The Russian-Ukrainian war was a key factor in the general system of Belarus’ security. By the end of 2014, the situation was aggravated by new financial turmoil. Given the critical dependence on Russia’s economic support, the Belarusian leadership diligently demonstrated to the Kremlin that Belarus remained a reliable security partner thus having political sympathy for Kiev.
Belarusian defense, security and law enforcement agencies were functioning in a regime of economic austerity throughout the past year. A certain increase in their budgets just compensated the devaluation of the national currency. As always, great importance was attached to ideological education, but no appreciable effect was produced in this area.
- Defense, security and law enforcement agencies function in conditions of chronic underfunding;
- The human resource crisis in defense, security and law enforcement agencies gets worse;
- Belarus has to step up its land forces component in response to the Russian-Ukrainian war.
Russia as a problematic ally
The extensive publicity given to the development of the domestic manufacture of arms and military equipment alongside repeated claims to Russia was the trend of the year. Belarus rebukes Russia for being reluctant to share know-how and supply military hardware components. Minsk has to rely on the technological support of third countries in exchange for “services in other areas.” 1 According to Alexander Lukashenko, he addressed Russia over a year ago asking for ten warplanes. Belarus already has Russian fighter jets, but Minsk would like to obtain Russian planes without crews.
Russia was accused of imperial ambitions and attempts to humiliate the Belarusian leadership. At a session of the Security Council held on December 16, Lukashenko approved a national defense plan for the next five years, and endorsed a decision and a directive on the national defense. After that, he broke into an emotional tirade regarding Russia’s policy. “The behavior of our eastern blood brother cannot but alarm us today. But we do not jump at any conclusions yet,” he said. 2
The financial component of defense and security
In 2014, the Ministry of the Interior was trying hard to find extra funds to increase money allowances to its officers. Despite a slight increase in the funding in 2014, over 75% of the departmental budget still goes to service pays. Most of the remaining funds are used to pay utility bills and maintain real estate assets of the ministry.
The situation in other security and law enforcement agencies is pretty much the same: the Ministry of Defense, State Border Committee and Ministry of Emergency Situations try to save as much money as possible. The Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of the Interior sought to find internal resources to maintain their capacities and rationalize costs. All repairs and upgrades of weapons and equipment will be performed by domestic enterprises. Care and maintenance units were formed to do routine and preventive repairs. This helps to save money earlier paid to professionals invited from weapon-making companies. The Ministry of Emergency Situations allowed its officers to take part-time jobs on the side to make some extra money considering that the service pays are low.
The financial standing of security services is never commented on. The available data on their budgets give no reason to believe that the situation there is much better than in the Interior Ministry or Emergency Ministry.
The ongoing economic recession adversely affects the functioning of the regional force grouping of Belarus and Russia. Combat training exercises were stopped. Belarus only provided 24% of the planned contribution. Border security is funded by 68% (71.8% in Russia and 62.5% in Belarus). 3 It was initially planned that Belarus and Russia would allocate RUB 3.16 billion for military-technical cooperation in 2014.
Staffing: Second biggest problem after finances
The staffing problem remains acute. All defense, security and law enforcement agencies experience a shortage of skilled personnel. In the spring of 2014, the authorities acknowledged a failure of the enrollment of cadets to the Military Academy in 2013. The admission rate was a modest 65%. The Academy had to enroll applicants who failed entrance examinations. Many of them were later expelled for academic failure. The admission was urgently resumed in 2014 and requirements to the qualification of newcomers were considerably decreased.
The leadership of the largest security and law enforcement agencies (the Ministry of Emergency Situations, Ministry of the Interior and State Border Committee) are taking palliative measures. In order to cope with the staffing problem, they practice the substitution of commissioned slots with other categories of military and civilian personnel and keeping officers, who have attained the retirement age, on their positions. The promotion of warrant officers to the rank of commissioned officer after short-time courses came under criticism because of the extremely low competence of such promotees. This way or another, the agencies have to deal with the human resources they have at their disposal. A career guidance outreach program for young people is seen as a possible solution, but the progress is very modest so far. Only 133 out of 638 (21%) majors in law, who graduated schools sponsored by the Interior Ministry Academy last year, applied for admission to the Academy, and only 58 of them (9.1%) became cadets.
The problem is both in the quantity and the quality of personnel. Major General Igor Lavrinenko was relieved of his post of first deputy chief of the General Staff of the armed forces of Belarus on August 4 without any explanation. At a meeting with State Secretary of the Security Council Alexander Mezhuev on August 18, Lukashenko voiced concern about the discipline in the armed forces, especially among officers and generals of the Defense Ministry.
