Belarus’s Contribution to Security and Stability in Central and Eastern Europe: Regional Safeguards, Strategic Autonomy and National Defense Modernization
Belarus has been widely commended for hosting a neutral platform for diplomatic negotiations over the Russian-Ukrainian war; but its major contribution to regional security and stability is related to the so-called security guarantees Minsk formulated toward all neighboring states immediately in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the subsequent Russia-West geopolitical standoff. The post-2014 geopolitical environment has, thus, become a testing ground for Belarus’s foreign policy identity, marked by deliberative positive contributions to regional security and stability. The security guarantees assert that Belarus will not voluntarily allow its territory to be used by third countries to commit military aggression against neighbors and other foreign states. Though a strategic political and military ally of Russia, Belarus has managed to abstain from engaging in the conflict with Ukraine as well as Moscow’s confrontation with the West. Moreover, Minsk has so far withstood the Kremlin’s growing geopolitical pressure aimed at compromising these security guarantees and transforming Belarus into a source of security challenges and threats to other countries.
Specifically, Russia is pushing to reshape the architecture of its political and military alliance with Belarus to limit the latter’s strategic autonomy and undermine its national defense capabilities. However, the Kremlin has a much more far-reaching agenda: its final goal is to force Belarusian authorities to make strategic concessions that predominantly guarantee Russian interests but undermine the national sovereignty and independence of Belarus. This is the essence of the so-called “integration ultimatum” explicitly formulated by the Russian leadership at the end of 2018. In fact, however, this ultimatum’s roots date back to 2015, when the Kremlin tried pushing several initiatives aimed at deeper political-military integration with Belarus.
In response to these Russian efforts, Minsk seeks to reassert and enhance its commitments to regional and international security, while preserving and expanding Belarus’s strategic autonomy within the alliance with Russia. Additionally, Minsk is working to modernize the Belarusian Armed Forces and develop its domestic defense industry, taking into consideration lessons learned from the Russia-Ukraine conflict and Russia’s changing strategic attitude toward Belarus. These interrelated pillars are important preconditions for the continued existence of Belarus as a sovereign and independent state. In turn, only in this capacity can Belarus maintain its role as a regional security and stability donor. Preserving this status quo requires not only a consensus among regional and global players but their strategic and comprehensive assistance.
Europe’s present security environment—born out of the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, the Russian-Ukrainian conflict of 2014, and subsequent political and military confrontations between Russia and the West—has been an important test for Belarus’s foreign policy. In conceptual and practical terms, Minsk’s strategy is to be seen as a donor of regional security and stability based on three interrelated pillars.
First, immediately after the outbreak of the 2014 Russian-Ukrainian conflict, Minsk put itself forward as a neutral party willing to host negotiations over the war’s resolution. But just as importantly, Belarus also formulated so-called security guaranties toward all states on its borders. Accordingly, the government pledged that it would not allow third countries (including Russia) to use Belarusian territory to commit military aggression against any of its neighbors. Later, these security guaranties were expanded and supplemented by additional confidence- and security-building measures with partners throughout the region. Together, these went beyond the 2011 Vienna Document and other international arms-control regimes.
Second, Belarus has successfully managed to abstain from engaging in both the Russian-Ukrainian war itself as well as in having to take sides in Moscow’s subsequent geopolitical standoff with the West. Minsk was able to hold to this stance despite remaining Moscow’s strategic military and political ally as well as facing considerable pressure from the Kremlin. The key to preserving this this de facto neutrality has been Belarus’s considerable level of strategic autonomy within its political and military alliance with Russia. In the Russia-Belarus Union State, for instance, Minsk and Moscow legally hold equal weight, and decisions are taken on the basis of consensus. The Belarusian side also notably plays the leading role in controlling and commanding various joint military components, including the Regional Group of Forces. This helps Minsk exercise veto power and block any unilateral Russian decisions that may be inconsistent with Belarusian national interests. Therefore, Belarus never permitted itself to become engaged in Russian military operations abroad (either against Georgia in 2008, or Ukraine in 2014, or in Syria in 2015, etc.).
Third, Belarus has been actively modernizing its Armed Forces and national defense industrial sector, taking into consideration lessons learned from the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and the Kremlin’s changing strategic attitude toward Belarus. Moreover, Belarus’s new strategic security concept was developed immediately and adopted already by the end of 2014, with a focus on implementing a “360-degree” defense concept, paying equal attention to security threats from western and eastern directions.
Since 2015, the Belarusian Armed Forces have been exercising Donbas-like “hybrid” conflict scenarios during large-scale national drills and combat-readiness checks. Furthermore, Belarusian authorities have been steadily increasing the number of military personnel, especially the combat element, and providing the Armed Forces with new and modernized equipment. Special attention has been paid to further development of a territorial defense system. The main task for the Belarusian leadership today is to create a highly mobile military capable of fighting multiple, dispersed, hostile armed formations, while taking into consideration the changing nature of modern warfare. Meanwhile, the domestic defense industry has been tasked with developing indigenous missiles, satellite programs, surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and armored vehicle projects in order to decrease and ultimately eliminate Belarus’s critical dependence on Russian military equipment and supplies. China has notably been playing a decisive role in strengthening Belarus’s national defense capabilities (particularly, missile and satellite programs).
