National Defense: Building new partnerships

Andrei Porotnikov

Summary

The year 2019 saw no breakthroughs in the national defense segment in many respects due to financing shortages, and because the country’s leadership gave priority to political and economic matters, rather than defense. Public support for the army also left much to be desired.

Although progressively expanding, international military cooperation was a derivative of Belarus’ general political relationships with foreign nations and blocs.

Trends:
Armed forces buildup priorities

Much attention was paid in 2019 to the application of unmanned (remote-controlled) aerial vehicles. A meeting on projected advantages of the use of UAVs by the army chaired by Chief of General Staff Oleg Belokonev was held on January 28. The 927th Unmanned Aircraft Systems Training and Application Center conducted an exercise to view all drone prototypes available to the Center.

The joint conference of the army and the defense industry on the application and protection against UAVs and coordination of R&D and production activities of UAV developers and the military organized in June by the Air Force and Air Defense Command was the most important event in this respect.1 It was confirmed that the creation of a full-capacity strike drone remained among the national defense priorities.

Russia’s experience of combat operations in Syria was analyzed and used in the training of troops. During the CIS Combat Commonwealth 2019 joint air defense exercise held in September, the military practiced interception and elimination of cruise missiles and UAVs at the Russian Ashuluk training ground.

During the Belarusian-Russian Union Shield 2019 exercise, the units involved rehearsed recapture and defense of urban localities. The program of the CSTO Search-2019 reconnaissance exercise held in October in Belarus included a response to attacks made with makeshift poisonous substances and elimination of their effects.2

In 2019, the Belarusian army made the most costly purchases: the Russian Yak-130 operational training jets and the Su-30SM heavy fighters (four each) worth USD 200 to 260 million in total, depending on the price of the Su-30SM for Belarus (Russia’s domestic or export price), which was the annual all-time high in the history of Belarus’ independence.

The Belarusian air force considers the Yak-130 a kind of substitute for fighters and ground attack aircraft. The Yaks are adjusted so that they can carry the Talisman on-board defense complex of domestic manufacture, which implements the idea of turning the original combat trainer into a combat jet. The purchase of the Su-30SMs for the Belarusian army raised questions that the Ministry of Defense chose to leave unanswered.3

The quantity of weapons and military hardware procured for the army thus decreased from around 1,500 units in 2018 to 1,100 in 2019, as expensive aircraft accounted for the bulk of spending.

President Lukashenko signed a new national defense plan on December 19, 2019. Emphasis was put on the prevention of destabilization of the country, which is considered part of defense, as destabilization often precedes armed pressure.

Alexander Lukashenko also approved an army buildup concept for the period to 2030, which does not provide for significant changes in the composition of the armed forces. The plan is to increase spending on the army to 1.5% of GDP in the next ten years, i.e. only USD 15–20 million per year in equivalent. UAVs, reconnaissance assets, upgrades of the striking aviation and modernization of rocket troops and artillery were listed as priority areas. Belarus is also going to solve the shortage of ammunition, anti-aircraft and anti-tank guided missiles, and other high-precision ammunition for available weapons.

New military service regulations

In 2019, Belarus amended the law on military service, toughening the rules established for deferments that used to be granted to university students for uninterrupted education. This caused considerable public discontent, the more so as the offered incentives are few, since the state seeks to avoid large budget expenses.

The authorities explain that the demographic situation has deteriorated, and the number of potential conscripts fit for military service has declined dramatically. However, it is more likely about the upsize of defense and security agencies that desperately need manpower. The fact that the staffing situation was addressed at the meeting of the Security Council of Belarus on February 26 suggests that the problem is very real.

Even the Prosecutor’s Office was involved in 2019 in ensuring conscription and interaction between the bodies in charge of it. Thousands of young people evade military service, having an opportunity to leave the country for work or education in the neighboring states. They choose the risk of criminal prosecution for evasion over going to the barracks as a lesser evil.

The Ministry of Defense failed to work out an adequate information strategy in support of the amendments on military service, and the prestige of military service remains low.

Between the West and Russia

Belarus’ military-political agenda has not changed. On the one hand, Minsk continued proclaiming its loyalty to Russia. On the other hand, efforts were made to obtain support in other directions. During the traditional February briefing for foreign military attachés, the Ministry of Defense said it was seeking stepped up defense cooperation with Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania. No headway was made with the latter two in 2019 despite several events that inspired some hope.

On March 28, Warsaw hosted a multilateral meeting of General Staff officers of Belarus, Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine on building confidence and regional security.

On July 9, Chief of General Staff of Belarus Oleg Belokonev visited Ukraine to meet with his Ukrainian counterpart Ruslan Khomchak. They discussed regional security matters and cooperation in the defense sector.

