In the course of 2016, relationships between Moscow and Minsk were getting progressively worse. As a result by the end of the year, the tension became so pronounced that the Belarusian pro-government experts were seriously debating a possibility of Russian annexation of Belarus.
The latter would supposedly happen during the joined Belarusian-Russian military exercise when a large number of Russian troops will be legally allowed to enter Belarusian territory.
Alexander Lukashenko spent almost half of his several hours long (more precisely, 7 hours 20 minutes long) TV appearance on Feburary 3, 2017 criticizing Russia’s leadership. In the same TV appearance, however, he publicly denounced any possibility that Russian military invasion will ever take place.
The issue however is far from settled.
For your information:
Joined military exercise of troops from Belarus and Russia take place annually, sometimes several time a year, at different sites in Belarus or in Russia.
For example, the Comradeship-in-Arms military exercise aimed at practicing ground-to-air defence skills was conducted in Ashulka, Astrahan region, Russia on the site of the joined missile defence system. The next scheduled military exercise Slavic Brotherhood-2017 will take place in mid-June 2017 in Belarus, in Brest region, and will have the Russian, Belorusian and Serbian troops participating. There are also other military exercises that take place regularly, namely Enduring Brotherhood, which is a joined military exercise of the CSTO countries and Russian-Belorusian Union Shield. Normally, there are between 900 and 8000 people participating in these events who use various types of military equipment.
The West series is the most large-scale of all the military exercises that were organized since the collapse of the USSR. It comes with the most military equipment, is the most expensive and is also considered strategically important. The West military exercises take place biannually alternatively in Russia or Belarus. The West-2017 military exercise should take place in Belarus in September 2017.
Thus in 2017, the Belorusian-Russian military exercise will be organized in Belarus twice (in midsummer and at the beginning of autumn).
To bring back another example, in 2013 the West military exercise was organized on three sites in Belarus and on one site in Kalinindgrad oblast of Russia. The Russian site was used to practice defence against a possible storming ashore, which was believed to be handy in case of a military conflict with Poland or the Baltic states. The military participating in the storming ashore was transported in Mordovia, the biggest hovercraft in the world. 12 120 military personnel, hundreds of tanks and other armoured vehicles, as well as Belorusian territorial defence battalions (some more 7000 people) were participating in the excercise. Such large participation is pretty regular for the military exercise in the West series. The large-scale maneuvers were attended by the President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko and the President of Russia Valdimir Putin.
The military exercise that is to be organized in Belarus in 2017 will be similar in scale, it will employ comparable numbers of military personnel, equipment and territorial defence forces (the latter are staffed not by professional military but by the reservists). The exact number of participants has not been disclosed yet either by Belarus or Russia.
However, it is possible to make some comparisons (see the table below).
Comparing the first and several subsequent West military exercises:
|Year||Number of military personnel||Number of units of military equipment||Number of reservists||Number of sites (in Belarus + in Russia)|
|2009||12500||1020||0||1 + 1|
|2013||12120||180||7000||3 + 2|
|2015||8000||400||0||0 + 5|
|13000||Not know yet||10000||7 + 0|
Note: In 2015, military exercise of the West series were organized under the name Union Shield. However, this caused substantial confusion and the military bodies of both countries did not experiment with naming afterwards.
It is worth noting that the Defence Ministry of Russia is planning to send 4162 freight cars (i.e. 2063 each way) with military personnel and equipment to Belarus in 2017, which is a substantial increase compared to all the pervious years (for example, it is 83 times more freight cars than in 2016). In 2015 only 125 cars were used, and in 2016 the number fell to 50. One has to point out, however, that the bulk of the activities in 2016 was carried on in Russia, that’s why it was not necessary to ship large amount of freight to Belarus. This explains the small amount of cars used last year.