However, since 2015, the Kremlin has been increasingly trying to undermine these three pillars, promoting several initiatives aimed at revising and reshaping the architecture of the bilateral political and military alliance within the Union State. In particular, Russia has been pushing to establish a permanent military presence in Belarus, expand Russia’s command and control (C2) over the Belarusian Armed Forces, and to create a capability gap by refusing to supply its ally with new military equipment on preferential terms. The Kremlin presents this capability gap as a major security vulnerability of the Union State and Russia’s western flank, and it regularly circles back to the idea of deploying permanent military bases in Belarus to close it.
If and when implemented, these strategic intentions threaten to transform Belarus from a contributor to regional security and stability into a source of regional threats and challenges to other countries. However, the growing pressure from the Kremlin is currently only succeeding in pushing Belarus to be more self-sufficient and rely on its own security and defense capabilities as the main precondition for preserving national sovereignty and independence.
Belarus’s Contribution to Regional Security and Stability
In light of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and the resulting confrontation between Russia and the West, Belarus has been behaving in the international arena according to a model closely resembling the modus operandi of neutral states.
Since late 2016, the Belarusian leadership has been actively promoting a new grand peacekeeping initiative—similar to the Helsinki Process of the 1970s, which resulted in the adoption of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act—to foster pan-European dialogue on measures to strengthen trust, security and cooperation. According to Belarusian officials, such a broad dialogue could be aimed at overcoming the existing contradictions in relations between the countries in the Euro-Atlantic and Eurasian regions, including the United States, the EU, Russia and China. Although Minsk’s grandiose initiative still lacks substance and is irrelevant to current geopolitical tendencies or ongoing informal discussions within the framework of the OSCE Structured Dialogue, it clearly demonstrates Belarus’s efforts to avoid involvement in Russia’s confrontation with the West.
Today, Minsk is widely associated with being a neutral platform for diplomatic negotiations, and the country has far-reaching ambitions to become a new Switzerland or Finland in Europe’s East. Nevertheless, it remains problematic to call Belarus a “neutral state,” especially because of its formal membership in military and political alliances with Russia, such as within the frameworks of the Union State and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Instead, it may be more useful to define Belarus as a regional stability and security donor because this concept accurately represents a composite element of Belarus’s foreign policy identity. Its roots date back to the National Security Concept of 2010, but it continues to play a decisive role in determining Belarus’s modus operandi within the current geopolitical environment.
According to the 2010 Concept, Belarus considers itself a responsible and predictable partner as well as a contributor to international and regional security. The country is identified as a successful, independent and sovereign European state that does not belong to any of the world’s power centers, adopts a peaceful foreign policy, and intends to set up conditions for acquiring a neutral status. Furthermore, the document notes that Belarus seeks to develop a “belt of good neighborliness” along its external border in all its dimensions: military, political, cultural, informational, social and economic.
That said, Belarus’s contributions to regional stability and security do not end with initiatives aimed at facilitating diplomatic negotiations on the Russia-Ukraine conflict or Russian-Western tensions. The most important contribution is related to its so-called security guaranties—pledges to prevent foreign countries from establishing military bases on Belarusian territory or using it to commit acts of aggression against third states. Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka formulated these promises in Kyiv, immediately after the start of the Russian-Ukrainian war, as well as during his meeting with then–acting president of Ukraine and chair of the Supreme Rada, Oleksandr Turchynov, in Lyaskovichi, Gomel region, at the end of March 2014. Recalling this meeting four years later, in 2018, Turchynov revealed some interesting details. According to him, Ukraine then lacked enough troops and reserves to defend the entire country. So to reduce the number of possible directions of a Russian offensive, he met with Lukashenka on the Belarusian-Ukrainian border. The latter provided security guaranties that Minsk would not permit the Russian Armed Forces to use Belarusian territory to attack Ukraine from the northern direction. But Lukashenka also added that in “extreme cases” he would warn Kyiv 24 hours in advance, if the Kremlin tried to do this illegally.
In September 2015, the Kremlin unilaterally announced plans to deploy a Russian military airbase with direct subordination to Moscow on Belarusian territory without Minsk’s prior consent.
Nevertheless, Moscow’s plans clearly indicated a strategic intention to establish a permanent military presence on and access to Belarusian territory, thus transforming Belarus into its military outpost in the center of Europe. On the one hand, although Minsk and Moscow are formally strategic military allies according to defensive pacts within the Union State and the CSTO, Russia still does not have military bases in Belarus (there are two non-combat military-technical facilities leased by Russia). Furthermore, Belarus and Russia have no “military Schengen zone”
On the other hand, if Belarus had agreed to deploy a Russian military airbase in 2015, the Russian military buildup would not have stopped there. It would likely have resembled the Syrian model, whereby the deployment of a Russian Air Force Group was soon followed by the appearance of other military units, including air-defense, special operations and ground forces. In both cases (Syria and Belarus), Russia proposed to sign a very general framework agreement that would allow it to deploy additional forces under the umbrella of the extraterritorial airbase.
