In 2016, the security sector was progressing, although Belarus lost the status of Russia’s exclusive political and economic partner. Self-reliance is what the country’s leadership demanded, among other things because the interaction with the West in the defense sector remained of secondary importance to Minsk. Under the new conditions, the army is endowed with additional functions with a view to ensuring internal security, since the government has recognized hybrid warfare as a real threat, and the ongoing economic recession as a long-term factor that calls for urgent public spending cuts. The national defense industry showed certain progress thus getting less independent in terms of supplies to the domestic market.
- The army is involved to a greater extent in ensuring internal security;
- The possibility of an internal armed conflict (instigated from outside) under certain circumstances is officially recognized;
- Defense, security and law enforcement agencies have set new ambitious tasks, although the available resources are running out;
- Attempts are made to step up the security dialogue with the West.
New Military Doctrine
On July 20, 2016, Alexander Lukashenko approved the final version of the new Military Doctrine of Belarus. The Doctrine significantly elevates the status of the army in the national security system. It is based on a systemic analysis of the military-political situation and aims at preventing threats of ‘color revolutions’ and provocation of internal armed conflicts.
Although neutral definitions were used to avoid negative assessments on the part of external analysts, strong criticism came from Armenia (Russia possibly being behind that). In response, Deputy Foreign Minister of Belarus Valentin Rybakov made it clear that the Belarusian leadership prioritized its own interests above all. 1
Army responds to ‘hybrid’ challenges
The year 2016 saw a number of large-scale checks of the army’s combat readiness that gave an idea of the threats the country’ political leadership considered real.
A comprehensive inspection of the armed forces took place in January. The military practiced reinforced border protection jointly with border guards and Interior Ministry troops, 2 including that at the unequipped border sections (currently the border shared with the Russian Federation). The forces involved worked on repelling a small-scale invasion from a neighboring state in the midst of internal unrest in Belarus.
The combat readiness was checked again on March 15. Among other things, “present day approaches to respond to hybrid challenges, risks and threats” 3 and new troops management algorithms were on the agenda.
In September, the command-staff exercise under the title ‘Management of Armed Forces Grouping, Other Troops and Military Units in a Special Operation to Stabilize the Situation in Some Crisis Areas of the State’ was held jointly with almost all law enforcement agencies of Belarus. The main tasks included:
- deployment of command and control centers of almost all law enforcement agencies and coordination of their actions by the General Staff;
- formation of interdepartmental groupings of various security, defense and law enforcement agencies;
- protection of military command centers and important transport and economic facilities amid public unrest, when the protected facility staff collaborates with the enemy; 4
- organization of the deployment of a telecommunication system unprecedented in terms of capacity and coverage, and testing of new communication facilities, including the Belintersat satellite communication system;
- uninterrupted reconnaissance of the terrain and radio communication;
- suppression of attempts to violate the land and air borders of the state;
- protection from air strikes;
- special actions, including those in urban areas, and artillery bombardment of populated localities determined to minimize damage to the infrastructure and civilians;
- organization of a massive relocation of civilians during a joint operation of the army and the Ministry of the Interior to block a simulated settlement occupied by illegal armed groups and elimination of the groups. 5
Actions in conflicts of the past few years were taken into account during all three activities. The command-staff exercise held in September marked the changed role of the armed forces in light of the new Military Doctrine: the army is now responsible for performing a much broader range of tasks than just protection of the country from external aggression, and acts as a coordinator of the entire national security and defense system in a crisis situation.
Adapting to new realities
The Belarusian leadership does not expect significant improvements in the situation with public finances in the coming years and, therefore, takes steps to adapt the national defense system to living within the tight budget.
The government started reforming the military training system in late 2016, 6 putting an emphasis on the practical training of future officers, involvement of officers-practitioners, rather than theoreticians in the education process, and a reduction in the training time in some fields. On December 6, Alexander Lukashenko appointed Major General Victor Lisovsky head of the Military Academy of Belarus. Previously, Lisovsky supervised reorganization of education at the Minsk Suvorov Military School.
The territorial defense system was subject to certain adjustments as well. During a territorial defense exercise in February, it was announced that the territorial troops would be downsized from the early stated 120,000 given the demographic capacity. The president says the army, Interior Ministry troops, border guards, police, and territorial defense units will practice interaction, and emphasizes the importance of the mobilization component in all security, defense and law enforcement agencies. 7
In May, territorial defense exercises were held in the Luninets and Gantsevichi districts of the Brest region, and, in June, an interdepartmental command-staff exercise in six districts of the Grodno region involved the territorial defense forces, Ministry of Defense, Ministry of the Interior, State Border Committee, KGB and Ministry of Emergency Situations. An Interior Ministry’s unit formed of obligated reservists took part in such exercise for the first time.
Slowly going to the West
Minsk is seeking to develop cooperation with Western countries concerned about the security situation in Eastern Europe. Considering the scale of Russia’s influence on Belarus in the military-political domain, the Belarusian leadership has to prove its independence to the West.
At a Security Council session held January 22, Alexander Lukashenko spoke about increasing contradictions between Russia and NATO. In his opinion, further escalation of confrontation can have irreparable consequences.
