Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 143

In recent interviews with the Belarusan and Russian military press, ranking officers of both countries have thrown some light on the military dimension of the Russia-Belarus Union. It is, on the whole and at the moment, developing faster than the political one. Nevertheless, the much-touted creation of a 200,000 to 300,000-strong “joint group of forces” is only hypothetical. Moscow and Minsk intend to set up such a force only in the event of war or a “real military threat” from the Western direction … in other words, in improbable contingencies. Should it come to that, the Russia-Belarus Union’s Higher State Council–co-chaired by Presidents Vladimir Putin and Alyaksandr Lukashenka–would issue a political decision, authorizing the formation of the “joint group of forces.” This would entail placing all Belarusan forces under the operational command of the Moscow military district, deploying such troops at predesignated bases and sites in Belarus, and activating joint prepared plans for such situations.

This concept reproduces, on the whole, the organizational arrangements of the Soviet-era Warsaw Pact. Under those, the troops of satellite regimes in Central and Southeastern Europe were placed under the operational command of Soviet “fronts” (groups of armies) in the event of war or crises or to invade a wayward ally. In peacetime, “joint Warsaw Pact forces” were limited to units specially earmarked for one joint exercise or another, and which did not outlast it.

Nowadays, the jurisdiction of the Moscow military district extends to the Russia-Belarus border, and Belarusan forces are subordinated in peacetime to the national command only. Only during bilateral military exercises do selected Belarusan units come under “joint” (read “Russian”) command. These exercises are for the most part infrequent and small.

According to Russia’s military attache in Minsk, Colonel Aleksandr Demyanov, bilateral military cooperation is advancing along five tracks. First, working out a joint military policy, strategy and planning. Second, harmonizing the national military legislations, including the military pay and benefits (reflecting Lukashenka’s hope for Russian subsidies). Third, standardizing armaments, logistics and command-and-control systems, developing common military procurement plans and preparing military installations for “joint use” (that is, Russian use of Belarusan facilities). Fourth, standardizing military education and training and preserving the military school system in Belarus, presumably with Russian support. Fifth, preparing mobilization reserves and military stockpiles.

The standardization goal implies in practice that Belarusan forces would receive their share of modern weaponry developed and produced in Russia. It also reflects official Minsk’s wish that Belarusan military institutes and plants be included in Russia’s research-and-development and production programs. Moscow and Minsk are due to finalize a joint military procurement program for the period 2001-2010 this September. But, according to the Belarusan Deputy Defense Minister Pyotr Rahazheuski, the joint program includes both overhauling obsolete, Soviet-era armaments and developing modern weapons.

The current focus in Belarus would seem to be on the overhaul, due to unstated but obvious financial considerations. Belarusan military plants are currently busy repairing and reconditioning combat hardware largely of 1970 vintage. Rahazheuski suggests that the list of old models, currently being taken out of mothballs for repair and reconditioning, is steadily growing. Some of those weapons are destined for the Belarusan army while others are for cut-rate sale to impoverished countries. An exception to this is Minsk’s aggressive marketing of relatively modern MiG-29UB fighter planes. Earlier this month, Moscow and Minsk concluded a market-sharing agreement which covers military sales by Rosvooruzhenie and Beltekheksport–the respective arms-exporting state companies–to third countries.

Cooperation among the intelligence services constitutes a distinct aspect of Russia-Belarus military cooperation. The Belarusan KGB (still so named) chief, Lieutenant-General Uladzimir Matskevich, took credit in a recent interview for having established a division-of-labor arrangement with Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service. Matskevich stated that the Belarusan KGB’s intelligence and counterintelligence operations concentrate on the countries with which Belarus has common borders–an allusion mainly to Poland, Lithuania and Latvia (Krasnaya zvezda, June 24; Strazh Baltiki, June 29; Belarusskaya delovaya gazeta, July 12; Moskovsky komsomolets, Agentstvo voyennykh novosti, July 20; Vo Slavu rodiny, July 21; see the Monitor, May 31, June 30).