Even though the Kremlin has effectively sought to turn Belarus into a source of security threats and challenges to the whole region, Minsk has, to date, managed to withstand and preserve its role as a regional security and stability donor. On October 8, 2019, Alyaksandr Lukashenka reaffirmed his country’s security guarantees to its neighbors as well as announced other voluntary commitments—compliance with international arms-control and nuclear non-proliferation regimes even against the background of their collapse, including the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and the Budapest Memorandum. In this regard, Belarus is not going to deploy on its territory treaty-banned missiles either with conventional or nuclear warheads—at least not until neighboring countries do this first.
Finally, since 2014, Belarus has taken a number of additional measures aimed at strengthening regional confidence and transparency in the military sphere that go beyond the Vienna Document of 2011. These activities are based on a range of security cooperation agreements and additional trust-building measures with its neighbors on the bilateral level, including Lithuania (2001), Ukraine (2001), Latvia (2004) and Poland (2004).
This modus operandi has deep roots in Belarus’s strategic culture, and it has been bringing some practical economic and political dividends in recent years. Indeed, Belarus has managed to convert its contribution to regional security and stability into a source of normalizing relations with the West and of strengthening its strategic partnership with China.
Belarus’s Strategic Autonomy Within Its Political and Military Alliance With Russia
Although a strategic military and political ally of Russia, Belarus wields enough checks and balances to block any unilateral decision by Moscow within their joint alliance. That is how Belarus has managed to stay out of Russia’s conflict with Ukraine and confrontation with the West.
Upon coming to power in 1994, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka almost immediately announced that economic and political-military integration with Russia would be among the strategic priorities for Belarusian foreign policy. In the mid-1990s, he signed a number of treaties and agreements with Moscow, culminating in the conclusion of the 1999 Treaty on Establishing the Union State of Belarus and Russia. That same year, Minsk and Moscow formed a joint Regional Group of Forces (RGF), composed then of the Belarusian Armed Forces and the Russian 20th Guards Combined Arms Army, previously withdrawn from post-Soviet Germany to the Russian Federation in 1994.
This collection of treaties and agreements signed by Minsk and the Kremlin over the course of the 1990s added up to a strategic deal of sorts: Accordingly, Belarus pledged to join the various ongoing integration processes with Russia and agreed to renounce its Euro-Atlantic aspirations—in contrast with a number of other neighboring post-Soviet states that had already decided to join NATO and the European Union. In light of NATO and the EU’s eastward enlargement, Belarus suddenly took on a crucial role for Moscow, ensuring Russia’s national security in the western strategic direction, particularly with respect to the Kaliningrad exclave. In turn, Russia was obliged to grant Belarus preferential oil and natural gas supplies, offer privileged access for Belarusian industrial and agricultural products to the Russian market and financial assistance, as well as supply the Belarusian military with significantly discounted (if not outright free) arms and equipment. Simply put, Russia agreed to trade economic and military-technical support in exchange for a certain level of geopolitical loyalty from Belarus. And security and military integration was to become one of the cornerstones of this bilateral strategic deal.
However, despite this deep level of integration, Belarus has managed to preserve a considerable degree of strategic autonomy within its political-military alliance with Russia. The Belarusian government succeeded in ensuring that the institutional architecture of the joint military components were all designed in a way that gives Minsk the option to exercise veto power over any Kremlin decisions inconsistent with Belarus’s national interests. This is one of the main reasons why Belarus never became involved in any recent Russian military adventures, including the war with Georgia (2008) and ongoing conflict with Ukraine.
As one example of Minsk’s “veto” in joint military activities, all political and military decisions within the Union State are taken and approved by the Supreme State Council, the main collective decision-making body. It consists of the presidents, prime ministers, and heads of lower and higher chambers of parliament of both states, while all decisions are taken on the basis of consensus. The Supreme State Council is responsible for coordinating joint plans for the development and use of Russia’s and Belarus’s armed forces and military infrastructure.
Second, according to the 1998 Joint Defense Concept of Belarus and Russia
To date, the Union State includes two joint military components—the Regional Group of Forces (RGF) and the Unified Regional Air-Defense System (URADS). Both are usually trained during Zapad (“West”) joint strategic exercises as well as during Schit Soyuza (“Union Shield”) joint operational exercises. Zapad exercises take place every four years (last held on 2009, 2013 and 2017), on the territory of Belarus and partially Russia; while Schit Soyuza drills, carried out on the territory of Russia, are held every two years following a Zapad exercise (2011, 2015, 2019).
As noted above, the Regional Group of Forces was originally formed in 1999. Today, it consists of all ground and special operations units of the Belarusian Armed Forces as well as the 1st Guards Tank Army (military unit 73621, Moscow region, Bakovka) of the Russian Western Military District. The 1st Guards Tank Army was established in 2014 and substituted the 20th Combined Arms Army (military unit 89425, Voronezh) after the latter was deployed on the border with Ukraine to assist Kremlin-backed separatists in the military conflict in Donbas.
The RGF does not exist in peacetime. During a threatened period, however, the force’s Joint Command is formed on the basis of the Ministry of Defense (General Staff of the Armed Forces) of Belarus. In practical terms, this means that the position of RGF commander is permanent (non-rotational) and always occupied by the chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Belarus; under his command and control is the Belarusian Army and the Russian 1st Guards Tank Army. In turn, he is subordinated and reports directly to the Supreme State Council of the Union State.
