It was July 3, 2014, four months after the annexation of Crimea. I was in Belarus for the first time and turned out it was the Independence Day that was marked there in mass festivities. However, the historic event was not the declaration of first Belarusian state, Belarusian Peoples Republic on March 1918 or July 27 1991, when Belarus declared independence from USSR. It was July 3 1944, when Red Army liberated the capital city Minsk (Mensk) from Nazi German army. As the local guide explained – “the president does not want people to have too much holidays”. During the celebrations, we passed their monument of Victory and large black limo was parked nearby. The guide enthusiastically declared that this was Vladimir Putin’s car and he was sitting inside. We drove further and went into a large crossing and in two seconds gaze we saw a Russian column of armored vehicles and troops looking at us passing them by. Russian flag was flyling behind them. They were there to take part in the independence parade.
These episodes show how specific is the independence and sovereignty of the Belarusian republic. The state regime places an important WW2 event as the main national event, while in July 3 1944 Belarus did not gain independence, but was again placed under control by the Soviet Union. This is because the regime by Aleksandr Lukashenko (or Alyaksandr Lukashenka in Belarusian) sees the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic as the predecessor for Republic of Belarus. The main base of his ideology is that Belarus, albeit independent, will always be integrated and tied bound with Russia as its common ally and a brotherly state. Any of those two other independence days only symbolize the separation from Moscow. However, since 2014 Crimea events, the relations between both union states have become complicated over Belarusian fears of losing their sovereignty because of new Russian imperial policy and confrontation with NATO block. Officially the Belarusian government tries to play balanced policy with Russia, Ukraine and EU countries. While not fully approving annexation of Crimea by Russia, Lukashenka maintains close ties with Russia, he has expressed praise for Ukrainian leadership and has gained sanction removal from EU and US. The Minsk agreements is a success for Belarusian foreign policy. However, Belarus will always have issues with Russia over gas and oil supply prices, it has running feud with Lithuania over the new nuclear power plant currently in making and the issue of living up to EU expectations. However, the main issue that Belarusians often refuse to acknowledge is Russian military interest and involvement in Belarus, in current standoff between NATO block and Russia, two territorial entities – Kaliningrad and Belarus serve as a bridgehead for Russian offensive/defensive plans against NATO and specifically the Baltic States and Poland. The Belarusian political and military leadership knows that in case of conflict with these countries, they automatically become military targets. This issue boils as Lukashenka relations with Moscow is in backslide, his country faces discontent with economic recession and the joint military exercise with Russia Zapad 2017 looms in September raising issues in regional security.
This article sums up the military capabilities of Belarusian army, their cooperation with Russia, the threats to Belarusian regime and why the Zapad 2017 is considered as a regional security threat and what of it is an issue and what is simple scare.
Belarusian Armed Forces
Before the breakup of the Soviet Union Belarus hosted the 5th Guards Tank Army (HQ Bobruisk), the 7th Tank Army (HQ Borisov), the 28th Army (HQ Grodno (Hrodna), the 120th Guards Motor Rifle Division, the 72nd Guards United Training Center and logistical units and formations. In addition to these troops Belarus was host to centrally controlled formations, namely the 103rd Guards Airborne Division, the 38th Guards Airborne Brigade, the 11th Air Defence Corps of the 2nd Air Defence Army, the 26th Air Army and also units and formations of the Strategic Rocket Forces, Long Range Aviation. Additionally, armed forces who were withdrawn from former communist countries Eastern Europe were stationed there. As Soviet Armed forces were disbanded one part of the forces became part of Russian Armed forces others swore oath to Belarus. Belarusian Armed Forces until this day is almost entirely relays on soviet military equipment and few newer weapons from Russia. At first the 1992 Belarusian military doctrine was to keep the neutrality of the state, however since 1994 when Alyaksandr Lukashenka took power, the new doctrine was close cooperation with Russia for mutual security. This is important for Russia as Belarus is a gateway to Moscow and serves as buffer state. In 1999 the Russia and Belarus signed Union State agreement that bounded the Belarus military to assist and defend Russia. Also in response of NATO expansion Belarus military doctrine expresses will of defend itself from armed groups entering the state from neighboring countries in attempt to make anti-constitutional changes.
