Belarus — Russia: from a strategic deal to an asymmetric dependence


Russian Strategy: new modus operandi

The Russian-Ukrainian conflict of 2014 and the subsequent militarypolitical confrontation between Russia and the West marked the transition of Russia to a new strategic doctrine. If until 2013, Moscow tried to increase its influence in the post-Soviet space with the help of Eurasian economic integration tools and soft power, the inability to prevent Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration processes by the end of 2013 led to open military-political intervention of Russia in the internal affairs of this state (annexation of the Crimea and destabilization of Donbass). In the period from 2009 to 2013, the Kremlin focused on the formation of the Eurasian Economic Union — Europeanstyle integration institution — as an independent integration centre, through which Moscow could build an equal dialogue with Brussels and Beijing. However, by the end of 2013, the deadlock in the efforts of the Russian authorities in the field of the economy modernization became obvious. Even before the Ukrainian crisis the official institutions and the expert community predicted stagnation or minimal economic growth (0.1–0.2%) even within the framework of high oil prices (about $ 100 per barrel) for 2014.

Since Russia is no longer able to maintain its influence in the world and, in particular, in the post-Soviet space with the help of economic instruments and soft power because of the objective impossibility of competing with other global players (the US, EU, China, etc.), the only modus operandi available for the Kremlin in the international arena is using rigid (hard) and sharp tools. Which include usage of military force in traditional and non-traditional (hybrid) forms and an active destabilizing both in the postSoviet space and beyond. If Russia’s share in global GDP is only 2-3% and for this reason it is not able to compete in economic terms with the United States, China or the EU, in terms of military power, Russia is still in the TOP-5 most militarized countries of the world. This means that the Russian regime is interested in transforming military power into a leading factor in international relations, since with the use of power tools the Kremlin is still able to determine and impose the rules of the game and promote its national interests (demonstrated by the example of Ukraine and Syria).

The change in Russia’s strategic doctrine had a direct impact on the dynamics of Russian-Belarusian relations. Belarus’ reluctance to join the confrontation with Ukraine and Western countries on the Russian side as well as the Kremlin’s fear of losing its geopolitical control and influence in the medium term provoke permanent tensions between Minsk and Moscow. This tension results in various forms of military-political, economic and informational pressure on Belarus from the Russian side, aimed at forcing the Belarusian authorities to make strategic concessions guaranteeing Russian interests, but undermining the national sovereignty and independence of Belarus.

In this regard, no scenarios in relations between Russia and Belarus, including crisis ones, can be excluded, especially if the Kremlin, for objective or subjective reasons, feels the vulnerability of its own positions. Moscow’s desire to unilaterally achieve the deployment of its military airbase on the territory of Belarus in 2015 seems to indicate attempts to hedge the risks of losing geopolitical influence in the future. In turn, this state of affairs indicates that the Kremlin began to unilaterally revise the socalled strategic deal with Belarus, which was concluded in the mid-1990s.

Belarusian-Russian strategic deal in question?

Practically from the very beginning of his reign, Aliaksandr Lukashenka announced economic and military-political integration with Russia as the main priority of the foreign policy of Belarus. In fact, Lukashenka then managed to make a kind of strategic deal with the Russian Federation. Its essence was as follows: Belarus abandoned the Euro-Atlantic aspirations of integration with the EU and NATO, thus not creating challenges and threats to Russia, and in return, Moscow had to guarantee preferential energy supplies, privileged access of Belarusian products to the Russian market and credit assistance from Russia. Moreover, in accordance with this deal, Belarus assumed the functions of ensuring the security and defence of the Russian Federation in the western strategic direction. This strategic deal has found its institutional embodiment in the form of a draft of the socalled Union State of Belarus and Russia, the creation agreement of which was signed back in 1999. In 2000 the so-called Regional Group of Forces of the Republic of Belarus and the Russian Federation was created.

By the way, back in 1996, analysts of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISS) formulated a provision that geopolitical interests should prevail in Moscow’s strategy towards Minsk, and cooperation between the two countries (especially in the military sphere) should not be determined by rational commercial arithmetic. According to RISS estimates, the development and strengthening of RussianBelarusian relations as well as direct integration with Belarus coincide with the interests of Russia and strengthen its national security. In particular, RISS analysts pointed to the important role of Belarus in ensuring Russia’s strategic interests in the western direction, and interaction in the field of defence and national security was recognized as one of the most priority areas of cooperation between the two countries. It was assumed that the development of Russian-Belarusian contacts in the military sphere would be aimed at strengthening the borders with the Baltic countries and Poland, as well as ensuring the normal functioning of the Russian troops in the Kaliningrad special area.