In 2009, Minsk and Moscow signed the agreement “on Joint Protection of the External Border of the Union State in Airspace and the Creation of the Unified Regional Air-Defense System of the Republic of Belarus and the Russian Federation.” However, it came into force only in 2013, due to prolonged political wrangling by the two sides. Today, the URADS includes all Air Forces and Air-Defense Forces of the Belarusian Army as well as the 6th Air Forces and Air-Defense Forces Army, located on the territory of the Western Military District of the Russian Federation (military unit 09436, St. Petersburg).
In contrast to the RGF, which is organized and deployed only during a threatened period, the URADS exists and functions on an ongoing basis in peacetime. The position of the URADS commander is rotational but must still be approved by a consensus decision of the presidents of Belarus and Russia. Since the URADS was created back in 2013, only Belarusian representatives had been put in charge of it—Air Forces and Air-Defense Forces Commanders of the Republic of Belarus Oleg Dvigalev (2013–2017) and Igor Golub (since 2018). This fact is quite remarkable, demonstrating Belarus’s strong desire to preserve control over this joint military component.
In peacetime, the ministries of defense of the two countries, together with the URADS commander carry out planning for the use of the unified air-defense system’s troops (forces) and capabilities. Additionally, these institutions coordinate their interaction and combat duties on defending their airspace. National air forces and air-defense forces remain subordinated to their national commands, however.
During a period of growing military threat (threatened period) and wartime, the URADS becomes a composite part of the Regional Group of Forces (RGF). From a practical point of view, this means that the URADS commander subordinates to the RGF commander, represented by the chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Belarus.
In December 2013, four Russian Su-27SM combat aircraft landed at the 61st military airbase of the Belarusian Air Forces, in Baranovichi, in order to take part in joint airspace patrolling missions on a rotational basis (two months after two). It was, to some extent, a response to the NATO Baltic Air Policing mission, which protects the airspace of the three Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. However, already in 2015, the Belarusian leadership abandoned the practice of joint air patrols with Russia in order not to escalate regional tensions, particularly in light of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Minsk’s decision to suspend joint air patrols was also a rejoinder to the Kremlin’s growing pressure on its ally to allow a permanent Russian military base on Belarusian soil.
To date, no Russian troops are stationed on the territory of Belarus, either on a permanent or rotational basis; nor is there any pre-deployed Russian military equipment in Belarusian storages. According to the 2017 “Agreement on Joint Technical Support of the Regional Group of Troops (Forces) of the Republic of Belarus and the Russian Federation,” Moscow is legally constrained in when it can deploy military assets across the border to Belarus. Namely, the Russian Ministry of Defense is allowed to transfer and deploy to Belarus all necessary military equipment and weapons for the 1st Guards Tank Army only in the period of growing military threat (threatened period) to the Union State and in wartime. The material and technical base of the Armed Forces of Belarus is used jointly in this case.
Thus, there is no a military “Schengen zone” between Belarus and Russia: Moscow is not legally permitted to use Belarusian territory for military purposes without Minsk’s authorization.
Today, the only form of Russian military presence inside Belarus are two Soviet-era military-technical facilities, owned by the Belarusian government but rented out to Russia—the 43rd Communications Center of the Russian Navy (Vileika), with 350 officers and midshipmen, and the Gantsevichi early-warning radar station of the Volga-type UHF range (Kletsk district), with 600 military personnel. They do not possess combat capabilities and are not considered military bases, according to agreements signed in 1995 (set to expire in 2021). When signing these agreements, the Kremlin agreed to partially write off Belarus’s debts for energy resources. In addition, Russia was obliged to share with Belarus intelligence data about the regional space and missile operating environment (informatsiya o kosmicheskoy i raketnoy obstanovke), as well as training ranges for conducting air-defense combat firing (in particular, at the Ashuluk training ground) due to the absence of such installations in Belarus.
More recently, Russia deployed analogous radar and monitoring facilities on its own territory. To do the same job as the Vileika naval communications station, Russia built a similar complex in Druzhny (Kstovsky district, Nizhny Novgorod region); as for regional radar, the Russian military now has a Voronezh-M radar station in Leningrad region (near the village of Lekhtusi) and a Voronezh-DM radar facility near the town of Pionersky, Kaliningrad region. Therefore, the continued presence of the naval 43rd Communications Center and Gantsevichi radar in Belarus’s Vileika and Kletsk district, respectively, are now primarily symbolic from a geopolitical point of view; the two Russian installations on Belarusian soil no longer hold any major military-technical significance in the Baltic region.
Since at least 2015, however, Russia has been demonstrating that it is no longer satisfied with the status quo regarding the Union State. Namely, by preserving its considerable veto power within this supranational format, Belarus actually constrains the Kremlin’s strategic intentions. The constraints come from not allowing Russian military bases on its soil as well as abstaining from involvement in Russia’s conflict with Ukraine and confrontation with the West.
In addition to Russian attempt to push the issue of a military base in Belarus, in September 2015 the commander of the troops of Russia’s Western Military District, Anatoly Sidorov, proposed to include the joint Regional Group of Forces within the structure of the group of forces in the Western strategic direction.
