Many experts in the West tend to consider relationships of Belarusian regime with Russia as trading the sovereignty. This is wrong. Belarusian policy is extremely pragmatic. And the sovereignty of Belarus is not going to be “sold” to anyone: neither to the West nor to the East. Belarus is as an independent state. This is irreversible and it is an axiom.
This article is a reaction to an article by Anaïs Marin «Trading off sovereignty. The outcome of Belarus’s integration with Russia in the security and defence field». It should be noted that Ms. Marin is not simply one of the few western specialists in the Belarusian issues, but also, perhaps, one of the most competent researchers of modern Belarus. At this rate her latest material on the impact of the Belarusian-Russian relations on issues of national security and sovereignty of our country was a surprise.
Belarus Security Blog has been working for three years and specializes in security and stability of the modern Belarusian state. It is natural that in this regard an important factor is the Russian influence, which is paid attention by us. It’s necessary to note that our view of the relationship with Russia is not the only one in Belarus.
Relations between Belarus and Russia: a view from Minsk.
After reviewing the analysis of Ms. Marin we got different feelings. On the one hand, she absolutely true postulates the absence of preconditions for the resumption of military confrontation between Russia and the West. On the other hand, thinking about the relations of our country with Russia, she indirectly speaks about no alternative of choice: “either with the West or with Russia”. Meanwhile, Russians, or at least their elites, increasingly associate themselves with the West. Otherwise, they wouldn’t so persistently strive to have a visa-free regime with the EU (even at the cost of the introduction of visa with the CIS countries), wouldn’t save their money in the Western banks, wouldn’t send their children to Western universities and wouldn’t buy property in elite districts of Western capitals. All this facts don’t allow to take the anti-Western rhetoric of individual officials in Moscow seriously.
By the way, such claims are made solely for internal use and it is explained by the fact that Putin’s regime have is nothing to boast to its citizens. Problems of the Russian state are increasing, become complex, and there is fewer and fewer time to solve them. Simple Russians are not idiots, they perfectly understand the state of affairs in their country. In this situation, for any ruling elite one of the most affordable ways to consolidate the population is the creation of an enemy, which is guilty in all domestic troubles. The West was chosen for this role because of the historical habits. However, the situation is changing, and now China and Islam “compete” for the “honourable” status of the threat to Russia. And the anti-Western rhetoric gradually gives way to an anti-Islamic one. Moreover, that the West is far, most Russian have seen Americans and Europeans only seen on television. And in Russia there is at least 30 million Muslims, including migrants!
Speaking about the choice of Belarus it should be noted that the Belarusian society gets understanding of the different model of foreign policy, which can be roughly characterized as a priority of national interests over ideology. Belarusians are inclined to unite with allies, which offer more profitable union. In this situation both the West and Russia are only the tools of the Belarusian interests. Belarusian society is extremely pragmatic and values material interests higher than some indistinct unity.
Of course, the restoration of relations with the West is a key goal of Belarusian foreign policy, as it will allow to balance the influence of Russia. However, it is wrong to consider the participation of Belarus in integration processes, initiated by Moscow, solely as a result of confrontation with the West. The reason is more banal: the West does not offer Belarus anything substantial. But the Russians are willing to take the economic and financial sacrifices for the sake of geopolitical successes, which are, by the way, very shadowy and unreliable.
The military-industrial complex of Belarus.
Since Soviet times, Belarusian military-industrial complex does not produce finished models of weapons. However, it produces finished products that are included in the complexes of weapons. Many products Belarusian of defence industry are really important. And can be used not only in conjunction with the Soviet / Russian weapons, but also with the Western ones. This creates objective conditions for closer cooperation of the domestic defence industry with the former Soviet republics, especially the Russian military-industrial complex and Ukraine. Belarusian military-industrial complex is focused on those areas where it has adequate technological development and engineering schools: microelectronics, optics, communication systems, electronic warfare and other products with low material consumption and high added value. It should be taken into consideration that the budget allocation for the development of the national defence industry is small. Relatively speaking, if the Belarusian economy as a whole retains vestiges of socialism and planned economy, in the Belarusian defence industry, there is complete capitalism and only the strongest survive.
