On September 14, Russian President Vladimir Putin met at his Sochi residence with his beleaguered Belarusian counterpart, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who is under immense international and domestic pressure following the August 9 presidential elections. Lukashenka has ruled Belarus since 1994; last month, he claimed overwhelming victory, but a large number of Belarusians disagree. Minsk and multiple other Belarusian cities have seen weeks of massive protests and politically motivated industrial work stoppages. The Lukashenka regime has used brute force and intimidation against the opposition but so far failed to fully suppress this grassroots movement. The West does not recognize Lukashenka’s reelection, and the European Parliament overwhelmingly voted for sanctions to be imposed on him personally (Interfax, September 17). Putin congratulated Lukashenka after the August 9 election and reiterated his support in Sochi. The Belarusian economy has been double-stricken by the COVID-19 pandemic and by the recent civil/political unrest. During the Monday summit, it was announced that Moscow will provide $1.5 billion in additional financial support as well as that the two countries will boost their military cooperation (Kremlin.ru, September 14; see EDM, September 16).
Putin still does not seem to like or trust Lukashenka. Before traveling to Sochi, Belarus’s president told a group of pro-Kremlin Russian journalists that integration with Russia into a Union State is impossible as envisaged by the framework treaty signed in 1999 and ratified in 2002. That document calls for a deep federation with a common head of state, legislature, flag, coat of arms, anthem, constitution, military, citizenship and currency. Moscow has blamed Lukashenka for the collapse of the Union State dream. Today, under duress, Lukashenka is offering Russia further economic integration “on an equal bases,” but he continues to rule out full integration in a Union State because “no one in Belarus is ready to surrender sovereignty” (TASS, September 9). An integrated Union State with Belarus and possibly other parts of the post-Soviet space adjacent to Russia’s borders is the long-term strategic objective of the Kremlin; and Lukashenka’s sustained refusal to cooperate is presumably seen as unacceptable. Yet, at present, the Russian side has apparently decided that the anti-Lukashenka opposition is potentially a bigger nuisance than strongman Lukashenka himself. Regime collapse in Minsk is seen as a prerequisite to Belarus beginning to turn to the European Union and the West or toward becoming truly neutral—both absolutely unacceptable outcomes from Moscow’s standpoint. A politically wounded and isolated Lukashenka is likely to be tolerated only as long as there is no other viable option to replace him.
From the Sochi meeting came the announcement that a contingent of Russian forces, including National Guard (Rosgvardia) units, which had been concentrated on the Russo-Belarusian border in preparation to potentially prop up Lukashenka, were being withdrawn back to their barracks (Militarynews.ru, September 14). At the same time, however, a battalion of some 300 Russian paratroopers with heavy weapons arrived in Brest, near the Polish border, by railroad from Pskov to take part in the Slavic Brotherhood (Slavyanskoe Bratstvo) 2020 military exercise. Trilateral Slavic Brotherhood exercises have been held annually, since 2015, with Russia, Serbia and Belarus taking turns as hosts for the joint maneuvers. Slavic Brotherhood 2020 had been preplanned for September 2020, in Belarus, before the present crisis erupted; at the last moment, Belgrade decided not to participate, claiming EU political pressure. The Belarusian 38th Airmobile Brest Brigade contingent will take part in the upcoming Slavic Brotherhood drills, together with the Pskov paratroopers—in all, just over 800 men. But the political symbolism of Slavic Brotherhood as a demonstration of defiance of Western attempts at isolating the participating pariah states always massively overshadowed these exercises’ practical military significance (Interfax, September 15).
Throughout his 26-year rule, Lukashenka never spent much on his military: Belarusian defense spending is presently about 1 percent of GDP, or just over $500 million per year—many times lower than in Russia. The peacetime Belarusian Armed Forces are small in size and rely on conscripts, with only five full-strength brigades: three light and two mechanized. Instead, Lukashenka apparently prioritized the Belarusian KGB and other domestically oriented security services to control internal dissent. A militia-style contingent of reservists and a 120,000-strong territorial defense force were created to take up arms to defend against external threats. Unlike in Russia, however, those reservists are regularly called up for training, and the Belarusian arsenal of mostly Soviet-vintage equipment has evidently been kept in good usable condition. As a result, today, Lukashenka’s capabilities to suppress dissent are severely limited: He cannot call up and arm reservists or territorial militias to assist the overstretched KGB in defending the regime since those self-defense forces could easily turn against him. That is why Lukashenka today needs some sort of Russian military backup (Novaya Gazeta, August 6).
The relatively small Russian contingent to Slavic Brotherhood 2020 is led by the Airborne Forces’ (Vozdushno-Desantnye Voyska—VDV) deputy commander, Lieutenant General Andrei Kolzakov (Militarynews.ru, September 17). Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Minsk on September 16 for talks with Lukashenka, to follow up on the Sochi agreements. It was announced that Slavic Brotherhood 2020 will be prolonged at least until the end of September and maybe into October, followed up by other joint military exercises. This military activity will continue with the Collective Security Treaty Organization’s (CSTO) Unbreakable Brotherhood (Nerushimoye Bratstvo) 2020 exercise, scheduled for October and also on Belarusian soil. It will bring together contingents from all CSTO member states: Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan (Militarynews.ru, September 16). Moreover, Minsk has sent a battalion of some 350 men to participate in the massive Caucasus (Kavkaz) 2020 military maneuvers in southern Russia (Militarynews.ru, September 15). Lukashenka announced at the meeting with Shoigu that he asked Putin for new weapons shipments; but whether he receives them anytime soon remains unclear. The Kremlin denied there was a pending arms agreement. Lukashenka is seen in Moscow as unreliable and does not have money for new Russian weapons anyway (Interfax, September 16).
It seems that, under the guise of effectively permanent military exercises, Moscow is mimicking in Belarus the transatlantic alliance’s heel-to-toe rotational deployments of relatively small tripwire forces in Central and Eastern Europe. Through these continual exercises, Russian forces will anchor Belarus within Moscow’s orbit and prevent any attempts by the West to intervene to support the Belarusian opposition—a possibility the Kremlin considers seriously. If the regime in Minsk begins to collapse or Lukashenka’s conscript/reservist forces waiver or turn against him, the Russian military presence may serve as a bridgehead for incoming reinforcements—echoing what occurred in 2014, during the Russian takeover of Crimea.