National security and defence of Belarus (March 2021)

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The most important events of the month. March became the month of personnel decisions in the command of law enforcement agencies of Belarus.

On March 1, 2021 it became known that Viktar Lukashenka the position of Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s advisor for national security and was removed from the Security Council of Belarus.

On March 11, 2021 Lukashenka appointed new heads of the Investigative Committee and the Ministry of Emergency Situations of Belarus. A special feature was that the new heads (Dzmitry Hara and Vadzim Siniauski, respectively) came from other law enforcement agencies and for some time held leading positions in the closest special services to Lukashenka. We have devoted a special article to this topic.

On the same day Lukashenka made new appointments in the military elite. The most important was the appointment of Viktar Hulevich as Chief of the General Staff of the Army. The main requirement in the selection of candidates for positions is the experience of direct command of military teams.

On March 15, 2021, the new team of the Security Council was approved, the list of its permanent members was expanded at the expense of the ministers of defence and internal affairs, as well as the chairman of the State Security Committee (SSC).

The developments within the month. On March 1, 2021, the Ambassador of Belarus to Egypt Siarhei Tsiarentsyeu met with the Minister of State for the Defence Industry of Egypt Mohamed Ahmed Morsi. The parties are satisfied with the cooperation in 2020 and agreed to promote the further development of joint assembly enterprises in Egypt for the production of Belarusian equipment.

On March 9, 2021, the second stage of a comprehensive check of the Army’s combat readiness began under the command of the Chief of the General Staff. It was planned to call up 1000 people from the reserve, to equip the servicemen with vehicles that are in long-term storage and received from state organizations. It was supposed to test the ability of commanders to control subordinate military units in difficult conditions. Subdivisions of the 19th and 11th mechanized brigades were formed from the military personnel of the reserve.

On the same day Lukashenka met the SSC Chairman Ivan Tsertsel. According to the SSC, Belarus is under external pressure, there are attempts to destabilize the situation in the country, terrorist threats “from the territory of our neighbours, as a rule, neighbouring states”, while Belarusian political centres abroad are connected with foreign special services. But in spite of this, according to I. Tsertsel, “the acute period … has been exhausted”. True, the regime’s extremely nervous reaction to attempts to resume street protest activity on March 25-27 refutes this assertion. The statements about prevented terrorist attacks (real or imaginary) are not evidence of stability in the country.

Tsertsel confirmed Lukashenka’s statements of March 5, 2021 about the detention of a group of people and the seizure of an arsenal of weapons, ammunition and components of explosive devices from them. The detained are allegedly high-level professionals. But it is unknown who exactly these professionals are and what are their goals and connections.

On March 11, 2021 it became known about the purchase from Russia of the first batch of anti-tank guided missiles 9М120 “Ataka”. Which can be used from both ground and air carriers.

On March 24, 2021, the detention of a citizen of Belarus by the Ukrainian special services on charges of intelligence activity was announced. Ukrainian counterintelligence officers claim that the detainee is the Belarusian SSC agent, who was specially sent to Ukraine in order to clarify the situation in the field of border security, recruit classified information sources from among the citizens of Ukraine, organize a channel for the transfer of weapons and dual-use goods from Ukraine to Belarus, including with the aim of creating pretexts for accusing Ukraine of destabilizing the situation in Belarus.

On March 29, 2021 Lukashenka denied the statements of the SSC head about the calming of political situation in Belarus. During a meeting on the state of the socio-political situation in the country, the ruler said that “there will be no quiet life,” as some traditionally unnamed external forces are trying to aggravate the situation in Belarus. During the event, issues of ensuring economic stability were also touched upon. Everything is sad here: as Lukashenka said, “… we have absolutely no one to count upon”.

March has become a month of activity in bilateral Belarusian-Russian relations.

On March 2, 2021 Lukashenka held a meeting on Belarusian-Russian cooperation in the military sphere. It was mainly devoted to the results of his negotiations with Vladimir Putin in Sochi on February 22, 2021. Lukashenka once again stressed that the issue of limiting the sovereignty of Belarus and the creation of unified governing bodies with Russia are not being discussed. Putin allegedly confirmed his interest in cooperation with Belarus in the military-industrial complex, so the Belarus needs to step up work in this direction. At the same time, it is not clear what hindered the advancement of this cooperation earlier in the presence of Russian interest. The funds of the Russian credit line saved on the construction of the nuclear power plant can be spent on the purchase of Russian weapons. In this case, we are talking about an idea, and not about specific plans. Lukashenka said that Belarus is pursuing a multi-vector policy, guided by its economic interests, and is interested in cooperation with the West and the PRC, since there are money and technology there.

Also Lukashenka once again raised the topic of creating a Russian airbase in Belarus — we devoted a special article to this issue.