The threat of “capture” of Belarusian enterprises by Russian defence industry companies in general sounds strange. For example, the Poles don’t speak about takeover of Polish aviation industry by Western corporations. Also, if you look to the history of Russian “capture” of Belarusian industry (not just defence one), it should be recognized that 22-year success in this area is not very impressive. Certainly, there has been interest from Russian companies to the Belarusian defence industry enterprises, which often have unique technologies. However, the inevitability of their takeover by Russia is far from obvious. Belarusians for the third decade have been listening to the statements like “just wait a little and Russia annexes Belarus” or “Russia takes control of our industry”. But really the point is, that Russian authorities can’t deal with their own military-industrial complex and industry.
In recent years, the Belarusian authorities have been carrying out the policy of self-consistent accessing international markets and selling own products. The list of Belarus’ partner countries in the field of industrial activity expands. Of course, it is not easy. It is much more difficult than just selling old Soviet weapons.
Cooperation in the field of defence.
Discussing the issues of military security it is essential to consider two things. Firstly, at the moment the vast majority of weapons systems in Belarus are the Soviet ones. In this situation, the need for cooperation with Russia is forced and has no alternative at the moment. Secondly, in exchange for participation in integration associations Moscow is ready to provide financial aid, including free transfer of weapons and supplies of weapons at very favourable terms. And is the West ready for something like that? The experience of the new NATO members demonstrates that in most cases, only weapon systems that can be classified as museum pieces are provided for free. Modern Western-made weapons has extremely high cost. Meanwhile, in order to maintain the defence capability our country needs large quantities of weapons. At the same time Belarus has limited resources. In this situation there are only three sources of weapons supply: Russia, China, and the purchase of used Western weapons. However, Russia is ready to provide used equipment for free.
The statement by Ms. Marin that Belarus has little independence in matters of external security, can be a surprise not only in Minsk, but in Moscow as well. In fact, the situation looks different. As we mentioned above, Russia, unlike NATO offers its allies good conditions for the acquisition of weapons and various benefits. Therefore the maintenance of Belarusian national security involves only two ways: non-aligned status (but then Belarus must rely on its own strength) or reliance on Russian support in the framework of military alliances such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (hereinafter CSTO).
Fears that Putin’s Russia structurally and permanently subdue Belarus at the expense of integration projects, are familiar for Belarusians and have some theoretical foundation. However, the real actions are different: the Kremlin can’t get control even of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, where the situation is much less stable than in Belarus. In addition, there is no answer to the question why Russia should subdue Belarus. In order to continue further allocation of billions of dollars to maintain relatively pro-Russian regime, while having a big number of domestic problems not being solved for decades? Of course, many experts in Russia continue to use imperial categories and definitions, while dreaming of “great-power” status. However, this dream is just a dream, but the reality is different.
The reality is that Russia itself is changing rapidly, becoming a consumer society that can be compared with the former European colonial powers. For example, most British and French also believe their countries to be great powers. But how many of them are willing to defend this view in arms away from home? The same thing is happening in Russia: there are many patriots, but there are few people, who want to serve their country. The number of people, who evade conscription, already exceeds the number of called for military service. Staff shortage in Russian army was about 30% a year ago and now it is around 23%. The claim that deterrence is a priority for NATO, Moscow and Minsk increasingly obsolete, especially in light of the adoption this year of a new Russian foreign policy doctrine.
Speaking about the Russian support of the Belarusian military, it is essential to recognize that such support takes place and it is important. However, in absolute terms, its value is small. This situation is not unique. Comparison of open data shows that Kazakhstan has received much more military aid in the form of Russian weapons than Belarus, despite all the talks about the priority of bilateral Belarusian-Russian relations to Moscow. Moreover, the new Russian weapons in recent years come to Belarus in the export configuration, which means their limited functionality. That doesn’t indicate a high level of trust between the two countries in defence issues.