In turn, the official Minsk successfully exploited the strategic phobias of Moscow in the western direction, getting the necessary resources to support the socio-economic model with the prevailing role of the state. Simply, this model of relations could be described as Russian financial and economic support in exchange for a certain degree of military-political loyalty and integration aspirations on the part of Belarus.

As the IMF data show, the conditions of the strategic deal were fulfilled by Russia until 2015. Trade wars between Minsk and Moscow happened before, but not with such frequency as after 2014, when they became, in fact, permanent. Over the period 2005–2015, the general support of the Belarusian economy from Russia (the socalled “integration subsidies” due to discounts on Russian energy and net financial support) amounted to $ 106 billion, or about $ 9.7 billion per year. Over the years, the volume of “total net support” from Russia ranged from 11% to 27% of Belarusian GDP. However, starting in 2015, Russia begins to restrict financial and economic support for the Belarusian economy and even provide targeted economic pressure (reduce oil supplies, increase gas prices, restrict access of Belarusian agricultural and industrial goods to the Russian market) even contrary to agreements in the framework of the Union State and Eurasian Economic Union.

Thus, according to the estimates of the Russian Institute of Energy and Finance, if the gas subsidy for Belarus from Russia in 2015 was $ 2.2 billion, then in 2016 it dropped sharply to $ 350 million, and by the end of March 2017 the Kremlin billed Minsk for $ 700 million in debt for gas supplied. The reason for the constant oil wars between Minsk and Moscow is that the oil subsidy for the Belarusian economy is exhausted as the so-called tax manoeuvre in the oil industry is implemented. As a result of it the export duty on oil is gradually replaced by a mineral extraction tax. In accordance with the existing agreements, Russia supplies Belarus with crude oil duty-free, and Belarus exports refined petroleum products abroad, collecting duties and putting it to the Belarusian budget. At the same time, the mineral extraction tax increases the cost of Russian oil for Belarus. With high oil prices, Belarus bought it at two times cheaper than the market price, and now it is only 25% cheaper. In the future, with the formation of a single market for oil, gas and oil products in the EAEU by 2025 and the continuation of the tax manoeuvre in the oil industry in Russia, the price of Russian oil and gas for Belarus will approach the market one completely, which will mean the end of Russian “integration subsidies” for the Belarusian economy.

Thus, Moscow is unilaterally reviewing the terms of a strategic deal with Minsk, undermining the political and economic basis of BelarusianRussian relations. This review is manifested not only in the changing nature of trade and economic relations between Belarus and Russia, but also more and more clearly in the military-political sphere.

Belarus as a military outpost of Russia?

Beginning in 2014, there is evidence that Moscow no longer considers Minsk as a special partner in ensuring the security of the Union State in the western strategic direction, as was originally envisaged by its architecture. In accordance with the strategic deal concluded in the 1990s, the main mission of Belarus was to ensure the security and defence of Russia in the western direction, and for these services the Kremlin was to supply the latest military equipment and weapons systems, if not free of charge, then with a serious discount in order to maintain a high level of combat effectiveness of the Belarusian army. For this reason, Russia did not need to create a serious military grouping in the western direction.

However, in the Kremlin, apparently, they decided to reconsider the strategic nature of relations with Belarus and the military-political sphere, systematically reducing their dependence on this issue from Belarus. For example, in 2015, the Kremlin unilaterally decided to place an air base on the territory of Belarus, without having received the prior consent of the Belarusian authorities. Later, in 2016, Moscow began to transfer mechanized units to the Belarusian border (motorized rifle brigade in Klintsy, Bryansk region and motorized rifle brigade in Yelnya, Smolensk region), where by the end of last year the 144th motorized rifle division had been established as part of the 20th Guards General Army, which was reformatted and transferred to the border with Ukraine to support the hostilities in the Donbas. Behind it, the recreated 1st Guards Tank Army — a powerful strike fist looks in the Belarusian direction. But unlike Belarus, Ukraine and Russia are in war, and the Kremlin has not given a clear explanation of the feasibility of these steps, except for the need to respond to a significant strengthening of NATO at the borders of the Union State. But the main paradox is that the Kremlin decided to deploy new mechanized units and formations in the Western Military District on the border with Ukraine and Belarus at the end of 2014 immediately after the start of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, that is, at least one and a half the year before the Warsaw Summit of NATO in 2016, where it was decided to deploy 4 multinational battalion tactical groups in the Baltic States and Poland to deter Russia.