On March 3, 2021 it became known that the Defence Ministries of Belarus and Russia signed a strategic partnership program for 5 years.

On March 5, 2021 the Ministers of Defence of Russia and Belarus Sergei Shoigu and Viktar Khrenin agreed to create three combat training centres for the joint training of military personnel, one of which will be based in the Hrodna region of Belarus. They also discussed the preparation of the “Zapad-2021” exercise and the work of the joint air defence system of Russia and Belarus.

Later it became known that the combat training centre on the territory of Belarus will specialize in training the crews of the Su-30SM aircraft and training Belarusian specialists to work on modern anti-aircraft missile systems in service with the Russian army. It will also organize the joint implementation of combat training tasks.

The second centre in the Nizhny Novgorod region will train specialists for the ground forces, taking into account the combat experience of the Russian army. The third one in the Kaliningrad region will train divers and crews of the BTR-82A, which will be acquired by the Belarusian army this year.

On March 31, 2021, a meeting between the chiefs of the general staffs of the armies of Belarus and Russia Viktar Hulevich and Valery Gerasimov was held. They discussed bilateral military cooperation and issues of organizing a joint strategic exercise “Zapad-2021”.

A number of joint Belarusian-Russian combat training events took place in March:

— mechanized units held exercise at the Mulino training ground, Russia. During the event they trained the combat in a complex electronic environment and the use of combat UAVs by the enemy, actions against sabotage formations, the assault of a settlement (blocking it, conducting combat in the city, storming buildings) with the participation of about 300 military personnel and over 80 weapons;

— in the Ulyanovsk region of Russia, a peacekeeping exercise for paratroopers of the two countries was held. During the event the troops trained carrying out service at observation posts and checkpoints, escorting humanitarian convoys, ground and air patrols, protecting important (dangerous) objects, demining the terrain, repulsing armed attacks, etc.;

— at the Asipovicki training ground in Belarus, another exercise of paratroopers of Belarus and Russia was held. During the event the troops trained elements of joint landing from the Il-76 aircraft, countering illegal armed groups, actions in an environment, unblocking of own forces, ambushing actions, conducting reconnaissance of the area using UAVs;

— a headquarters training was held. During the event the servicemen trained the issues of planning the use of the Air Force and Air Defence Forces in the defensive operation of the regional grouping of troops (forces) of Belarus and Russia as well as the the redeployment of aviation of the Aerospace Forces of Russia to Belarusian airfields. The experience of military operations in Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh was used.

The largest military training event of the Belarusian army in March was a brigade tactical exercise with the 38th Brest Air Assault Brigade. It also involved servicemen of the reserve. The troops trained the search, blocking and destruction of groups of the conditional enemy, including in the urban conditions.

Other notable combat training events were also held in March:

— Joint company exercise of the 103rd Viciebsk airborne brigade with Polack border guards in the border zone on the Belarusian-Latvian border, during which actions in a real combat situation were practiced.

— Exercise of the 6th mechanized brigade, which involved over 100 armoured vehicles and more than 400 servicemen. The conduct of a defensive battle was practiced taking into account the experience of modern conflicts, interaction between units of different types of troops in a difficult radar situation, and the crossing of tank units across a large water barrier.

— Trainings on mobilization readiness with the management bodies of the territorial defence of the Minsk region, during which the issues of the formation, support and use of territorial troops were practiced.

In March, the regime increased the repressiveness of the legislation, turning punitive practices into the format of laws. Amendments to the legislation on countering extremism have been developed; it is planned to introduce criminal liability for the dissemination of false information about the state and for repeated violations of the procedure for holding mass events. Additional restrictions are introduced in relation to the lawyers and the media. In fact, strikes got prohibited. Interestingly, the need to punish representatives of the regime and their relatives for the dissemination of personal data is emphasized. We have devoted a special article to this trend.

The regime seriously views popular protests as organized and controlled by some outside forces. Throughout March Lukashenka regime made certain efforts which can be conditionally designated by the famous slogan “Fire on the headquarters”: the search for structures organizing and coordinating the protest with the aim of crushing them. The following criminal cases were initiated:

— in relation to seven anarchists from the organization “Revolutionary Action”;

— on the fact of the work of the human rights centre “Viasna”;

— in relation to Belarusian political leaders abroad and participants in the BYPOL initiative, which unites former law enforcement officers of Belarus.

We have devoted a special material to the latter.

The prosecutor’s office continues to oppose protest sentiments in the society. In March, prosecutors spoke to the labour collectives of a number of large enterprises in Minsk, Brest, Minsk region and Viciebsk. The issues of the political situation in Belarus, the procedure for holding mass events and responsibility for its violation, the dissemination of information on the Internet and the possible negative consequences of this were touched upon. Prosecutors also continued meetings in Minsk universities, during which they raised issues of protest activity and punishment for it.