The main issue for Belarusian military is underfunding that prevents it from modernizing their military equipment, low military readiness and morale. Similar issue stood for Ukrainian army before 2014. Belarus armed personnel consists of 450,00 active personnel 29,000 of them land forces and 16,000 air force and at least 270 000 reservists. Army consists of one special purpose brigade, four mechanized brigades, one mobile brigade, four artillery brigades, one missile brigade and two artillery groups. The operational commands stand in Hrodna (Grodno) and in Borisov (Barysau).
Main armored vehicles are T-80 and T-72 tanks, BMP-2 and BMP 1 IFV’s, BTR-80, BTR-70 APC’s. Artillery forces have Scud missiles, OTR-21 Tochka, BM-30 Smerch and BM-21 Grad and various mobile howitzers. Air Defense also has standard soviet weapons like 9K33 Osa, 9K35 Strela-10 and 9K22 Tunguska as well as 9K37 Buk. They also have acquired Tor missile systems and S-400 from Russia. Belarus has also acquired 22 Chinese Dongfeng Meng Shi light armored vehicles.
As of Air Force its consists of 100 fixed wing aircrafts – Mig-29, Su-27, SU-25 and SU-27. 140 helicopters M-24 and Mi-8 and dozens of transport aircraft.
The main issue is defense budget. In 2012 it was 595.5 million $, 2013 686,4 million $, in 2014 779 million $ in 2016 554 million $. The size of armed forces have been gradually reduced from 85,000 in 1996 and 60, 000 in 2010. The conscription time is for 12-18 months with issue of getting and keeping good cadres in service. Armed Forces also are engaged in rivalry with Belarusian Internal Troops and rather large police force. Belarus in engaged in arms market producing and selling military equipment. Belarus has introduced unmanned aerial vehicle “Burvestnik”, areal observation system “Palanez” ect. Main export routes are Russia, China, Vietnam and other countries formerly close to Soviet Union. Russia meanwhile tries to make its arms supplies more intendent from other countries, so Belarus tries to find alternative sources.
With that said Belarusian forces alone are middle sized force with old military equipment, however they do pose a threat to smaller Baltic armies, but does not do well with Poland who has largest tank forces and solid military funding. However, Belarus alone has no military intentions against other countries, its not in current danger from Russia so if they have a war time role then they role is aiding the Russian military forces.
Russian-Belarusian military cooperation
First few years of the independent Belarus was passed in rather national patriotic tones with re introduction of 1918-1920 BPR national symbols and aims to impose Belarusian language as the main state language. However, these years were filled with economic turbulence and nationalist politicians failed to gain Belarusian support. In 1994 former communist Alyaksandr Lukashenka who was against breaking up the Soviet Union was elected president and started revision back to soviet policies in economics and political rule. The nationalistic symbols were replaced back with flag and coat of arms resembling the Byelorussian SSR and economy became state controlled although private sector was not abolished. Russian language became second official and is the main language used by state officials, national TV and army. Aleksandr Lukashenka instead of national isolation or move to EU, chosen to establish deep ties with Russia. This was obvious choice for him as he we sought to keep his authority over state and Russia would tolerate a formal dictatorship like its tolerates the ones in Central Asia. Involvement with EU would be more disadvantageous. Lukashenka managed to gain upper hand on Russian president Boris Yeltsin and the Union agreement in 1999 proved to be beneficial for Belarus. However, Vladimir Putin has always been wary of Lukashenka aggressive demands, overlapping ego and attempts to abuse the Union agreement for his own needs. Instead Putin many times placed pressure on Lukashenka by imposing high gas and oil prices to try to control his political ambitions. After 2014 both parties are disappointed on each other. Lukashenka is disappointed by Putin for his “Russian world” policy that basically questions the independence of Belarus and Putin is disappointed that Lukashenka did not legally recognize his conquest of Crimea, still trades with EU countries and maintains balanced relations with Ukraine. So, Putin also uses the military card to place leverage on Belarus.
