One of the defining turns that took place during the protests in Belarus was Russia abandoning its neutral, wait-and-see position in favor of throwing strong support behind Alexander Lukashenko.
Perhaps, many years from now, one of these countries will publish transcripts of the talks that took place during this period — just as the United States has published the conversations that took place between Russian President Vladimir Putin and American President Bill Clinton in the 2000s, — but for now we can only speculate about how things went. A rather obvious explanation for Moscow’s change of heart is the fear that Belarus will side with the West and curtail its military cooperation with Russia. In any case, at the very peak of the Belarusian protests, Putin and Lukashenko met in Sochi, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu led a military delegation on a visit to Belarus, and the joint “Slavic Brotherhood” military exercises took place in Brest. In a special report for “Meduza,” military expert Yahor Lebiadok, the author of a Telegram channel focused on Belarusian security, offers a detailed analysis of the main areas of military cooperation between Moscow and Minsk.
Can Russia do without its military facilities in Belarus?
In a nutshell
Russia’s nuclear forces have become less dependent on these facilities in recent years. But both sides intend to prolong their joint use and are set to conclude a new agreement by July 7, 2021. That said, Lukashenko is likely to get less out of the extended agreement than he anticipated prior to the contested presidential elections and the ensuing mass protests in Belarus.
Belarus inherited two important military facilities from the USSR that ensure the functioning of strategic nuclear forces. At the same time, Belarus doesn’t have such capabilities itself: after the Soviet Union’s collapse, Moscow was handed control over the nuclear warheads remaining on Belarusian territory, and in 1996 these weapons were withdrawn from Belarus.
Belarus was left with a then-new Volga-type early warning radar system, designed to identify ballistic missile launches (the Hantsavichy Radar Station), and an “Antey” radio station — the 43rd Communications Center of the Russian Navy (the “Vileyka” VLF transmitter). The agreements between Russia and Belarus on the procedure for using these facilities came into force on June 7, 1996. Under these agreements, Belarus handed over the land and real estate of these facilities to Russia for free use for 25 years.
The Hantsavichy Radar Station, located in the south-western Brest Region of Belarus, was hastily completed and transferred to Russia in 2001, and became operational in 2003. At that time, it played a critical role in Russia’s early warning system, covering western and north-western Europe. Today, it acts as an outpost for the A-135 anti-ballistic missile system deployed around the Moscow Region.
In addition to acting as an early warning radar, the Hantsavichy Station was initially designed to guide anti-ballistic missiles. This function was “disabled” in compliance with the 1972 ABM Treaty between the Soviet Union and the United States. However, given that this treaty has since been terminated, this function could be reactivated (this would require specialists and the possibility of manufacturing appropriate equipment).
The Hantsavichy Radar Station became relatively less important after Russia commissioned its current generation of early-warning radars, the Voronezh radars, and against the backdrop of plans to commission the Container system (an Over-the-Horizon radar). However, the Volga radar in Hantsavichy can’t be considered outdated compared to a Voronezh — it was modernized in 2016–2017. As such, Russia’s Aerospace Forces consider it expedient to maintain the Hantsavichy Radar Station, even if only to serve as a backup for the Voronezh-DM radar in Kaliningrad.
The “Vileyka” VLF transmitter is the site of the 43rd Communications Center of the Russian Navy, located in Belarus’s north-western Minsk Region. It’s equipped with a very low frequency (VLF) transmitter, which provides communication with submarines in the ocean. This transmitter remains important but not critical and there are other sites that can perform its functions if urgently needed. However, as of 2019, the Russian military leadership had decided to modernize the site. It was supposed to be equipped with a Samarkand-type electronic warfare system before November 2019 (whether or not it is currently installed there remains unknown — there’s no publicly available information about it).
Russia moving to modernize the site just two years before the agreement on its use is set to expiry allows us to conclude that Moscow and Minsk have already reached a general consensus on extending the agreement.
Negotiations on extending the agreement. Russia’s military facilities in Belarus don’t have the same status as military bases. Since Belarus granted Russia free use of this land and real estate, Russia grants Belarus the use of military training grounds to conduct combat air defense shooting, as well as information on the aerospace climate, and assists in providing Belarusian Air Force command posts with equipment. In 1996, Lukashenko said that NATO countries “had promised Belarus $10 billion” just to destroy the Hantsavichy Radar Station. And he still considers the military facilities in Belarus to be critically important for Russia’s defense capability. “From the Black Sea to the Baltic, we see everything. And Russia has nothing in this area. Imagine how much money would be needed to recreate this for them, for example, if they wanted, near Smolensk; to see and hear every day what’s happening, not even in Belarus, but in NATO countries through Belarus. Imagine, what a waste,” Lukashenko said at the end of 2019.
The agreement on Russia’s use of these facilities expires in 2021 and the two sides are currently negotiating an extension. The Belarusian Defense Ministry last mentioned the talks on June 5, when it reported that the “conditions for the future stay of Russian military facilities on the territory of Belarus is undergoing the procedure of interstate approval. A final decision will be made by the Belarusian government.” There have been no reports on any progress in the negotiations or on a final decision since.
What about interdependence regarding weapons supplies?
In a nutshell
The cooperation between the Belarusian and Russian military industrial complexes is based on connections from the Soviet period. The main areas of cooperation haven’t changed fundamentally for almost 30 years, although new products have appeared.