One of the flagships of the Belarusian military-industrial complex, Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant, has published its financial results for 2020. We have devoted a special article to this event.

Conclusions. Earlier Lukashenka suggested the State Secretary of the Security Council of Belarus Aliaksandr Valfovich to prepare proposals on reforming the work of this body, taking into account the experience of Kazakhstan and Russia. The specificity of Belarus is that the Security Council is not an alternative centre of political influence, even in its specialized sphere. In fact, this is a working consultative and control body under Lukashenka. Currently it is impossible to say surely whether the expansion of the permanent membership of the Security Council is a step towards reforming.

For a long time, the official Minsk has actively invested political efforts in the development of relations with Egypt. This Arab country was a top-level priority, which Lukashenka personally dealt with. However, nothing is known about the practical results of these efforts. It is unlikely that they are large-scale: even a million-dollar contract is awarded for a breakthrough.

It is highly probable that “Ataka” anti-tank missiles are being produced in connection with the prospects for the supply of new Mi-35 fire support helicopters from Russia.

At every opportunity, the official Minsk announced threats to Belarus emanating from the territory of Ukraine, either in the form of camps of mythical militants, or smuggling of weapons from a neighbouring country. Naturally, nobody bothered to present specific facts. The Belarusian authorities believed that the accusations against Ukraine were a product for intra-Belarusian propaganda use. But it seems that Kyiv has run out of patience and the Ukrainian special services, in response to unfounded accusations, came up with well-grounded accusations. It is interesting to note that the official Minsk has not publicly reacted in any way to the fact of the arrest of its citizen. This indirectly testifies to the good quality of the material collected by the Ukrainian special services.

Lukashenka’s speech of March 2, 2021 is a forced reaction to the protracted pause after his meeting with Putin, which ended indistinctly, without any practical result. Taking into account that the Kremlin is the only legitimizer and creditor of the Belarusian regime, the Belarusian ruler is forced to demonstrate, first of all, to the Belarusian audience (especially to the bureaucracy and the punitive apparatus) that Putin still supports him. Earlier Putin’s support was expressed in billions of dollars, but now it is that Lukashenka’s proposals do not cause rejection of the Russian ruler.

In the Hrodna region there is the Nioman aviation range, in Lida there is an assault airbase, which has Yak-130 combat training aircraft used for training pilots of Su-30 aircraft (including), and in Astraviec there is an anti-aircraft missile regiment equipped with Russian SAM “Tor”. It is not yet clear for which specific Russian-made air defence systems the trainings on the basis of a combat training centre in the Hrodna region are planned. Earlier, the Belarusian military showed interest in the “Pantsir” and S-400 systems. But the current economic situation does not allow counting on the early acquisition of this expensive weapons for the needs of the Belarusian army. It cannot be ruled out that as a result, these air defence systems of the Russian army will be deployed (on a permanent or rotational basis) on the territory of Belarus both for training use and for duty on air defence.

In any case, the creation of joint Belarusian-Russian combat training centres in the Hrodna and Kaliningrad regions is a challenge to NATO. Such actions will be perceived as a threat in the area of ​​the so-called “Suwałki gap”. In political terms, the prospect of creating permanent centres with Russian armed contingents (even small in number) is an obvious blackmail against the most consistent opponents of the Belarusian regime from among the neighbouring EU and NATO countries (Poland and Lithuania).

Facing the pressure from the West, the official Minsk is trying to force the EU to back down under the threat of expanding the Russian military presence in Belarus. At the same time Lukashenka wants to secure political and economic support from Russia through the development of cooperation in the military sphere. This is the traditional Lukashenka’s tactics of “trading security”, which previously in general was financially and politically successful.

Joint training of the army and border guards in Belarus is carried out quite regularly. However, given the current political situation, Latvia, which is actively introducing national sanctions against the Belarusian regime due to human rights violations, can perceive the March exercises as demonstrative element of pressure.

The nature of the anti-protest meetings of prosecutors testifies to the regime’s fears about the possible intensification of the labour and student movement. The first may be related to the worsening economic situation in Belarus. It is obvious that the regime continues to consider the option of returning the mass protests as real and seeks to prevent them.

During March, Lukashenka has repeatedly actually disavowed the statements of the SSC head Ivan Tsertsel about the stabilization in the country. By this, in particular, he explained the need for legislative consolidation of repressive practices. This can be caused both by the uncertainty in the stability of the power system in the event of a new wave of political crisis, and by the upcoming political campaigns, which the regime plans to conduct with maximum control over the situation.

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