On April 20 Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka met senior Russian defense officials in Minsk in order to examine mutual security threats and consider ways to deepen bilateral military cooperation. Lukashenka told Sergei Ivanov, Russian Defense Minister, and General Yuri Baluyevsky, Russian Chief of the General Staff, that Belarus looks towards Russia to learn from its experience with military reform, learning from both its successes and failures. He particularly seemed keen to emphasize the role of Belarus as a reliable partner against Western intrusion into the affairs of the former Soviet Union, while criticizing the West for adopting policies of intervention. “We have not bombed Afghanistan into penury and brought some Asian countries to the brink of poverty,” he said. “A flood of illegal immigrants washes over Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and other countries to the West.”
Behind Lukashenka’s anti-Western diatribe and search for stronger security cooperation with Russia lies a curious mixture of old-guard thinking and an assessment of security threats fixated upon the concept of Western intervention near Russia’s borders. Colonel-General Leonid Maltsev, Belarusian Defense Minister, addressed a joint board from the defense ministries of both countries in Minsk on April 20, stressing that the joint handling of defense issues and cooperation between the Russian and Belarusian defense ministries laid the basis for strengthening the union state and supporting the Collective Security Treaty. The recent history of bilateral military cooperation, largely generating multiple paper agreements and providing a legislative basis for more practical measures, has persistently escalated in its nature and scope.
Military exercises have concentrated upon the conduct of joint air defense activities, involving scenarios modeled by the defense ministries in Minsk and Moscow. “The mobilization of certain units of the Belarusian army, support from the Russian Federation, and modeling of different scenarios, including violation of the state border, the operations of our air defense forces and air forces are aimed at counteracting this,” Lukashenka explained.
Moscow’s assessment of the precise nature of military cooperation pays close attention to the utility of rapidly deploying strategic bombers, which landed in Belarus during past exercises, and the potential for Russian A-50 early warning aircraft working in cooperation with the Belarusian army in real time. Ivanov considers the constant rehearsal of such maneuvers as a priority for future military cooperation. Russia’s emphasis seems slightly nuanced, but Minsk accepts this in return for increased guarantees of Russian assistance for its failing military.
Maltsev defined future cooperation with the Russian armed forces as being focused upon developing air defense, intelligence, jamming systems and modernizing existing Belarus weapon systems. Belarus cannot achieve such ambitious military modernization plans without the assistance of the Russian authorities, supplying both the legal and political basis, as well as tapping into the expertise of the Russian military-industrial complex.
Military cooperation between Russia and Belarus will, therefore, play an essential and growing role in ensuring the security of the union state of Belarus and Russia. It will tend to build on the practical aspects of military cooperation, though underpinned by legal, economic, and political documents. Cooperation aimed at harmonizing existing Belarusian and Russian defense and security legislation, promoting joint research projects, training of military personnel on preferential terms at Russian military establishments, and the joint execution of international arms control treaties are additional areas of cooperation currently being explored between the defense ministries.
Russia’s existing military industrial complex needs access to expanding markets globally, with an eye on internal trade links within the CIS, while Minsk relies upon Russia’s large military and its defense companies to facilitate the gradual improvement of its own armed forces. Politically, Lukashenka continues to present a thorn in the flesh of Kremlin policy planners, though the nature of “practical cooperation” reveals much concerning the chronic stagnation of security thinking within the Russian security elites. Concentration upon intelligence, joint air defense, and the rehearsal of rapid deployment of Russian strategic bombers suggests that planners in Minsk and Moscow are not considering terrorists, first and foremost, as potential future mutual threats, but rather the prospect of Western humanitarian intervention within Belarus as a theoretical flashpoint.
As bilateral military cooperation between Belarus and Russia is stepped up in the future, Lukashenka aims to capitalize on fears within the Kremlin that Belarus may prove Russia’s weak western flank. The lack of genuine efforts to highlight and prioritize the common international terrorist threat, though alluded to in official statements, is almost entirely lacking from the program of security assistance. With the invitation of Ukraine into the NATO Alliance on the horizon, Russian security officials may seek to shore up the Belarus-Russia axis against further Western encroachment. At least, for the time being, Russian President Vladimir Putin can present the image for domestic political consumption that he is doing so, while Lukashenka will sincerely energize the orientation of the Belarus armed forces towards deepening cooperation with Russia — and geopolitical alienation from the West.
(Belarusian Radio, April 20; Belapan News Agency, April 20; Belarusian Nationwide TV, April 21)