Most of the Russian armed forces withdraw from Belarus in 1993-1996. With exception of Early Warning radar station at Hantsavichy and 43rd Communications Center of the Russian Navy at Vileyka. Also, Military mission 1281 is in Belarus to take care of the acceptance of Russian military equipment. In 1997 both sides made common principles of military cooperation. Belarus also joined the Collective Security Treaty. The regional grouping in its full forces includes the Belarusian Armed Forces (about 70, 000) troops, the 20th Army of the Russian Western Military District are stationed together.
Russian army in so is fairly free to enter Belarus and take part in joint exercises like in 2006 as part of Schit Otetchestva 2006 (Shield of Homeland) Zapad 2009 and Zapad 2013. Officially in 2016 both countries made joint air defense system, Belarus sends officers to train in Russian war academies. Meanwhile in their policy of balance, while officially Belarus declares it will fight together with Russia in any war, its doctrines refuse to call NATO a national threat and does not permit to use Belarusian forces outside its borders. The Belarusian generals do not subordinate directly to more superior Russian counterparts. Russian forces are only allowed to deploy in Belarus during military maneuvers and there is no permanent military command. Alyaksandr Lukashenka has also refused to sell Minsk tractor wheel plant to Russia obstructing the Belarusian integration into the Russian arms market as well many other Belarusian arms companies have been kept out of Russian hands. Russia and Belarus have failed to create a unified air defense system despite having same equipment and same structure. The agreement concluded that joint air defense command would be implemented only during the period of threat and during peace time its should be only in rotational basis. Later the agreement was changed that this command would only came in effect of event of direct threat or military aggression and both sides had to agree if there is such aggression. However, if there would be a direct conflict in the Baltic region then there would be joint air defense system both in Kaliningrad and Belarus. With S-400 and S-300 anti-air systems in both sides it would be possible to make “anti-access/area denial zone” in territory between Kaliningrad and Belarus that would-be Lithuania and Northern Poland. NATO then would have issues reinforcing Latvia and Estonia. In response, the NATO would strike Belarusian territory. So it’s no wonder why Lukashenka has done his most to obstruct joint Russian-Belarusian military cooperation. It’s simply against his common-sense interests to keep his power in the country. In case of war he would lose his authority, become puppet to Russian militarists and place his country in mortal danger. So no wonder he has also obstructed Russian plan to create an airbase in Belarus.
The Zapad 2017 Scare
We have reached the argument that Belarusian-Russian military cooperation poses both danger NATO and Belarus. Russia can use Belarus to wage war on Poland, Baltic States and Ukraine. But, logically it’s against the interests of Belarus that would pose a mortal danger to its regime and people. So, military issue places Belarus in crossroads between NATO and Russia and places its independence at stake. And this where new major joint exercise the Zapad 2017 comes to the spotlight. There are two main scares – that Russia would use the exercise to occupy Belarus and rapid scare that Russia would use the troops deployed in Belarus to strike against the Baltic States and Poland. We must value these scares on the proper scales to determine how appropriate they are.
First of all the issue why the large military exercise can result in massive violent events its because there was precedent in 2008 when Russia held large Kavkaz-2008 drills along Georgian border in July 15-31. Briefly after that in August 8 a full-scale war erupted between Russia and Georgia. No doubt that troops deployed in these drills were used in Russian advance into Georgia. Drills and readiness checks or so called sbori when reserves are called in on spot are used by Russia to quickly deploy troops for combat situation. These readiness checks and emergency drills are also used to get Russian troops ready for secret transfer to combat zones in Eastern Ukraine and Syria.
Second issue is that Zapad 2009 and Zapad 2013 drills that also took part in Belarus, played out what was seen clearly as simulation of invasion in the Baltic states. While the real country names were not used the enemy states was called Mordija, Lastija, Villija and Bugija that were located in western border of Belarus and northwestern Russian border. The countries would attack first sending a rogue terrorist commando attack of 600 men that would be repelled and Russia and Belarus would mount a preventive counter attack. Such scenario is nothing new, for instance in 1938 large military drills the Red Army fought off a small-scale fascist capitalist attack and then crush them in their own territory. There must be a provocation that would legitimize the Russian incursion in the foreign territory like it was played out in Georgia. Also in 2013 Russian air force practiced to what it seems a nuclear strike on Stockholm creating fears of Russian nuclear de-escalation tactic.