Corruption among law enforcers is another problem. The past year saw major corruption cases in the Gomel region. A number of top officers of the KGB, the local police, a judge and several officials were brought to justice. During the annual address to the parliament and the nation on April 22, Lukashenko gave particular emphasis to the problem of corruption thus highlighting the facts of abuse of office by judges, KGB officers and law enforcers (the Ministry of the Interior, Investigative Committee, customs and border protection services). This part of the president’s speech was not only the longest, but also the most emotional one. Lukashenko said that corruption and malversation were the birthmarks of security and controlling agencies. In short, law enforcers cannot be regarded as a healthy part of the system of government anymore.
In December 2014, law enforcers reported that they arrested a group of drug dealers, which included two former policemen and two active KGB agents. Ten members of the group were among other things charged with malfeasance in office. Most likely, we are talking about officials, probably police or security officers. The fact that no other information about the arrested KGB agents suggests that they were not low-rank officers. This is an unprecedented situation for the security services.
The border under scrutiny
During a panel session of the State Border Committee held on January 27, the president expressed dissatisfaction with the situation on the border, considering that border security is among the priorities of the national policy. The panelists discussed optimization of border services, law and order in the border areas, the role of local authorities in addressing existing problems, and assistance of public authorities and the resident population to the State Border Committee in border protection.
The session launched a series of transformations in the State Border Committee. In April, the parliament passed (in the first reading) the bill On amendments to some laws of the Republic of Belarus on border security, which among other things concerns application of weapons, physical force and special means in the border area, including means to stop fugitive vehicles at border checkpoints, etc. Also, the Council of Ministers’ regulation of June 15, 2014 allows involving organizations and enterprises of border areas in building the border infrastructure.
Over 400 staffing positions were vacated as a result of optimization of the structure and numerical strength of the State Border Committee, disbandment of an air squadron, a hospital and the border guard department of the Institute of National Security. This made it possible to form new border posts. The size of engineer units was increased on the borders shared with Ukraine and Lithuania. Measures were taken to tighten security at the border with Ukraine. Nearly 400 border guards were pulled in to the border line as close as possible. A new border unit, Mozyrski (of Mozyr), was formed. Efforts were made to increase the density of border protection in the area of the Belarusian nuclear power plant, which is currently under construction.
A mobilization component of the border control bodies was created. Twenty-two reserve border posts were formed of reservists. This helped to increase the density of border protection in accident-prone sections of the state border. Last year, the reserve posts were arranged on the Ukrainian direction. Similar measures are planned in all regional offices of the State Border Committee. The Mobilization Center of the Border Guard Service Institute is in charge of reserve mobilization. 4
There were some controversial decisions like the disbandment of the State Border Committee’s aviation (helicopters of the border guards were given to the Ministry of Emergency Situations). The planes are supposed to be replaced by UAVs of Berkut-2 type manufactured in Belarus and gyroplanes, which are yet to be purchased. They require a proper infrastructure and well-trained technical staff, which are absent as well.
The equipment of state border sections with modern protection systems – mobile rapid deployment complexes – is among the immediate tasks. Such means would allow the State Border Committee to secure the areas where the Committee is not present yet, i. e. the eastern border of Belarus.
On September 4, Lukashenko signed decree No. 433 On amendments to presidential decree No. 125 of March 9, 2009, which establishes the border areas within the administrative-territorial units adjacent to the state border of Belarus and the Russian Federation. Although the State Border Committee denies this, the legislation explicitly suggests that Belarus is going (or demonstrates the intention) to start full-scale protection of the Belarusian-Russian border. This will require a 50% increase in the number of border guards. The whole border management project can take seven to ten years.
Army, weapons and exercises
The year 2014 saw significant assignments in the Ministry of Defense. Special Operations Forces Commander Major General Oleg Belokonev was appointed chief of defense on January 11. Andrei Ravkov took the office of defense minister on January 25. These personnel decision were made as part of Alexander Lukashenko’s policy towards rejuvenation of the command staff. The new minister has already made it clear that there would be no considerable changes in the defense buildup sector, because the president had mapped a strategy, and it must be implemented. 5 The details of this strategy are not disclosed. Belokonev and Ravkov have a reputation of ‘down-to-earth doers’ who know the situation in the army. Another thing is that their positions give them no more than a little chance to foster changes.
The key problems of the Belarusian army remain pretty much the same: the obsolescence of weapons and military equipment, deterioration of the military infrastructure, and steadily declining prestige of military service. Russia still has not supplied four battalions of S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems. The delivery date has been postponed more than once since April 2011, when it was announced for the first time. It is worth mentioning that this is about a contract on the purchase at the residual price. At the same time, Kazakhstan has received more S-300 than was promised to Belarus for free.