Defense Minister Andrei Ravkov said on February 22 that Belarus was committed to protect its national interests using all available means. In addition to the cooperation with Russia and membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Ravkov spoke about cooperation with China and Belarus’ aspiration to develop constructive dialogue with NATO “towards the strengthening of international and regional security.” 8
A delegation of the Pentagon headed by Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Carpenter visited Minsk in late March. Judging by the available information, the security of their NATO allies and a possible increase in Russia’s military presence in Belarus were discussed. At a meeting with the delegation, Lukashenko said that Belarus was ready to fulfill obligations to its allies, but only in its own territory. He made it clear that Belarusian troops were not going anywhere. 9
In August, Belarus and the United States appointed military attachés to the embassies. The Belarusian Defense Ministry and the Pentagon released a joint statement on cooperation and signed a bilateral military cooperation plan for 2017 on October 20 in Washington.
On November 23–24, Warsaw hosted consultations on the planning of Belarusian-Polish military cooperation. The parties signed a plan of cooperation between the Ministries of Defense of Belarus and Poland.
An agreement on cooperation between Ministries of Defense of Belarus and Latvia was signed on December 5–6.
However, the degree of confidence in Minsk remained low. The absence of a Belarusian government delegation at the NATO summit in Warsaw in July was symptomatic. The official reason is the insufficient level of cooperation between NATO and Belarus. The real reason is that Western commanders doubt Belarus’ independence when it comes to defense issues.
The West expects clear and unambiguous guarantees of non-participation under any circumstances in possible aggressive actions of Moscow against neighboring members of NATO, and concrete practical steps, which would demonstrate Belarus’ independence in the field of defense. Verbal assurances of the Belarusian leadership are clearly not enough.
A summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization was held October 14 in Yerevan. Belarus took over presidency in the organization. Although Belarus called for strengthening collective security and the military component of the Organization, the country is actually not interested in the real strengthening of the CSTO as a military-political union. For the period of the presidency, Belarus mainly focuses on talks with the UN on peacekeeping, combating terrorism and drug and human trafficking, illegal migration, and emergency relief operations. 10 There is no room for militarism whatsoever.
An annual session of the Boards of the Defense Ministries of Belarus and Russia under the chairmanship of Ministers Andrei Ravkov and Sergei Shoigu was held November 2 in Minsk. Although both chairmen demonstrated optimism and satisfaction with the cooperation, different views on a number of fundamental issues were obvious. For example, the Belarusian military has no problem of confrontation with NATO, which is considered to be a partner of Belarus (not the main one for now, but clearly not an enemy).
A CSTO summit took place on December 26 in St. Petersburg. The Belarusian delegation canceled its participation. As a result, the appointment of a new secretary general of the CSTO was not considered again because representatives of Belarus were not there.
Defense industry: Industrial successes against the background of an administrative failure
The launch of Belarus’ first telecommunications satellite Belintersat-1 at the Xichang Launch Center of China on January 15 was the main achievement of the Belarusian defense industry in 2016. The satellite provides secured communication in a large area of Europe, Asia and Africa, being an important component of the integrated digital communication system of the country. The plan to launch the next Belintersat was officially announced in December 2016.
In August 2016, public attention was drawn to the delivery of the first multiple rocket launcher Polonaise. It is possible that the first batch was given to the military primarily for research purposes, particularly testing in operation, application and maintenance. A really large-scale supply will be associated with the adoption of a Polonaise modification with an action range of 300 km.
The following may be mentioned among other achievements of the defense industry:
- domestically manufactured wheeled armored vehicle V-1 developed by the Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant and Cayman of the 140th Repair Plant);
- testing of upgraded extended range missiles for the multiple rocket launcher Grad;
- testing of domestically produced solid rocket fuel;
- creation of a demonstrator of an unmanned fighting vehicle on the basis of Burevestnik-MB armed with two minor kamikaze drones for reconnaissance, surveillance and elimination of detected targets.
Last year, the army tightened control over the national defense industry, first of all by Defense Ministry’s military offices endowed with the most extensive rights, including the monitoring of pricing in the defense industry. In December 2016, Major General Igor Demidenko was appointed first deputy chairman of the State Military-Industrial Committee. Before his appointment, he headed the Central Military Inspection of the Armed Forces of Belarus. Demidenko will now supervise the development of arms delivery programs, price determination, and quality and timeliness of maintenance. In fact, this means that the defense industry becomes less independent on the domestic market.
The Belarusian military-political leadership is guided by the assumption that external aggression is only possible in case of a heated internal conflict. In order to respond to any internal threats at early stages, it is ready to use all available means up to armed suppression.
As concerns national security, the government chose to rely on itself. Consequently, Minsk will most likely continue distancing itself from Moscow in the security area. The significance of the Collective Security Treaty Organization for Belarus has declined and will continue to decline in the future. At the same time, the dialogue between Belarus and the West is progressing very slowly due to the lack of trust between the parties.
All of the aforesaid means that Belarus faces the need to develop its own manufacture of military equipment and weapons (primarily missile systems as a basis for strategic deterrence). The Belarusian defense industry will supply its products to the domestic market with a minimum profitability, seeking profits in foreign markets.