Senior political-military officials in Moscow have recently stepped up their focus on strengthening bilateral military ties with Minsk. This is aimed at shoring up the Union State of Russia and Belarus, reflecting long-standing close military cooperation, as well as the pivotal role Minsk plays in the quadrennial joint Union Shield and Zapad exercises—particularly in the scenario envisaging Moscow responding to an intervention in Belarus by forces of the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) (see EDM, October 10, 2017). However, the renewed emphasis placed on further boosting these bilateral military ties is linked to how the Russian leadership views NATO activity close to Russia’s borders and concern over what is perceived as US-led attempts to undermine the Union State (Interfax, October 25).
On October 25, Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu alleged that Washington is “conducting a large-scale information campaign” aimed at discrediting the role played by the Russia-Belarus Union State in regional security. Addressing the joint military collegium, Shoigu complained about US and NATO military policy, which he characterized as a “far-fetched need to restrain Russia’s allegedly aggressive intentions.” He added that the security situation on Russia’s western flank “remains tense.” Shoigu asserted, “NATO continues to increase its combat potential and military activity in Europe. It is strengthening its military presence, deploying additional military contingents and offensive weapons. In addition to the US missile-defense complex deployed in Romania, a similar system is being created in Poland. Military exercises are being held on a regular basis, and infrastructure—seaports, airfields and other military installations of the countries of the Alliance—are being modernized. The intensity of intelligence activities has significantly increased” (RIA Novosti, October 25).
Shoigu singled out the NATO initiative “30-30-30-30”: the Alliance plans to increase to 30 by 2020 the number of battalions, squadrons, and warships ready for deployment within 30 days or faster. The Russian defense minister argued that this demands a response from Moscow, and an element of such a reaction would involve deepening existing military cooperation with Minsk (RIA Novosti, October 25).
“We are building up the potential of our troops and carrying out their planned rearmament,” Shoigu added (RIA Novosti, October 25). On October 22, Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev hosted his Belarusian counterpart, Sergei Rumus, at the Skolkovo Innovation Center, in Mozhaysky District, Moscow. Medvedev reportedly raised the issue of further integration between the two countries. Moreover, earlier in October, President Vladimir Putin invited Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) leaders to discuss possible joint measures in response to NATO exercises close to Russia’s borders; Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka expressed concern over Alliance plans for a major exercise in spring 2020 (Defender Europe) (Interfax, October 25).
Shoigu noted the existing high-level of military cooperation between both countries, which extends far beyond the Zapad strategic military exercises to include frequent joint maneuvers. He highlighted the recent bilateral Union Shield in September, involving 12,000 troops and 950 units of military equipment (RIA Novosti, October 25). Shoigu explained that the focus of deepening military ties is on “the development of a regional grouping of troops of Belarus and Russia, joint operational and combat training, as well as the formation of an effective regulatory framework.” However, his reference to the development of a regional group of forces (regionalnoy gruppirovki voysk—RGV) requires some explanation. In the close military cooperation between Moscow and Minsk, there are common references to an existing joint RGV, which seems to apply to the specific formations participating in military exercises (Belarus.mid.ru, March 23, 2015).
It appears that Moscow is pressing to increase the level of cooperation in terms of the joint RGV. Due to the announced NATO exercises, Moscow and Minsk are revising existing bilateral military cooperation plans for 2020 to include conducting joint intelligence in connection with NATO exercises. Belarus’s minister of defense, Andrei Ravkov, confirmed that the Belarusian side will adjust the plan for the use of the RGV in 2020 with Russia. Ravkov explained that Minsk will take steps to respond to the deployment of US armored vehicles in Lithuania, close to the Belarusian border, during Defender Europe 2020, adding, “These measures are absolutely adequate to those activities that are carried out in the neighboring territory. They will allow us to respond and keep this situation under constant control” (RT, October 28, 2019).
Despite the apparent effort underway to deepen bilateral military cooperation across a number of areas, including the RGV and increased intelligence on NATO exercises, Lukashenka seems far from convinced that the Euro-Atlantic bloc represents an increased threat. During a recent meeting with his national security council, Lukashenka dismissed the idea that NATO’s “30-30-30-30” poses a threat to Belarus, noting that the Belarusian military has undergone several modernization programs and is up to the task of defending the country. He asserted that Belarusian intelligence monitors all military activity close to the country’s borders, and, thus, Minsk does not rely on scaremongering by “journalists, bloggers and charlatans” who declare the danger of NATO’s transfer of forces and assets to the east. “We can deal with [North Atlantic Alliance forces] even with our mobile air-assault units, which perform the corresponding functions,” he proclaimed (Topwar.ru, October 29).
This granular variance in how Minsk differs from Moscow on the interpretation of an increased threat posed by NATO suggests Lukashenka is willing to acquiesce to deepening military ties with Russia in order to leverage concessions in other areas. Moscow, on the other hand, clearly aims to boost the Union State by concentrating on stronger defense ties. As Shoigu notes, this will hinge on changes to and the strengthening of the RGV, increasing joint training, and enhancing mutual access to either side’s military facilities and educational establishments. The alleged US “information campaign” against the Russia-Belarus Union State, therefore, seems calibrated as a mechanism to fuel beneficial changes to the bilateral military cooperation, to fit Moscow’s geopolitical interests.