The newly-adopted draft concept of the military-technical policy of Belarus for the period till 2025 concerns armaments, the defense industry and cooperation between Belarus and its foreign partners. The priority list of weapons and equipment has not changed radically: telecommunication, automated control systems, reconnaissance assets, land- and air-based electronic warfare means, air defense and tactical ballistic missile systems, information, survey and navigational support means.
In 2014, the military leadership paid much attention to the organization of a stable and efficient system of military control in case of an armed conflict. Since the beginning of the Russian-Ukrainian armed hostilities, Belarus has conducted a series of large-scale military exercises (‘operability tests’), which mostly involved the air force, air defense and special operations forces. Deployment of territorial defense forces was also worked on. The goal is clear: to demonstrate that ‘the powder is dry and the armor is strong’ and it is better not to try to draw Belarus into the conflict (the signal addressed equally to the West and the East).
During the second phase of the operability tests, the armed forces considered options to respond to the scenarios, which Russia played out in the east of Ukraine. A number of military units marched a distance comparable to that from the home stations to the Russian border. The units practiced:
- the search, blocking and elimination of illegal armed groups and sabotage and reconnaissance groups;
- force projection over long distances in conditions of sabotage activity;
- securing of the state border, including that in case of a breach by illegal armed groups and sabotage and reconnaissance groups;
- arrangement of field command centers, border checkpoints, and management of operations involving the search, blocking and elimination of illegal armed groups and sabotage and reconnaissance groups;
- the combat application of artillery;
- maintaining of the martial law regime, combat duty at checkpoints, interaction with the Interior Ministry troops in populated localities, protection and defense of critical facilities, repelling of attacks of illegal armed groups, and rectification of consequences of sabotage attacks jointly with Emergency Ministry units.
Special mention should be made of the exercise with the 120th mechanized brigade of the Interior Ministry troops on the joint patrolling of city streets, curfew enforcement and actions in the event of mass riots.
The Ministry of Defense quietly shifts the responsibility for territorial defense to local authorities. This follows from amendments to the Law on Defense initiated by the ministry. Local officials are largely in charge of the formation of territorial troops: executive committees are tasked to form and deploy territorial forces, conduct military exercises (jointly with the Defense Ministry) with persons assigned to operational headquarters of the territorial troops, military units and territorial defense. However, it is not clear who exactly in civil offices is supposed to do this and at whose expense it is supposed to be done given that local treasuries are empty.
The situation with a Russian military base in Belarus was uncertain. The Belarusian authorities have carefully sidestepped this issue making no comments on related statements by the Russian side. Alexander Lukashenko thus made it known that he needed Russian planes, rather than the Russian military.
The Western and North-Western Tactical Commands of the air force and air defense were liquidated in November 2014. This was supposedly possible owing to the retrofitting of the bodies of military administration, which allowed controlling operations of the entire air force and air defense with the use of computer-aided procedures from one command post. More likely, the real reason lies in the decay of the Belarusian combat aviation: the two Commands simply had nothing to command.
The attempts to obtain the next batch of Chinese gratuitous military aid to China were made throughout the year.
Another spy scandal between Belarus and Poland erupted in March 2014. Military Attaché of Belarus Dmitry Zhukov was expelled from Warsaw for activities incompatible with his diplomatic status. The Polish media said that he was noticed by the local counterintelligence service when seeking contacts with former air force officers, military retirees and members of youth military-patriotic organizations. Also, there was information that a Belarusian agent, who had been engaged in misinformation of Polish secret services for a long time, was caught about two years ago.
Later, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry acknowledged the arrest of two Belarusian nationals in Poland on the charge of espionage. The Polish National Security Bureau detained one more Belarusian, who gathered intelligence on military facilities working for Belarus’ military intelligence service. He studied in Poland under a scholarship program of the Polish government, and then made frequent trips to the country.
Lithuania was also active hunting Belarusian spies and caught a paramedic and an airport electrician allegedly working for Belarus.
The bellicose rhetoric of the Belarusian president against the background of the regional security crisis has not led to a fundamental improvement in the funding of defense, security and law enforcement agencies. Budget savings remained on the agenda throughout the year 2014, and, apparently, nothing is going to change in the near future.
The staffing problem was faced by all agencies, and nothing suggests that a feasible solution will be found any time soon. The quality of human resources is in decline. The psychological climate in the teams leaves much to de desired as well.
Having analyzed the course of the Russian-Ukrainian war, Belarus put greater emphasis on ground forces, interagency cooperation between the Ministry of the Interior, Ministry of Defense and State Border Committee in crisis situations. At the same time, the burden of maintaining territorial defense is shifted onto local governments. However, Lukashenko is yet to make the final decision on this matter.