Army: Increasing dependence on Russia and deficit of domestic resources

Andrei Porotnikov


The military-political situation in Belarus sharply deteriorated in 2021. The Belarusian regime chose ideologically motivated confrontation with the neighboring countries, hoping that the West would be unprepared for this kind of behavior. This actually ruined the years long play of “situational neutrality” and “donor of regional stability”. At the same time, the sufficiency of domestic resources required to safely maintain this behavior is doubtful. Meantime, Moscow is giving a demonstration of the gradual loss of the military autonomy by Minsk.

Military-political aspects

Early in the year, the Belarusian authorities officially renounced the aspiration to be a neutral state, which is enshrined in the Constitution. Alexander Lukashenko and his generals toughened the already belligerent rhetoric in relation to the European neighbors, including Ukraine, regularly accusing them at the highest level of preparing for an aggressive war against Belarus, its destabilization, and provocations at the border to force Minsk to take up arms.

It was said among other things that Russian nuclear weapons might be given back to Belarus, should American nukes be placed in Poland1, and that “several squadrons” of the “Iskander” missile systems would be deployed at the western and southern border of Belarus, i.e. aiming at Poland and Ukraine. Belarus did deploy the “Iskanders” in the south in early 2022.

Lukashenko called the neighboring countries “enemies”, and stated his willingness to join Russia in the war against Ukraine.2 He seconded the Kremlin, which claimed that Ukraine was going to provoke Russia by attacking separatists in Donbass. In response, Ukraine accused Minsk of rebroadcasting Russian propaganda and turning “entire Belarus into a Russian military base”. However, as the events of February 2022 showed, Kyiv did not draw any conclusions other than rhetorical.

Meanwhile, Minsk continued to deny any plans to expand the Russian military presence in Belarus. Both Lukashenko and Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin made statements on this point.3

The tightening of Belarus’ official position can be explained by the following reasons:

Cuddling up to the Kremlin

As the confrontation with the neighbors intensified, Belarus expanded its military cooperation with Russia. The agreement on two Russian military facilities in Belarus (the 43rd communication center of the Russian Navy and the radio-radar missile warning center) was extended for whole 25 years, just as Moscow wanted.

The Defense Ministries of Belarus and Russia adopted a strategic partnership program for the next five years. A new military doctrine of the Belarus-Russia Union State (which both parties had been waffling on since late 2018 because of Belarus’ reluctance to accept it) was finally agreed upon.

During the period under review, three centers for joint training of military personnel were set up. The one in the Grodno Region is for Su-30SM crews and Belarusian specialists working with Russian anti-aircraft missile systems. In August-September, Russian units with S-400 surface-to-air missile systems arrived in Grodno, and Russian Su-30SM fighters were deployed at the airbase in Baranovichi.

The second center in the Nizhny Novgorod Region of Russia is intended for ground troops training, and the third one in the Kaliningrad Region trains divers and crews of the BTR-82A armored personnel carriers. The legal status of the centers remains unknown, since no agreement has been made public.

The Belarusian Defense Ministry said in November that flights of Russian strategic bombers along the country’s border would be regular. This and all further actions were presented as a response to the military activity in the neighboring countries. During that time, two long-range Russian TU-22M3 bombers flew over Belarus, and then two Russian Tu-160 strategic bombers simulated bombing raids at the Ruzhany airfield.

Belarusian and Russian combined airborne battalion tactical groups practiced landing at the Gozha training range, capturing and holding a bridgehead, and destroying facilities. Belarusian and Russian aircraft began patrolling the Belarusian border in late November.

New weapons: modest implementation of immodest plans

In 2021, Minsk repeatedly revisited the idea of buying new weapons from Russia. It was reported that Belarus had signed contracts for supplies of the Russian Mi-35 attack helicopters and the second batch of the Su-30SM fighters, and that a contract for the purchase of the S-400 SAMS and Pantsir-S air defense systems was negotiated.4

Lukashenko said in March that he had discussed with Vladimir Putin the purchase of Russian weapons for the part of the Russian money, which was lent to Belarus for the construction of the nuclear power plant and remained unused.5 In September, he also said that a large batch of weapons from Russia would soon be delivered to Belarus, and that he planned to buy Russian weapons worth USD 1 billion by 2025.6 Russia did not comment on these statements, although it used to be the main source of information about supplies of aircraft and air defense hardware to Belarus.

The only notable supplies were two battalion sets and Russian BTR-82A armored personnel carriers (upgraded Soviet BTR-80). The only advantage of the latter vehicles is that they are relatively cheap and can be used in Belarus without the preliminary crew training. The plan to buy the BTR-82As goes as far back as 2015, when Lukashenko criticized the idea, instructing to buy Belarusian products, even if they were of lower quality.