Formally, Belarus is a sovereign state with its own military. However, Belarusians are not prepared to get into a military conflict with Russia. An army, especially if it is a draft-based army, is a mirror image of a society it defends. Belorussian society is not prepared to face Russians if those invade the country. The opinion polli amply demonstrate that less than 26% of Belorussians would openly resist Russian invaders with deadly force. 40% of the respondents would try to adapt to the new rule and 13.3% would welcome the invaders open-armed.
Thus it is possible to conclude that in case Russia invades Belarus, the population of the letter would not stage any substantial resistance.
Concerns about a possible annexation of Belarus by Russia or about Belarus becoming the next site for Russia’s “hybrid war” were voiced for the first time in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea and started a conflict on the East of Ukraine. This raised concerns first of all among the higher military leadership which addressed the situation by changing the Military Doctrine of Belarus (the changes were finally approved in 2016).
However even before the change of the Military Doctrine and soon after the start of the conflict in Ukraine (autumn 2014), Alexander Lukashenko, who is the commander in chief, has approved a new deference plan for Belarus. The defence plan unlike the Military Doctrine is kept secret; it contains an exhaustive list of military threats and a plan to address them. Needless to say, that military threat may be of any nature.
The new Military Doctrine was adopted by the House of the Representatives on the Belarusian National Assembly on June 16, 2016 and subsequently approved by the Council of the Republic on June 30, 2016.
There were no less than 1200 modifications introduced, namely it now contains the heretofore inofficial concepts like “hybrid war” and “coloured revolution”. For the first time in history, it also defines an externally trigged internal armed conflict, and describes a wide specter of means of military and non-military resistance.
The priorities listed in the doctrine now include not just building stable relationships with Russia, but also striving for partnership with the European Union, and for greater transparency and mutual understanding in relationships with the NATO. All the same, the mechanisms and instruments for implementing these priorities are not spelled out, thus the priorities remain more of a declaration of intentions rather than real goals to achieve, and it is not clear what the government will really go for.
This new Doctrine also describes a situation in which some of the states in Europe will try to provoke internal military conflicts using both the external military force and the terrorist groups in the country. The phenomenon that is described in the media as a “hybrid war” is introduced here under the name of “an internal armed conflict”. This is the main innovation that comes with the document. Belarus learned the lessons of the recent conflicts, most of all of the conflicts in the east of Ukraine. Another new thing to the doctrine is a established link between the doctrine and the defence plan.
The document also talks about the defence sector of the economy and military and technical cooperation. In practice this means that Belarus declares an intention to create its own defence industry that would be separate from that of Russia.
Finally, the document introduces a typology of military challenges, which are divided into threats and challenges, and a challenge has a bigger weight than a hazard. Both the military doctrine and the numerous speeches of the Minister of Defence and the Minister of Internal Affairs prove that Belarus unlike Russia does not perceive NATO as a military challenge.
High level mistrust
Even though the President of Belarus claims that he is not afraid of the Russian invasion, including the invasion that might take place under cover of the West-2017 military exercise, in practice the higher government officials are doing their best to anticipate and address any potential armed conflict. A comprehensive operability test of the Belorusian armed forces took place this February. This was accompanied by a large scale engagement of the conscriptees (about 3000 persons) in the training sessions.
According to the experts of the web-portal Belarus in Focus, leaders of the Belorusian army are carefully studying and implementing the lessons learned from those recent armed conflicts where a country’s capacity to rapidly increase its armed forces played a decisive role. The mobilization drills will be continued and we can soon expect to see military reservists of the major military units (regiment, battalion) participating in those. There is however a different explanation; conscriptees are needed to participate in the military exercise. As we have seen from the table above, about 10 000 people are expected to participate this year.
In peacetime settings, the majority of the Bealursian army units operate with reduced numbers of personnel. In other words, current military units serve as a training and mobilization base for the war-time army. Three out of five neighbouring countries have a larger population and a higher military potential than Belarus, which means that they might be able to get into a war with Belarus without conducting a large-scale military mobilization. This means that an ability to rapidly recall reservists to expand the current military units to the war size is of critical importance for Belarus.
