Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 31

Deputy Prime Ministers Ilya Klebanov of Russia and Leanid Kozik of Belarus signed an intergovernmental agreement to create a “joint” arms manufacturing consortium of the two countries on February 11 in Minsk. Klebanov, who is in charge of Russia’s military industry, made it clear that the agreement in fact provides for a takeover of leading Belarusan enterprises by the concern Oboronitelnye Systemy Rossii [Defense Systems of Russia]. The Minsk wheeled-vehicle plant and the Homel radioelectronics plant are the first to be taken over, and will be followed by Belarusan plants for optical equipment and components for air defense missiles.

The Russian side will license production of certain advanced Russian items at the Belarusan plants involved. Part of the output is destined for the Russian and Belarusan inventories as part of a modernization program, with the planned “joint regional group of forces” to enjoy first claim. Another portion is destined for export, with the marketing operations–according to Klebanov–to be conducted jointly in some cases, but also “substituting for one another when necessary.” This remark seems to presage a division of labor on international markets and possibly the use of Belarus as proxy for Russian arms deliveries to certain third countries.

According to Klebanov, the takeovers are intended to augment Russia’s arms production base, in the context of the 50 percent increase in Russia’s spending on weapons procurement in 2000 and the planned increase in arms exports to a value of US$4.5 billion this year (see lead story). President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and Prime Minister Syarhey Linh, for their part, expressed the hope that the agreement would boost utilization of Belarusan production capacities in the short term and bring technology transfers in the medium term.

The signing in Minsk took place barely ten days after Russia’s President Vladimir Putin had approved the Russian draft of the agreement–an unprecedently quick sequence and a sign that Putin is less inclined than his predecessor Boris Yeltsin to countenance Lukashenka’s customary haggling over terms (see the Monitor, December 9-10, 1999, January 17, February 7).

Russian Air Force Commander-in-Chief Colonel-General Anatoly Kornukov was in Belarus on February 10-11 on a parallel mission, during which he and his counterparts discussed plans for transition from a joint to a single air defense system of Russia and Belarus. The change would result in the creation of a single command and, apparently, in the deployment of Russian fighter aircraft on Belarusan territory. This seems to be the message of Kornukov’s remark that “Russian pilots, many of whom [have] served in Belarus, will have no difficulty becoming familiar with the forward-positioned air bases here.” The aircraft repair plant near Baranavichi in western Belarus has embarked on a program to upgrade Russian and Belarusan-owned MiG-29 fighters and SU-24 and SU-25 fighter-bombers.

Belarusan Defense Minister Colonel-General Aleksandr Chumakov–a Russian officer–marked alongside Kornukov on February 11 the fifth anniversary of the creation of the joint air defense system. Chumakov described the planned move from a joint to a single system as a countermeasure to “the attempts of the United States and NATO to acquire dominance by enlisting the cooperation of East European, Balkan and the Baltic states.” Both Klebanov and Kornukov remarked, independently, that Russia-Belarus military integration outpaces political and economic integration, and that the same process in the defense industry runs ahead of the integration of other economic sectors of Russia and Belarus. The militarization of their relationship reflects Moscow’s, not Minsk’s priorities, and has been observable for some time (see the Monitor, March 26, May 21, June 24, July 10, October 7, 1999), but this marks the first time that the Russian side acknowledges it publicly and explicitly (Itar-Tass, RIA, February 11).