Moreover, in 2015, the commander of the troops of the Western Military District, Anatoly Sidorov, said it would be expedient to include the Regional Group of Forces of the Republic of Belarus and the Russian Federation in the structure of the group of forces in the Western strategic direction. That is, he proposed reassigning the armed forces of Belarus, which are part of the Regional Group of Forces (RGF), to the command of the Western Military District of Russia, which is the basis for the formation of the grouping of troops in the western strategic direction. The fact is that in accordance with the Concept of the Joint Defence Policy of Belarus and Russia of 1998, the deployment of the RGF is carried out in a period of danger by the decision of the Supreme Council of the Union of Belarus and Russia (that is, by the joint decision of the heads of state of Belarus and Russia). In addition, during the period of danger, the Unified Command of the RSF is created on the basis of the Ministry of Defence of Belarus. A decision to establish the supreme governing body of the Union State may be taken as well. Thus, the proposal to reassign the RGF also indicates that the Kremlin no longer views Belarus as an equal partner from a formal institutional point of view and is trying to reformat militarypolitical relations with Minsk according to the so-called “Armenian model”

Finally, starting from 2016, unilateral restoration of border control from the Russian side and the deployment of a fullfledged border infrastructure on the Russian-Belarusian border, previously absent between Belarus and Russia, are accompanying the abovementioned processes.

It is significant that despite the demonstration of its allied obligations to Belarus in the military-political sphere, as evidenced by the joint West2017 military exercises, the Kremlin continued to put pressure on Minsk. Another symbolic fact was that for the first time in the history of joint strategic exercises, the presidents of Russia and Belarus did not meet at the time of the final stage of the exercises.

Taken together, all these facts suggest that the status of Belarus as a guarantor of Russia’s security in the western strategic direction is devalued. Moscow ceases to consider Minsk as the main military-political ally. The Kremlin relies less and less on Belarus in ensuring security in the western strategic direction and is gradually moving to unilaterally ensuring its own security based on its own capabilities, or at the expense of the Belarus without taking into account its interests.

Against this background, Aliaksandr Lukashenka makes statements designed to demonstrate to Moscow adherence to allied obligations, but at the same time criticizes the Kremlin for not wanting to supply Belarus with the latest weapons systems and military equipment at a serious discount, in order to somehow influence the Kremlin’s unilateral revision of this relationship. The wellknown thesis of the Belarusian authorities that Belarus protects Russia from NATO tanks no longer works. The 43rd Communications Hub of the Russian Navy (Vileika) and the “Hantsavichy” Radio Hub with a fixed digital radar station of the Volga-type UHF range (Kletsk district) have Russian space warning systems analogues on Russian territory (for the first object — the Druzhny settlement of the Kstovsky district of Nizhny Novgorod region, for the second one — the Voronezh-M radar station in Leningrad region near the village of Lekhtusi and the VoronezhDM radar station near the town of Pionerski in Kaliningrad region). Therefore, their presence on the territory of Belarus is primarily symbolic from a geopolitical point of view, and not having militarytechnical significance.

But one can hardly expect any concessions from Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin will demand strategic concessions from Belarus. Given that Russia is preparing for a new phase of a tough military and political confrontation with the West, it is not difficult to imagine what kind of concessions the Kremlin wants to get from Minsk. These may include not only the deployment of Russian military bases on Belarusian territory and Russian border guards on the external border of Belarus with the Baltic countries, Poland and Ukraine, but also real, rather than rhetorical solidarity of Minsk and Moscow in the international arena towards the West. Russia also may ask for giving Belarus its own territory for the militarypolitical pressure of Russia on the neighbouring countries of NATO, the EU and Ukraine, the use of the Belarusian territory for active measures of the Russian special services against third countries, readiness of Belarus to bear military-political costs for Russia’s actions in the international arena, including sanctions as well as sending its own military personnel to hot spots and conflicts with Russian participation (for example, “peacekeepers” to Syria, joint operations against Ukraine, etc.).

forms of military presence of the Russian troops in Belarus, then the model tested in Syria serves as the logic of the deployment of the Russian contingent. Despite the fact that in August 2015, the Russian Federation signed an agreement with Syria on the deployment of an aviation group of the Russian Armed Forces, Russia’s military presence did not stop there. Soon, under the umbrella of the air group, Russian ground forces, special operations forces and military police began to deploy. Also, the latest combat systems and military equipment including air defence/missile defence systems, electronic warfare means, artillery and rocket weapons were deployed. Thus, Russia, with the help of its military presence, created the so-called blocking zone (A2/ AD) in the Mediterranean. According to a similar model, Russia is now strengthening its troops in Kaliningrad and the Crimea.