A recent inspection of troops preparedness for war time actions which was conducted in February has demonstrated that in case of necessity it is possible to draft about 900 persons daily. The biggest army unit recalled this way was a battalion/division. It is reasonable to expect that a bigger military unit (a regiment/ brigade) will be recalled during the upcoming military exercise using Joined Training Base, the Military Academy or one of the armament depots as its base.
Reservists training does not however provide any insights into one crucial issue, namely it does not give a trustworthy estimate of the strength of patriotic feelings in the Belarusian army. Can one be sure that a Crimean scenario is not possible in Belarus? In 2016, a Belarusian analytical web-portal Zavtra tvoei strany (Your country’s future) addressed this question to a number of experts. The formal reason for the discussion was a ‘secret survey’ mentioned by a Russian political scientist Valerii Solovei in his interview for Euroradio. According to his data 70-80% of the officers in the Belarusian army would like to see a real unification of Russia and Belarus instead the one on paper.
Having heard that Belarusian opposition approached the Minister of Defence of Belarus Andreai Ravkov and asked to comment on the situation. The latter reassured that “information about a survey conducted among the officers of the Belarusian army on the issue of unification of Belarus and Russia is fake news”. The minister however did not provide any statistics or other data that would prove that the patriotic feelings in the army are strong. So, what do the officers in the army really think and will the army defend the independence of Belarus in case of necessity?
Analysis of data stored on the chinovniki.info web-site demonstrates that almost everyone in the leadership of the Belarusian army has some sort of Russian background.
Let’s take a close look at the Ministry of Defence of Belarus.
The Minister Andrei Ravkov has graduated with distinction from the Moscow Higher Army Command School and later has also graduated with distinction from the Russian Military Academy of the General Staff.
Two out of four deputy ministers were born in Russia. All four studied military art in Russia and one of them even graduated with distinction from the very same Russian Military Academy of the General Staff.
The “Russian trace” does not end here.
11 out of 12 commanders of various troops studied in the military schools in Russia;
4 of them went to the Russian Military Academy of the General Staff;
1 studied in the Gagarin Air Force Academy at the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation;
1 attended the Khroulyov Military Academy of Logistics.
Three out of twelve were born in Russia.
We could have also looked at the lower levels of leadership and discovered the same pattern there.
Belarusian Armed Forces: capacity assessment
Belarus has modernized its army much earlier than the majority of other post-Soviet states. The reasons for that were purely utilitarian: a newly emerged country was not able to financially sustain a huge military machinery inherited from the USSR. In 1992 there were 3971 tanks, 4020 armored vehicles, 378 military airplanes, 78 helicopters and 240 thousand soldiers in the Belorusian Military District. Concentration of military forces was higher than in any other Soviet Republic: there was one army officer per 43 civilians in Belarus, one per 634 in Russia, one per 98 in Ukraine and one per 118 in Kazakhstan.
However according to the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE Treaty) our country was entitled to have only 100 thousand army officers, 1800 tanks, 2600 armored vehicles, 1615 artillery-type weapons, mine throwers and multiple-launch rocket systems. Thus Belarus was supposed to dispose of 2171 tanks, 1420 armored vehicles and 167 military airplanes.
Luckily, Belarus managed to carry such large scale reduction of military forces seamlessly. The oldest machinery was cut for scrap, some armaments were sold to African and Asian countries and the most modern arms stayed in the country. Armies were disbanded; divisions and corps were downgraded to brigades, which are more fleible units with their own logistics system, artillery and reinforcing means. Presently brigades are the most suitable military units for a mobile warfare. Mobile forces, namely two air assault brigades and a special military forces brigade in Mariina Gorka were formed out of the airborn divisions. Later they were further transformed into the Special Operations Forces trained to conduct mobile warfare. In case of an external attack these forces are supposed to be mobilized within hours to hold the attacker until additional troops are recalled.
