auxiliary force to conduct a joint offensive operation.