Heads of the Security Councils of Belarus, Poland and Ukraine met with United States Deputy National Security Advisor for President John Bolton on August 31 in Warsaw. State Secretary of the Security Council of Belarus Stanislav Zas said after the meeting that Belarus was interested in expanding contacts with NATO. Basically, Belarus would like the format of NATO’s communication with other CSTO members (Armenia and Kazakhstan), which is kind of a ceiling in this area. Zas stressed that Belarus would develop relations with NATO and Ukraine without the detriment of cooperation with Russia.4

Chief of Defense of the Latvian Armed Forces Lieutenant General Leonīds Kalniņš went to Belarus in August. The Latvian delegation visited a garrison, which used to be a restricted area for official delegations of NATO.

An Italian military delegation led by Chief of the Defense Staff of the Italian Armed Forces Enzo Vecciarelli visited Belarus on December 5. It was reported later that Belarus and NATO were in talks on a joint peacekeeping exercise, and the possible deployment of the Belarusian military with the Italian contingent in Lebanon.

The scale of Belarus’ participation in the joint Union Shield 2019 exercise is worthy of note. Belarus delegated around 4,000 personnel to compare with 1,300 troops involved in Union Shield 2015, and over 5,000 troops sent to Union Shield in 2011, the year of a severe financial recession in Belarus. Minsk continues to consider security cooperation a “sacred cow” in the relationship with Moscow and demonstrates its reliability as an ally.

Throughout 2019, the Belarusian leadership tried to appeal to the military alliance to resolve the ongoing Belarusian-Russian political and economic disputes, but the Kremlin did not want to mix security cooperation with politics and economics. The era of Belarus’ defense-for-preferences bargaining is coming to an end.

Not only the West and Russia

Belarus intensified public contacts with Turkey in 2019. Turkish Minister of Defense Hulusi Akar went to Minsk in January. The delegation made a visit to Belarus’ defense enterprises and expressed satisfaction with the results of the visit. For the most part, the negotiations were held behind closed doors, though.

Alexander Lukashenko went to Turkey on April 16. The program included defense cooperation talks with the Turkish president. The State Military-Industrial Committee of Belarus and the Presidency of Defense Industries of Turkey signed a memorandum of understanding. The list of Turkish defense companies that the Belarusian Military-Industrial Committee showed interest to – TAI, MKEK and Roketsan – is indicative, as they possess technologies that are of interest to Belarus. The parties spoke about the space sector (optics for Earth remote sensing satellites) and air defense systems as the promising areas of cooperation.

Belarus was also in talks with Kazakhstan on the joint manufacture of UAVs and information security equipment in Kazakhstan. Belarusian drones were tested in Kazakhstan in January 2019. Belarusian and Kazakhstani officers met in July to consider development of a military communications system. Belarus made a presentation of its communications technology.

Belarusian-Serbian and Belarusian-Azerbaijani contacts in the security area have become traditional in recent years.

A real breakthrough was achieved in the security dialogue with Uzbekistan. The parties discussed in different formats military-political and military-technical cooperation and command personnel training. The first joint exercise with the task forces of the two countries, Combat Commonwealth 2019, was held Uzbekistan in May.

Egyptian President, former Egypt’s military chief Field Marshal Abdul Fattah al-Sisi visited Belarus in June for negotiations on military-technical cooperation.

Belarus takes interest in Uzbekistan and Egypt as promising export markets. Therefore, the efforts made to expand defense cooperation with them should be primarily viewed as promotion of Belarus’ political and economic agenda, rather than just an offer of firmer friendship.

Meanwhile, Belarus demonstrates increasing dissatisfaction with cooperation with China, first of all with its economic component. Indirectly, this is seen in the defense sector. Chief of the Joint Staff Department of the Central Military Commission of China Colonel General Li Zuocheng visited Belarus on May 28–31 to discuss military cooperation. Alexander Lukashenko ignored his visit, although the Belarusian president had always declared the importance of Belarusian-Chinese relations when meeting Chinese visitors even of lower ranks.

Conclusion

The construction of the army remains the sole prerogative of the state, and society is never engaged in any of related processes. External manifestations of this construction testify to the adequacy of combat training to modern realities. However, national defense is not a priority for the country’s leadership, which affects the financing of this sector. The rationality of spending on the army, albeit relatively small, remains questionable.

Society remains alienated from the army, as evidenced by the increase in the number of draft dodgers.

The government is trying to keep a foot in both worlds, preserving the exclusive nature of Belarus-Russia defense cooperation, while at the same time seeking to improve relations with the West and Ukraine when it comes to defense issues. Belarus continues looking for military-political partners outside the region, which has been a long-term trend now. Defense issues are only tools for the Belarusian leadership to achieve political and economic goals.

Qualitative development of national defense is impossible without its recognition as one of the state priorities. This has not happened so far and hardly will in the foreseeable future, judging by the spending plan, unless, of course, external factors change the situation.