The military exercise Zapad 2017 no doubt will be on even bigger scale than in 2013. So far its scenario is unknown. What is known that in Belarus it will involve 1st Russian tank army with 13, 000 troops, 3, 000 of them Russians and 280 vehicles and 25 aircraft and helicopters. Drills will take place in Kaliningrad and along Baltic and Finish borders as well. What some experts are worried about that Russia would keep some if its forces in Belarus – enough to remove Lukashenka from power. Reasons to do so is growing mutual dissatisfaction, very limited joint Russian-Belarusian military cooperation preventing Russia from waging effective war in the Baltic States and Ukraine. Russia would rather not annex Belarus as annexing a country of 9 million people would be far greater financial effort than Crimea and Russian economy might not handle it. Instead Russia would install more loyal government that would not make obstacles for Russian-Belarusian joint military, political and economic cooperation that Russia needs to use as leverage against the Baltic States. The signals that such event might happen is the closure of Russian-Belarusian border in early 2017, Russian negative reaction to visa free regime with EU and more pressure on gas prices. In spring of 2017 a series of large anti-governmental protests erupted in capitol city Minsk and many other regional cities. While at start the protests were against tax on unemployed or so called social parasite law, soon many protesters demanded Lukashenka resignation. Year before the regime was cleared out of EU sanctions and released political opponents from prison. The large protests placed the regime on scare. National TV aired documentaries on danger of instigated Maidan in Minsk (in Belarus Maidan would be called Ploshcha – square) and police made arrests of supposed armed foreign saboteurs. The wave of protests ended in March 25 when in capital city hundreds of people were arrested. EU however, did not protest. Most of arrested were released and the social parasite law was halted for a year. Such situation shows Moscow that Lukashenka is irresponsible and vulnerable and needs to be replaced. On April 3 2017 when St. Petersburg was hit by a terrorist attack, Putin met Lukashenka and both declared that they have reached a end to all disagreements. Few days later Lukashenka again slammed Putin about new issues and misdeeds. So, it’s a question how long Putin will tolerate disobedient Lukashenka who has lost significant support from society as shown by the protests in March. There are signs of Russian agents of influence and anti-Belarusian propaganda from Moscow. During the protests, the Russian ultra nationalist organization National Liberation Movement entered the country but where arrested. Dissatisfaction with Belarus and its growing nationalist opposition echoes in Russian media. So forced removal of Lukashenka can be possible, if Putin decides that after 20 years of uneven cooperation he needs more reliable partner.
If such event takes place it’s hard to determine how eager the Belarusian army or police will be to resist the regime change. Its highly possible that may accept this and swear allegiance to new puppet regime as resisting large numbers of Russian troops within the country is highly unprobeable. Also, some leading figures in army or police would actually take part in the coup.
The second scare scenario is that Russia and Belarus would mount attack from Kaliningrad and Belarus to seize control over Suwalki gap and start blockade of the Baltic States. It is possible to do so and knowing how volatile is the NATO-Russian relations, Russia has reason to do that. Plus, as the current US president questions the implementation of Article 5, that would prompt Russia to be more positive on taking such risk. However, there are serious objections to such scenario. The drills are planned and NATO troops in the region will be alerted and monitor the situation. There is no element of surprise. Large tank force in Poland is stationed and is ready to counter, troops and air force in Baltic states also will be ready for just in case. If such attack would happen it more logically happen weeks after the exercise has taken place when NATO troops would calm down, but still they should be wary that troops used in exercise have not been re-deployed. In light of Lukashenka removal scenario, the Russian troops and Belarusian may well stay in combat alert for some time and in event of serious US-EU reaction against the coup would react.