At the end of 2015, Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu proposed to complete the formation of a joint military organization of the Union State by 2018.
Collectively, the above-mentioned Russian proposals to Belarus demonstrate that Moscow no longer considers Minsk an equal partner from a formally institutional point of view and intends to reshape their military-political alliance by undermining Belarus’s strategic autonomy. From this perspective, the Kremlin’s so-called “integration ultimatum” to Lukashenka’s government, explicitly declared at the end of 2018, actually dates back to at least 2015. It clearly shows Russia’s geopolitical intentions to subordinate Belarus politically, militarily and economically, within the Union State framework. Integration models already tested by the Kremlin in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and, to some degree Armenia, give some idea of Russia’s final goals regarding Belarus.
National Defense: New Strategic Concepts, Modernization and Rearmament
The 2014 Russian-Ukrainian conflict and resulting Russian-Western standoff led to significant shifts in Belarus’s national defense planning and military buildup as well as its threat perceptions. Already, on December 16, 2014, President Lukashenka hosted a session of the Belarusian Security Council to discuss essential changes in the regional political-military situation, new forms and methods of confrontation and warfare, and how such external threats could influence the country. Although the president remarked that the increase of NATO’s military potential on Belarus’s western borders was alarming, he, nevertheless, added that “the recent actions of our eastern brother cannot but raise concern.” As a result of this session, the government adopted a new five-year Defense Plan and a directive on state defense.
In February 2015, President Lukashenka ordered the Ministry of Defense to prepare a vision for creating highly mobile Armed Forces capable of fighting multiple, dispersed armed formations while taking into consideration the changing nature of modern warfare—especially “hybrid”-style threats. The Belarusian head of state also emphasized the necessity to rely on Belarus’s own capabilities, instructing his military to train its troops without looking to the Russian Armed Forces.
In addition, the Belarusian Ministry of Defense was tasked with developing a new military doctrine. On July 20, 2016, President Lukashenka approved its final version. The previous one had been adopted in 2002, and it was obviously obsolete following the dramatic crises that rocked global and regional security architectures in ensuing years. The 2002 document was written to address the NATO intervention in the Yugoslav Wars (1991–2001), the Alliance’s preparations for eastward enlargement in Central and Eastern Europe, and concerns about a hypothetical Western-backed “color revolution” in Belarus. For this reason, Belarus had prioritized the formation of a common defense space with the Russian Federation at that time.
But the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and political-military confrontation between Russian and the West contributed greatly to the development of a new Military Doctrine in 2016. In contrast to the 2014–2019 Defense Plan and Directive on State Defense, the Military Doctrine is a public document. It takes into account possible challenges and threats coming not only from the West but from Russia as well.
First and foremost, the new Military Doctrine of Belarus remains defensive in nature. According to statements by Belarusian authorities, this means that the Armed Forces of Belarus may be used only on Belarusian territory, in cases of military conflict, for the purpose of protecting the country’s independence, territorial integrity, sovereignty and constitutional order (the same is true if any CSTO member is attacked—the Belarusian army will fulfil its alliance obligations and missions only on the territory of Belarus). Second, the 2016 Military Doctrine proclaims and confirms Belarus’s fundamental commitments to maintaining international peace and security. Third, Belarus asserts a peaceful foreign and military policy as well as develops a belt of neighborliness in the military and political dimensions along the perimeter of the state border.
The Military Doctrine does not portray any state as an adversary. However, Belarus does consider as an adversary any state or non-state actor (such as terrorist and extremist organizations) whose activity poses a military threat—i.e., interference in internal affairs or encroachments on the independence, territorial integrity, sovereignty and/or constitutional order of Belarus.
For Belarus, the main formal priority for coalition military policy still remains the strengthening of collective security mechanisms (seen as defensive) with Russia and CSTO member states. In addition, it keeps open the option for Belarus to establish new military coalitions or to ask for military assistance from countries other than Russia and CSTO or CIS member states, including countries that have signed bilateral strategic partnership agreements with Belarus (for instance, China).
According to the document, Minsk is seeking good neighborly and mutually beneficial cooperation with the European Union. Additionally, it is pursuing a partnership with the North Atlantic Alliance based on maintaining open dialogue, increasing transparency and developing a mutual understanding of regional security issues. In contrast, in 2014, Moscow adopted a new military doctrine that antagonistically perceives NATO as one of its main external military threats. The increased military activity of NATO near Belarusian and Russian borders is seen by Minsk as a “certain danger” but, crucially, not a direct military threat.
Moreover, the new Military Doctrine of Belarus indirectly voices concerns about Russia’s aggressive foreign and military behavior on the international stage. It contains, for instance, allusions to hybrid warfare in a section regarding the characteristics of the current military and political landscape in Belarus’s neighborhood (Chapter 3). The Doctrine also mentions certain attempts by state actors to interfere in the internal affairs of individual countries, including European ones, in order to provoke internal armed conflicts though the use of large-scale military—both traditional and guerilla (partisan or terrorist)—force. The employment of information-psychological warfare for aggressive purposes becomes a composite characteristic in such types of conflicts.