Belarus supplies Russia mainly with high-tech products that Russian enterprises use to produce weapons Russia then supplies Belarus with the “final product” Theoretically, both sides could refuse this cooperation, but this would require large financial investment and the creation of new industries. Both Russia and Belarus are carrying out such work, but there are no real reasons to stop exporting these goods to each other
Supplies from Belarus to Russia. There are 99 Belarusian enterprises that supply more than 1,800 product types to 255 defense enterprises in Russia. In 2018, this accounted for about 15 percent of Russia’s total defense acquisition. However, there are only a handful of Belarusian enterprises that are supplying Russia with its most important military-industrial products. While Russia could theoretically replace these items with domestically manufactured ones, Belarusian products have a better money/value ratio compared to Russian models. Furthermore, sanctions prohibiting the supply of Western military and dual-use goods to Russia mean that Belarus isn’t really facing much external competition. As such, Belarusian products will remain on the Russian arms market for a long time to come.
That said, exports to Russian aren’t critical for supporting the activities of the enterprises that make up the Belarusian military-industrial complex: it exports about $250–300 million worth of goods to Russia annually, which is about 30 percent of its exports to all countries. This is a relatively large amount, but it’s not critical for the Belarusian economy (for comparison, the total export of services from Hi-Tech Park, Belarus’s Silicon Valley, exceeded $2 billion in 2019).
There are also other important buyers of Belarusian arms: Minsk estimated an estimated $222.5 million worth of military products to Azerbaijan in 2018 and $115.4 in 2019. And unlike Russia, Azerbaijan imports fully made weapons systems from Belarus.
Supplies from Russia to Belarus. As for the Belarusian army, its dependence on Russian arms is decreasing. During the Soviet period, there weren’t any factories in the Belarusian SSR that produced fully-made weapons (there weren’t even factories for manufacturing small arms). Today, work is underway to establish complete production of artillery systems. However, Belarus is still critically dependent on Russia for its supply and modernization of a wide range of weapons — from bullets to airplanes. On the one hand, this is due to the large volume of weapons the country inherited from the USSR, which only Russia is able to modernize. On the other hand, for military and political reasons, Belarus has never tried to free itself completely from its “Russian dependence.”
Judging by unpublished imports to Belarus from Russia, the annual volume of purchased weapons fluctuates around $200–250 million. In 2019, the purchase volume hit a five year high, which included about $270 million worth of unnamed products sent from Russia to Belarus. Moreover, Russia sells its weapons to Belarus at prices similar to domestic ones. For example, in 2019, Minsk purchased four Sukhoi Su-30 fighter aircrafts from Russia. According to import data, these cost Belarus around $30 million each — while the Russian Defense Ministry buys them for about $26 million a piece, their export value for other countries is about $90 million. At the same time, Lukashenko wanted to get the fighter jets for half of what the Russian Defense Ministry paid. And it’s worth noting that Belarus has yet to pay for the aircrafts that were delivered — Minsk received them within the framework of a line of credit for a full shipment of 12 units.
That said, there are also political restrictions on this cooperation. For example, Russia hasn’t sold Minsk any Iskander missile systems since 2017, despite the fact that Moscow continues to supply these systems to Armenia — another ally in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). At the same time, Belarus has refrained from selling enterprises from its military-industrial complex to Russian companies. This isn’t a sign of Belarusian prejudice against Russia, but rather a consequence of Minsk’s opposition to major private ownership as a concept. Lukashenko’s system of power is built on state property, through which he controls not only financial flows, but also social processes within the country.
How might recent events in Belarus impact military cooperation?
In a nutshell
Putin’s influence is only increasing — now, Moscow is effectively seeking to lead Belarus’s foreign and military policy.
In recent years, talks on military issues have been associated with the so-called deep integration that Moscow has imposed on Minsk. In 2013, Russia wanted to set up an air base in Belarus, but Lukashenko opposed it at the time (so as not to ruin the “image of a peace-loving country”). Instead, they reached a “compromise” — until 2014, Russian military aircrafts were based at Belarusian airfields. This practice ended later and the topic of the military bases didn’t come up again, at least not at the level of developing legal documents.
The lengthy discussion on the issue of extending the terms of the lease for the Hantsavichy Radar Station and the “Vileyka” VLF transmitter (which began back in 2018), has also been connected to purely financial and political issues. Lukashenko has tried to get as much as possible out of the negotiations on extending the agreement and it appeared as though he wanted to postpone the discussion until after the elections, believing that he would be less vulnerable afterwards. But he only became more vulnerable in the end.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has taken advantage of this situation. Effectively, he has taken control of Belarus’s foreign policy (or at least its relations with the West). Putin is negotiating with the leaders of EU countries over the situation in Belarus, and Lukashenko is only communicating with him.
Russia’s attempts to take control over Belarus’s military sphere began after Lukashenko met with Putin in Sochi on September 14. This was manifested very clearly in the situation surrounding this year’s “Slavic Brotherhood” military exercises in Belarus. Planned as small, counter-terrorism exercises involving 1,500 people from three countries (Russia, Belarus, and Serbia — the latter decided against sending its soldiers in the end), they turned into combined-arms exercises involving 6,000 servicemen from Belarus and Russia and the use of strategic bombers.
The decision to change the scale and design of the Slavic Brotherhood exercises was made after a Russian military delegation led by Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu visited Belarus on September 16. One of the battalion tactical groups from the Russian Airborne Troops came in on a non-stop flight from Russia and performed a landing, with equipment, at a military training ground in Brest. This was a signal to both NATO and Belarusians, demonstrating that Russian troops can arrive in Belarus in just a few hours.
During the meeting with Lukashenko, Putin noted that joint exercises between Russia and Belarus have been planned in such a way that they will take place nearly every month. More and more military and political experts are coming to the conclusion that Russia will ramp up its presence in Belarus the same way that the United States is behaving in Eastern Europe. Instead of establishing permanent military bases, there will be continuous military exercises, during which Russian troops will be stationed in the country the entire time. This will not only allow Moscow to monitor Belarus’s internal political events more or less constantly, but also force NATO to act more carefully along the Belarusian border.