Both the agreement between Russia and Syria, and the agreement on the Russian air base, which the Kremlin tried to impose on Minsk in 2015, are framework ones and allow a larger military presence under an umbrella of air bases, as was demonstrated by Russia in Syria. There is no doubt that the Kremlin would like to implement a similar deployment model in Belarus. This would allow Moscow to create a solid blocking zone (A2/AD) from the Black to the Baltic Sea and seriously change the military balance of forces in the region in its favour by devaluing the decisions of the 2016 Warsaw Summit of NATO.

Instead of an epilogue...

Today, for objective and subjective reasons, Belarus is not going to drastically change its integration vector of cooperation with Russia to join the EU and NATO in the medium term. There are no economic, domestic political, and geopolitical prerequisites for this.

At the same time, Russia, faced with a structural crisis, is increasingly beginning to show concern about maintaining its strategic position in Belarus in the so-called post-Lukashenka period (or a hypothetical period of transit of power) in the medium term. It is significant that, beginning in 2014, military analysts and the intelligence community of the Russian Federation stubbornly repeats, like a mantra, the forecast that the West is going to tear Belarus apart from Russia and fix it in the Western sphere of influence. In particular, Major-General Sergei Afanasyev, Deputy Head of the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces (former Main Intelligence Directorate), in the review for 2018 “The international situation and threats to Russia’s national security” indicates: “Washington and Brussels continue information, political, financial and economic pressure to Belarus in order to reorient it to the West and reduce the level of military and militarytechnical cooperation with the Russian Federation”.

As long as the top militarypolitical authorities of Belarus effectively control their own territory in the military-political sense (which means, above all, the absence of foreign military bases, including Russian ones) and is committed to national independence and sovereignty, retaining a monopoly on the use of force, the Kremlin’s attempts ensure their security at the expense of Belarus unilaterally (without taking into account the Belarusian position and interests) remain ineffectual. The institutional mechanisms of the CSTO, the Regional Group of Forces and the Unified Regional Air Defence System cannot be activated until a state of war is declared or a there is a period of growing threat of aggression, which requires a decision based on a consensus between Belarus and Russia. This does not mean that the Kremlin will not try to test the vulnerabilities of Minsk and will not attempt to forcefully use the territory of Belarus unilaterally (like in the case of the Ukrainian citizen Pavel Grib, kidnapped by the Russian Federal Security Service, or in the situation with the attempt to transfer extra Russian troops during the “West-2017” exercise to Belarus contrary to the previous agreements).

In this regard, one should expect the pressure from Russia aimed at the rejection of a strategic deal and the establishment of an asymmetric “partnership” with Belarus, undermining sovereignty and independence. Belarus will have to choose between several options: consistently upholding national sovereignty and independence, eliminating critical dependence on Russia (the “deter Russia” scenario); solidarity with Russia in the international arena and breakdown of contacts with Western countries and China (“besieged fortress” scenario); or turning into an outpost of the militarypolitical pressure of Russia on the EU countries, NATO and Ukraine (scenario of “domination escalation”). However, all of them suggest the preservation of tension in relations with Russia for objective and subjective reasons, combined with various strategic concessions from Belarus. Therefore, the further economic support of Belarus from the Kremlin will now be conditioned by the readiness of Minsk to go for closer and deeper militarypolitical integration within the framework of the Union State (a similar model has already been implemented in relations with South Ossetia and Abkhazia). And given the fact that the “Crimean consensus” and “Syrian success” no longer work, the Kremlin needs new geopolitical victories, one of which could be the “strangulation in the arms” scenario — keeping Belarus in the framework of the Union State.

If we assume that the main existential interest of Belarus is the full development and preservation of independence and sovereignty, then in these conditions the main task for the Belarusian foreign policy is to prevent the country from getting into a new round of confrontation between Russia and the West. But at the same time a flexible opposition to the inevitable pressure from the Kremlin in order to avoid crisis confrontational scenarios is essential. The solution of this task, in turn, will require strengthening the stability of the Belarusian state and society to internal and external challenges, strengthening the combat capability of the Armed Forces of Belarus, as well as eliminating critical dependence on Russia in areas that can be used as tools of pressure by the Kremlin.