Since 2015, Belarusian large-scale military exercises and combat-readiness checks have repeatedly focused on possible Donbas-like hybrid conflict scenarios that could escalate into full-scale interstate conflicts. These exercise scenarios usually lay out a confrontation with illegal armed formations and sabotage and reconnaissance groups. Though such formations and groups are referred to as “terrorists” for the purpose of the drills, they are usually equipped with armored vehicles and backed by the armed forces of a hypothetical foreign state. These terrorists also operate under the cover of heavy artillery and air-defense systems and are assisted by air forces. These exercises and rapidness checks tend to span a significant geographical scope of the theater of military operations. Underlying the general framework of these drills are special operations to stabilize the situation in potential crisis areas. A closer look at them reveals the following elements:
- Conducting strategic command-and-staff trainings involving all services and branches of the Armed Forces; deploying some military units to the wartime staff level by calling out reservists as well as forming new units equipped with reserve personnel and weapons from the reserve stocks; practicing elements of a mass snap mobilization and imposing a martial law situation; testing the territorial defense system;
- Organizing command, control and communications (C3) through all security and military apparatuses and coordinating their actions by the General Staff of the Belarusian Armed Forces; testing new encrypted communications systems, including satellite links; acting in conditions of unstable communications with command posts;
- Managing inter-branch combined units (infantry, tank, artillery, air defense), including interaction between mechanized ones and artillery, radio-electronic warfare units, UAVs, and army and assault aviation;
- Establishing an inter-service groups of forces consisting of various security, defense and law enforcement units, including the Armed Forces and Territorial Defense, the State Security Committee (KGB), the Ministry of Emergency Situations, the Border Guards Committee and the Ministry of Interior;
- Reinforcing border protection jointly with border guards and Interior Ministry Troops, especially at the unsecured parts of the state border (currently shared with Russia); establishing checkpoints and safeguarding the state border from infiltration by sabotage and reconnaissance teams or by illegal armed groups from a neighboring country, against the background of potential internal destabilization and unrest in Belarus; practicing defensive actions by mechanized units in coordination with border guards along a broad front; suppressing attempts to violate the land and air borders of Belarus;
- Conducting counter-sabotage operations using special operations forces with an aviation component (UAVs and helicopters), reconnaissance and electronic warfare units and search dogs;
- Eliminating enemy airborne assault groups using heavy artillery and air forces strikes; counteracting enemy air reconnaissance and attempts to infiltrate terrorist groups, arms and materiel by air; screening and identifying combatants and collaborators of illegal armed formations in the local population as well as searching and eliminating sabotage and reconnaissance groups;
- Creating a humanitarian corridor for massive relocations of civilians from towns captured by illegal armed groups; conducting joint operations of the Armed Forces and the Interior Ministry Troops aimed at blocking and mopping up illegal armed groups along with liberating captured facilities (towns, oil storages, airfields);
- Protecting critical administrative, logistic, economic and social infrastructure facilities, as well as military C2 centers from subversive attacks and air strikes; implementing special combat tactics in urban areas, including artillery and air force bombardments of populated localities captured by adversaries while minimizing damage to the infrastructure and civilians;
- Testing the integrated support system during military operations; providing logistical and technical support for Armed Forces units in isolation from the points of their permanent station or main forces in conditions of constant attacks on transport routes, including landing of military personnel and heavy equipment and cargos;
- Training the Territorial Defense Troops in the installation of mine-explosive barriers, checkpoint duties, combat operations for holding a strong point, patrolling areas in cities and preventing the penetration of subversive groups; defending settlements by use of artillery and anti-tank units of the Territorial Troops; testing command and control of Territorial Defense forces by using digital communications.
Already, on February 22, 2018, speaking at the solemn meeting held to mark the 100th anniversary of the Armed Forces of Belarus, President Lukashenka announced that the country managed to create the most advanced mobile units capable of deploying in two to three hours to battlefields. He also revealed that the personnel level in the Armed Forces reached 70,000 people (both military and civilian).
Defense Minister Ravkov developed short-term (two years) priorities for the Belarusian Armed Forces in February 2018. They include the further development of C2 systems, reconnaissance, information warfare, radio-electronic warfare and air-defense capabilities, special operations forces, and missile forces, as well as capacities to respond to hybrid war threats, and a territorial defense system. The Belarusian military began training in conducting operations by dispersed autonomous mobile groups. The military was also tasked with increasing the amount of up-to-date weapons deployed to 50 percent.
On December 19, 2019, the Security Council approved a new Defense Plan of Belarus for the next five years and the Concept of Buildup and Development of the Armed Forces until 2030. As President Lukashenka emphasized during that day’s meeting of the Security Council, Belarus firmly adheres to a peaceful policy and maintains the status of a security donor in the region. At the same time, the head of state listed the main priorities for Belarusian defense, including the development of an independent national security architecture (i.e., strategically autonomous from Russia and any other third country) as well as the continuation of military cooperation with friendly countries. According to him, Belarus’s military forces have never threatened, do not threaten and do not intend to threaten anyone. The Belarusian military is solely an instrument to prevent war; and in case of aggression, it should be able to not only repel but also cause unacceptable damage to the enemy. The main purpose of the Armed Forces is to protect the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of the country, Lukashenka underscored.