In late August the first details of the Zapad 2017 scenario was reveled to the public. The Belarusian – Russian forces will counter three imaginary countries. The Veyshnoria a state within the Western Belarus where the main drills will take place is situated around Hrodna and Lida. This region is distinct for it was part of Poland from 1920 to 1939, mainly Catholic and the borders of the imaginary country resembles the areas that voted for nationalist democratic presidential candidate Zianon Pazniak in 1994 when Lukashenka was elected. More interesting are two other countries – Besbaria and Lubeniya. On the map demonstrated by the Belarusian chief of staff the Bebsbaria resembles Lithuania and Latvia. Lubeniya appears to be Suwalki gap. If so then the Russian and Belarusian armies will surely exercise how to capture the Suwalki gap. Also attack Lithuania and Poland. The scenario would play out a political, religious and territorial conflict with Belarus and Veyshnoria, and two Catholic nearby nations would became involved. In the end Belarus and Russia would take control of Veyshnoria and invade Besbaria and Lubeniya. A reminder that that Zapad 2017 drills would also take place in Kaliningrad. Pskov, Leningrad district and possibly also in Karelia. Its clear now that these large exercises are directed against the Baltic States and Poland and the main goal is to practice to capture Suwalki Gap. Troops in Pskov and Leningrad districts would learn how to strike Latvia and Estonia. Finland in last three years are dwindling between continued neutrality policy and calls to join NATO. So Russia is not so sure about FInland and its neutrality, so additional plans and drills may be made how to terminate Finnish entry into NATO.
Its seems quite plausible that Russia and Belarus is lying that the amount of troops will not exceed 13,000 troops. Russia has already brought in 3 thousand soldiers for logistics training in the Western Belarus. Most extreme theory that Russia would bring 100, 000 troops. Meanwhile there are reports of increased Russian military redeployment around Eastern Ukrainian borders. And Zapad could make possible for Russian military buildup around Ukrainian-Eastern Border. This large exercise would allow the troops to became highly maneuverable and placed in advancing positions. Officially the Russian troops would leave Belarus in September 30. This is yet to come, however until then Russia would have enough time to gather for an real attack to capture Suwalki gap, defeat Polish forces and disable Baltic States. Also we must keep in mind that during such large scale drill a provocation or simply a accident can happen between NATO and Russian-Belarusian forces triggering diplomatic standoff or even a full armed conflict. Russia has possibility to mount such attack, the observers from NATO countries that were invited and may take part will be shown only events according to program set for them and will be observed by counter intelligence. So they would not be able to fully warn the NATO of incoming danger.
Even if such attack takes place and initially Russian-Belarusian forces seize corridor between Kaliningrad and Lithuania and assaults Baltic bordering cities the question what is next. Should NATO react and gather large forces to break up the blockade. Such large confrontation would at least end with detonation of a tactical nuclear weapon. Also in initial attack the Russians must be careful not to kill any of US soldiers stationed in the region as that would surely make US president to trigger Article Five.
By logical means such attack seems highly unlikely, however, as the political events in worldwide scale has started to defy logic and necessity and violent events are starting to become a norm in society accompanied by growing economic turbulence the war as even massive war can become accepted and carried without much doubt for both sides. The 1914 and 1939 breakouts also defied political logic and since 1991 global society has become less aware of the dangers of even limited nuclear exchange.
Belarus is not an accident on geopolitical map. Its oldest cities like Polotsk are older than Moscow and the Belarus nation with own language and cultural traits has formed a territory that we know as Belarus. For Russia, an independent Belarus is a problem. It’s vital for Russian security, military ambitions and economy. While Belarus is integrated with Russia it’s still in many ways independent from Russia like in military ways. How long can Russia tolerate this Belarusian limited joint cooperation is the main issue. If Russia takes full control over Belarus, its policy and military then its significant threat to Baltic States, Poland and NATO as whole. So its in the interests of NATO block is to keep Belarus under Lukashenka or any other leader who would deny full integration into Russia.
by Māris Goldmanis
Vanaga, Nora. The Defense Policy of Belarus A Regional Perspective. In: Belarusian Foreign Policy 360°. University of Latvia Press. Riga. 2017
Golts, Aleksandr. Belarus and Russia: Military cooperation but with different goals. In: Belarusian Foreign Policy 360°. University of Latvia Press. Riga. 2017
«Вейшнорыя», «Весбарыя» і «Лубенія» нападаюць на Беларусь і Расію — сцэнар вучэнняў «Захад-2017
Tomasz K. KowalikDominik P. Jankowski. Zapad 2017: NATO Should Be Keeping an Eye on Russia’s Training Exercises http://nationalinterest.org/feature/zapad-2017-nato-should-be-keeping-eye-russias-training-20540?page=3