Simultaneously, Belarus organized its own training of military personnel on the basis of the Military Academy of Belarus and those universities which have department of potential military significance. No new training centers were built; instead the state uses the already existing military departments of universities. This allows ensuring low budget training of qualified specialists in engineering and natural sciences for the army.
Belarusian military budget is a bit less than a billion USD per year. At the same time, Belarusian army is still using old Soviet armaments. In 1985 -1989, Belarusian Military District was stocked with the best Soviet tanks, armored vehicles and heavy-gun armaments. However in 25 years that have passed since the dissolution of the USSR all of the armaments became morally and physically obsolete. This is especially true in case of the aviation, as the airplanes undergo extreme pressure in flight and erode faster. However the renewal of the armaments is carried slower than they depreciate. Also the 2012 case of “plush landing operation” has demonstrated that Belarusian army is hardly able to promptly address even the slightest challenges.
In any case, it remains to be seen if Russian will invade Belarus in the course of September military exercise. Most probably, even Moscow is not able to to tell for sure at this stage. It goes without saying that such scenarios are pondered over, however it remains unclear whether they will be implemented.
Experts of the Our House civil company believe that it the probability is low.
Their main arguments go as follows:
- Russian economic and geopolitical situation does not encourage additional financial expenses and political losses that would come with the annexation of Belarus even if this will be an “undercover” annexation presented as assistance in fighting another “Orange Revolution”. Let us recall that the presence of Russian troops in the East of Ukraine (in DNR and LNR) is denied, but is still a source of constant problems for Russia and creates substantial financial burden.
- Russia has a lot of power and political strings to impact Belarusian leadership and to steer the country’s politics into a desired course. Military intervention is simply not necessary.
- Many of the financial and industrial groups in Russia are interested in the preservation of the status quo as they have their own business interests and property in Belarus or they earn money on the transit of goods through the country. The leaders of these groups are part of the Kremlin’s inner circle and have a chance to impact decision-making and avert the military intervention into Belarus.
- Even if 3000 military officers do arrive to Belarus for the West-2017 military exercise, they will not be enough to stage any offensive action. Preparations for moving more troops will hardly go unnoticed.
- The declared number of 4162 freight cars needed to move troops and military freight is not as scary as it looks. It covers the traffic for the whole of 2017. In other words, some of these freight cars will be used to transport goods for the July military exercise Slavic Brotherhood-2017, for some of the battalion level exercises prior to West-2017 as well as for transporting Russian armaments to be serviced and modernized on Belarusian plants and for logistics of two Russian military sites located in Belarus.
- The rumours about the possible Russian military intervention were spread by the Belarusian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MFA) with the view of receiving additional funds to “resist Russian threat” (in fact those are needed to mitigate the impeding economic crisis) and of avoiding discussions around large-scale repressions against civil society and opposition in February-May 2017. The latter issues seem unsubstantial compared to a possible war, and this is used by the Belarusian MFA.
- China will not perceive kindly any form of Russia’s expansion into Belarus. This is due to the fact that Chinees government has its own interests in Belarus which is perceived as one of the key countries in the Chinees project of the New Silk Way.
- Russia’s invasion into Belarus will not be supported by Russia’s own citizens. Ordinary Russians treat Belarusians differently than Ukrainians and perceive the former in much more favorable light. Vladimir Putin will find it difficult to explain why Russia needs to invade “brotherly” Belarus even with the propaganda machinery at his disposal.
- Russian authorities see Belarus as a small and negligible state and thus the idea of invading Belarus is akin invading Smolensk region. Not that it is not possible to invade Smolensk region to threaten and bring to submission local authorities and population with the help of disposable mercenaries like Girkin, but in this case military exercise is simply redundant. In the course of the latter the army learns how to act in a similar situation.
All of the above allows us to conclude that the military annexation of Belarus by Russia in the course of the West-2017 military exercise is highly improbable.