The new Defense Plan (2020–2024) first of all stresses preventing potential outside military aggression against Belarus, and it devotes more attention to so-called strategic deterrence than any of the previous iterations of this document. More focus is also paid to scenarios in which the country becomes destabilized. This reflects present understanding of how modern military conflicts are most likely to unfold: generally beginning with socio-political turmoil that overwhelms the country and eventually provokes an internal armed conflict, according to Stanislav Zas, the state secretary of the Belarusian Security Council.
In preparing the above-mentioned package of defense documents approved at the end of 2019, Belarusian military strategists proceeded from a series of hypothetical worst-case scenarios for the country. The experience of conflicts in Syria, Ukraine, Bolivia and Venezuela were all closely examined. Based on these case studies, the military experts drew important conclusions regarding the likely stages of a possible escalation of a conflict affecting Belarus. Notably, the Belarusian military does not consider large-scale war as a likely threat facing the country at the moment (although it does not entirely exclude such a possibility). More probable is for a conflict to begin with the situation in the country being shaken up, opening up space for small groups, the opposition, and/or sabotage and intelligence cells to begin operating in this unstable environment. Today, private military companies are widely used by some international actors to try to undermine a target country’s stability. The new Defense Plan includes adequate response measures to such threats, according to the chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Belarus, Alexander Volfovich. For example, the Belarusian military includes an immediate reaction force, ready in case of an unforeseen situation to secure sections of the state border, together with the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and to protect key facilities inside the country.
Another priority area for the development of the Armed Forces is outfitting them with new as well as modernized weapons and equipment. The Belarusian defense industry is to play a significant role in this process. Although this priority dates back to before 2014, it has received additional impetus by more recent shifts in Russia’s strategic attitude toward Belarus. Some evidence suggest that the Kremlin no longer considers Minsk a special partner in ensuring the security of the Union State in the western strategic direction, as was originally envisaged by the architecture of this bilateral supranational institution. In exchange for Belarus helping to secure Russia’s western flank, Moscow was obligated to supply Minsk with the latest military equipment and weapons systems, if not free of charge, at least at a steep discount in order to maintain a high level of combat efficiency within the Belarusian Armed Forces.
However, already by 2010, Russia began to reconsider the conditions of its military-technical cooperation with Belarus, suddenly refusing to supply military equipment either for free or on preferential terms. When Minsk asked to acquire the Iskander operational-tactical missile system in 2007 and Sukhoi Su-27 fighter jets in 2013, Moscow, instead, suggested deployment of permanent Russian missile and air bases on Belarusian territory. Today, Russia sells Belarus only export versions of its military equipment—one more indication that Belarus has lost its special status.
The Kremlin’s behind-the-scenes strategy is based on two elements. First, to undermine the capabilities of the Belarusian Armed Forces by no longer supplying them with new weapons for free or on preferential terms, thus creating a capability gap. Second, to demand and push for the deployment of Russian permanent military bases on Belarusian territory, under the pretext of closing this capability gap, in order to to secure both the western strategic direction of the Union State and to protect Belarus itself. One recent example of this two-pronged strategy involved Minsk’s request to purchase Russian Sukhoi Su-30SM fighter jets. According to Belarusian Security Council State Secretary Zas, Moscow made its financial assistance for Minsk’s acquisition of the Su-30SMs contingent on the latter’s acquiescence to the creation of a Russian airbase on Belarusian territory.
On July 2, 2019, speaking at an official event commemorating Independence Day and the 75th anniversary of Belarus’s liberation from Nazi German occupation, President Lukashenka proclaimed that his country is not seeking a security umbrella from either NATO or Russia. And he pointedly added that Belarus does not want to “become part of Russia so that it could protect us.” According to Lukashenka, Belarusians are left with a third option: they have to protect themselves on their own.
In fact, Belarus has always paid close attention to developing the domestic defense industry. But since 2014, focus has intensified on efforts to decrease the level of dependence on Russian weapons. Belarusian manufacturers have been tasked with building precision weapons (missile program), a medium-range air-defense system (SAM project), highly mobile armored vehicles (Volat, Cayman and Asilak projects), development and testing of strike and reconnaissance unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV project), as well as satellite communication stations and mobile telecommunication systems. While Moscow is refusing to transfer critical military technologies to Belarus or produce military equipment together, Minsk is diversifying its military-industrial ties with other partners, most notably China.
Military-technical cooperation between Belarus and China dates back to the 1990s; but the greatest intensification in these ties took place after 2010. At the same time, there was a change of roles. Since then, China has become a donor of military technology to the Belarusian defense industrial complex, rather than the other way around, as had been the case until that point. Thanks to this new cooperation with China, Belarus was able to develop indigenous satellite and missile programs. These levels of military-technical cooperation received even a further jolt after 2014—one more geopolitical implication of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Namely, the war in eastern Donbas forced Beijing to reconsider its initial plans regarding the Belt and Road Initiative in Europe’s East, where Ukraine had initially been accorded a leading role. As such, China shifted more of its strategic attention to Belarus; and within only a few years, bilateral ties reached their highest possible level in both the political and military spheres: a trustful comprehensive strategic partnership and mutually beneficial cooperation (2016), and iron brotherhood (2018), respectively. These top levels of strategic partnership with China are extended only also to Pakistan, another important partner in implementing Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (via the so-called China-Pakistan Economic Corridor).