The statement that all Belarusian officers are trained in Russian military universities is wrong. Belarusian authorities have been consistently pursuing a policy to reduce the scale of military training in the neighbouring country. A relatively small number of specialists, the need for which is small, are trained in Russia because it is simply unreasonable to have significant teaching staff for their training. By the way, Belarusian students are trained there as foreigners, which means shortened program of studies. Another important factor that forced the Belarusian authorities to begin training the majority of military specialists in Belarus is the fact of mass attempts to enlist Belarusian officers by Russian special services. It can be confidently stated that the activity of Russian intelligence has become a decisive factor in the creation of the Faculty of General Staff to train the officers of the highest ranks.
Stating, that the latest developments in the field of cooperation between Belarus and Russia make the cooperation of Belarus with the West in the field of security, it is necessary to admit that the military capabilities of the European countries except Poland, Romania and Estonia are degrading. This fact and the curtailment of the U.S. military presence on the continent don’t allow to rely on the ability of the West to provide effective assistance to Belarus in case of threats to its independence.
Joint military forces.
The statement by Ms. Marin that within the framework of so-called Union State of Belarus and the Russia the armed forces of the two countries are the most closely integrated ones in the world, was a surprise. Against the background of bilateral cooperation between the U.S. and Canada, as well as between the United Kingdom and South Korea, this statement seems hasty. It should be noted that Belarusian authorities have absolute control over their own defence system. Minsk is ready to talk about the coordination of defence policy with Russia, but not to be subordinate to Moscow.
Discussing the Regional Group of Forces of Belarus and Russia it is essential to understand that it can only operate as a single military body in case of a regional war, the probability of which is currently extremely low. Therefore, Regional Group of Forces is largely relative formation.
The Regional Group of Forces consists of the Belarusian Army, which in time of war will consist of 500 thousand people, and the 20th Army of the Western Military District of Russia. But the point is, that really 20th Army is actually a mechanized division, a units of which are deployed on a territory, which size is equal to the size of Portugal and Ireland combined, while the ways of communication are much worse than in these countries. So, when all the units arrive to Belarus, the hypothetical war may be already finished.
By the way, the Regional Group of Forces was founded in 1997. But it is necessary not to forget, that at that the time it was enough for Boris Yeltsin to express dissatisfaction with the Belarusian authorities on Russian television to cause panic in Minsk and hear the flow of public oaths of loyalty, brotherhood and desire for unity with Russia. Now such things can’t happen: Belarussian sovereignty strengthened since 1997. This happened largely with the help of Russian money and contrary to Russia’s interests.
Unified regional air defence system of Belarus and Russia is not something unique to the CIS. Unified Air Defence System of the CIS exist for more than 20 years, Russian forces provide air defence in Armenia, an agreement between Kazakhstan and Russia to establish another regional air defence system has been signed this year. We can say that it is natural, forced and rational at the same time: air defence of CIS member states, in fact, consists of pieces of Soviet air defence. And maintaining their combat readiness depends on the provision of appropriate technical support by Russia.
Of course, Russia has been and for a long time will be essential for the maintenance and development of our national defence capabilities. And the military-technical and military-political cooperation between the two countries threatens Belarusian sovereignty no more than military alliance with the United States threatens the sovereignty of Japan. The Russian factor can be a real threat only if Russia acts as the enemy of Belarus or as an ally of enemy of our country. Then the consequences can be truly catastrophic. However, this danger is purely hypothetical.
It should be understood that the degree of integration within NATO is much higher than one within CSTO. Of course, Moscow takes measures to ensure their control over the defence capabilities of CSTO member-states. In order to do this the relevant documents are developed and adopted at the international level. However, unlike NATO, where member states execute their duties, in CSTO this is not guaranteed.
All sorts of regional and combined forces can be created under the rule of Russian generals, but it is necessary to remember one thing: as long as Belarusian soldiers are commanded by Belarusian officers and generals (even if nostalgic for the days of the USSR), the Belarusian army will only execute the orders, received from its own political leaders. Regardless of what was signed under Moscow’s dictation.
In addition, Belarus has slowly but surely growing awareness that it is necessary to destroy the monopoly of Russia as the main guarantor of military security of Belarus. That is why Belarus develops military-technical cooperation with Ukraine, China and some other countries. This process is hardly noticeable, but it exists. This allows us to face the future with optimism. And we are ready to share it with Ms. Anais.