Development of a missile for the “Polonez” multiple-launch system (300-km range) and a medium-range antiaircraft missile remained the largest projects of the Belarusian defense industry. However, nothing is known yet about any achievements in both projects.

No money, no manpower

Belarus’ armament projects were not supported financially. The 2021 budget of the Defense Ministry was originally planned at BYN 1,626 million against BYN 1,645 million in 2020, i. e. there was a reduction even in nominal terms. The announced BYN 1 billion for purchases of Russian weapons in the next five years fell within the spending range of the previous years. Taking into account that prices of Russian weapons were constantly rising, the Belarusian Defense Ministry is not expected to be able to spend more.

The number of draft dodgers was steadily increasing. Slightly over 10,000 young men bound to military service joined the army during the spring draft of 20217, while about 5,000 were reported as dodgers, and 3,000 were booked by the police.

West-2021: unagreed internationalization

The format of the traditional Belarusian-Russian joint strategic exercise West-2021 underwent considerable changes. First of all, without notifying Belarus, Russia invited Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) members to participate in the exercise. After that, it was announced that about 200,000 servicemen would be involved, of whom only about 12,800 would be practicing in Belarus.8 Previously, Russia used to hold its own strategic exercises of a much larger scale simultaneously with the joint Wests. In 2021, it was officially announced for the first time their actual integration.

In this way, Russia transformed West-2021 from a landmark bilateral exercise into a multinational one, in which Belarus is only one of a dozen participants, albeit the second in order of importance. About 94% of the West-2021 events were planned to take place on the territory of Russia, and the Belarusian part was kind of auxiliary. Furthermore, the scenario of the Russian part of the exercise envisaged an interstate armed conflict, while the Belarusian part remained a traditional rehearsal of anti-terror and anti-extremist operations in a low-intensity conflict.

The exercise did not have a unified management, because local commanders conducted their local parts separately, which actually was a result of Russia’s unilateral actions to take over and internationalize West 2021. This came as a surprise to Belarus. Apparently, after the corresponding statements, neither party could not or did not want to manage the exercise jointly, since it could only be Russian in the new format.

The Belarusian authorities thus explicitly used the exercise as an element of its anti-Western policy. All the locations selected for the exercise were in the southwest of the Brest Region, i. e. close to Poland and Ukraine. For comparison, only two locations in the west of the country were used in 2017.

In fact, during the exercise, the military practiced a number of elements that were later used by Russia during the invasion of Ukraine, namely assault across rivers, air strikes by long-range bombers, various types of landing (at night, from helicopters, etc.), and breaking through anti-aircraft defense zones.


In 2021, the Belarusian regime turned into a direct threat to the neighboring countries of the European Union and Ukraine, as it seized to pursue its long-standing strategy of not posing threats to its neighbors (the so-called “donor of regional security/stability”). By aligning itself with the Kremlin’s regional security stance in the toughest manner possible, Minsk took the narrow path of inevitable confrontation with the neighboring states, and this is unlikely to change before the end of the active phase of the Russian-Ukrainian war.

For Belarus, the expansion of defense cooperation with Russia is significant in two ways: (1) as a demonstration of loyalty to the Kremlin with the hope to exchange it for concessions in other, civil matters; (2) as an instrument of pressure on the West, the actions of which are presented as forcing Lukashenko to get closer with Russia in its anti-Western policy.

Observers see the Belarusian-Russian joint air force and air defense training center as a camouflaged Russian military base. From a detached point of view, Russia’s unilateral actions to take over and internationalize the West-2021 exercise can be interpreted as the loss of Minsk’s military autonomy. Taking into account the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian war, it is possible to speak about a significantly narrowed space for foreign policy maneuvering for the Belarusian regime.

The extension of the agreement with Russia on the lease of the military facilities in Belarus creates a long-term challenge for a post-Lukashenko Belarus. The country will have to take an attitude to the unacceptably long term of the Russian military presence approved by the regime. This could be a reason for Russia to interfere with domestic affairs of Belarus. To maintain its military presence in Belarus, Russia will support the political groups that will not question the above agreement.

It can be expected that Moscow will continue downgrading the status of its military security relationship with Belarus from an exclusive partner of Russia to just one of peripheral partners in this field, the importance of which is determined by the situation in the region. This knocks out most effective leverage of the Belarusian regime in matters not directly related to security, thus nullifying the value of Minsk as an actor capable of influencing Russia’s foreign policy due to the special nature of bilateral relations.