The year 2015 saw the first results Belarus’s ambitious home-grown missile program. During the military parade dedicated to 70th anniversary of victory in the Great Patriotic War, held on May 9, in Minsk, participating Belarusian forces demonstrated the Polonaise multiple-launch rocket system (MLRS). This project had been initiated a year earlier and developed by the Belarusian Precise Electromechanics Factory, in cooperation with the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT, also known as the First Academy; part of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, or CASC). It was this Chinese corporation that provided the technology for the production of A200 missiles (range up to 200 kilometers), which are used by the Polonaise MLRS.
On January 15, 2016, Belarus launched its first telecommunications satellite, the Belintersat-1, from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center, in China. The orbital hardware provides secured communication over a large area of Europe, Asia and Africa, and is an important component of the integrated digital communication system of the country. Plans to launch the next Belintersat satellite were officially announced in December 2016. The development of Belarus’s satellite program was initiated in 2012 by the “Great Wall” corporation (part of the CASC) and the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus. The program is aimed at creating the National Satellite Communication and Broadcasting System of the Republic of Belarus.
In addition to the joint development of satellite and missile programs, Belarus and China are discussing cooperation in anti-aircraft missile systems air/missile-defense systems, and the production of heavy combat UAVs.
In July 2017, a Chinese delegation headed by Xiao Yatsin, the chairperson of the Committee on Control and Management of State Property of the People’s Republic of China State Council, visited Belarus and met with President Lukashenka. During the meeting, the Belarusian leader suggested discussing the possibility of creating high-tech defense industry enterprises (both joint and 100 percent Chinese-owned ones) at the “Great Stone” Chinese-Belarusian industrial park. The Chinese delegation was represented by the heads of a number of leading military-industrial corporations (СASIC, NORINCO, ALIT, AVIC, CATIC).
In April 2018, the joint venture Aviation Technologies and Complexes, founded by the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus and the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), was established to launch the mass production of various (unspecified) items of domestic and AVIC’s design.
In May 2019, at the MILEX-2019 military industry exhibition in Minsk, a new Buk-MB3K medium-range anti-aircraft SAM system was presented, which uses a 9M318 guided anti-aircraft missile manufactured in Belarus. The air-defense system was developed by specialists of the LTD OKB TSP. According to official information, the Buk-MB3K can hit targets at ranges up to 70 kilometers and altitudes up to 25 kilometers. The SAM system is housed on an 8×8 MZKT-692250 truck chassis.
In fact, the Buk-MB3K air-defense project is also based on intensive cooperation with a Chinese counterpart. Aerospace Long-March International Trade Co Ltd., part of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), has been supplying missile engines for the modernized Buk and implementing a project to produce solid fuel as well as rocket engines in Belarus since 2018.
During an April 2018 meeting with Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenhe, President Lukashenka said that cooperation with China had played a decisive role in strengthening the national defense capabilities of Belarus.
In 2018, Belarus finally obtained its own fixed and mobile secured government communications system, based on research and development carried out at the national cryptographic school. The newly adopted system eliminated a critical dependence on external partners (especially Russia) in communications security. The Russian-Ukrainian conflict showed the critical importance of having stable and reliable government communications. President Lukashenka later noted that Belarus managed to develop secure national communications systems, information encryption centers, inaccessible to intelligence agencies of other states.
As for the financing of the Armed Forces in accordance with the package of defense documents adopted in December 2019, the money will, in the medium-term perspective, primarily be allocated for the development of UAVs as well as electronic and radar reconnaissance. The military will also modernize its attack aircraft as well as continue to purchase and modernize missile systems and barrel and rocket artillery. Among the priority measures, government documents envisage the purchase of ammunition, primarily anti-aircraft guided missiles and anti-tank guided missiles, along with other high-precision munitions.
Conclusions and Recommendations
Belarus contributes to regional stability and security. However, that status quo is under pressure from Moscow’s strategic aims to undermine Belarusian sovereignty and independence and Russia’s efforts to transform Belarus into a source of security threats and challenges for other countries, in particular for Ukraine, the Baltic States and Poland (i.e., NATO and the EU). This is the final goal of the Kremlin’s “integration ultimatum,” aimed at economically, politically and militarily subordinating Belarus to Russia within the Union State framework.
Moscow wants to maintain Minsk within its geopolitical sphere of influence and feels threatened by Belarusian efforts to preserve its national independence and strategic autonomy in foreign and security policy, as characterized by the ongoing normalization of the latter’s relations with the West and strengthening of its strategic partnership with China.
For centuries, Belarusian territory served as an east-west invasion corridor in the heart of the European continent. Therefore, in the context of the Russia-Ukraine conflict and Russia’s geopolitical confrontation with the West, Belarus’s positive and constructive contribution to regional security and stability should not be underestimated or undervalued. However, Belarus can only continue serving as a regional security and stability donor if it is able to preserve its state sovereignty and independence. Preserving this status quo will require not only a consensus among regional and global players but also strategic and comprehensive assistance to Belarus.