President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has, in practice, achieved and maintained sovereignty in military affairs for Belarus vis-à-vis Russia (see below). These gains—for Belarus and neighboring countries alike—are now at risk. Russia will probably renew its attempts to curtail Belarus’s military sovereignty. Playing into Moscow’s hands are Belarus’s external isolation and destabilization in the wake of its August 2020 rigged presidential election.
Lukashenka has, thus far, steadfastly resisted Moscow’s demands to allow Russian combat forces to be stationed in Belarus, or otherwise to use Belarus’s territory for generating threats against Ukraine, Poland or the Baltic States (see Part Three in EDM, October 20).
To turn this situation in its favor, Moscow need not resort to a dramatic gambit such as another push for military basing rights in Belarus. Instead, less conspicuously, Moscow could initiate another attempt to place Belarus’s ground forces directly under the command and control of Russia’s Western Military District. To do so, Moscow would also have to tinker with the Belarus-Russia Union State Treaty.
Under the existing political-military setup (from 1998/1999 to date), Belarus’s national ground forces (including the special operations units) and Russia’s 1st Guards Army (based in Russia’s Western Military District) form a Regional Group of Forces (RGF). The forces comprising it are based on their respective national territories. The position of RGF commander is permanently held by the chief of the General Staff of Belarus’s Armed Forces (not rotational). The RGF commander is directly subordinated to the Union State’s Supreme Council, which is headed by the presidents of Belarus and Russia. That Supreme Council adopts any decisions by consensus only (either side has the right to veto or otherwise block any decision). This has allowed Minsk to retain de facto sovereign authority over its forces even as these are assigned to the RGF. Some Russian officials have in recent years suggested re-subordinating these Belarusian forces to Russia’s Western Military District—i.e., beyond the Supreme Council’s purview—thereby to remove Minsk’s veto safeguard.
The RGF is not activated in peacetime. In wartime or during a war-threat period, however, an RGF Joint Command shall be formed by common decision, and then on the basis of Belarus’s Ministry of Defense and General Staff. In that case, the Belarusian chief of staff takes over the command and control over the RGF, thus also over the Russian forces within the RGF. The Union State’s Supreme Council adopts any decisions on the development and use of the RGF by consensus only. Re-subordinating Belarus’s forces to Russia’s Western Military District would, in this case also, negate Minsk’s veto safeguard. Moscow’s suggestions in recent years to that effect were trial balloons that Minsk fended off, but it may have to face them again from a weaker position at this time (Arseny Sivitsky, “Belarus-Russia: From a Strategic Deal to an Integration Ultimatum,” Foreign Policy Research Institute, December 2019).
Under the Union State Treaty and subsequent agreements, Russian forces may only enter Belarusian territory by official invitation (Lukashenka clearly having the say on this, as long as he is president). Without a legally valid invitation, the entry of Russian forces would be deemed an act of military aggression against Belarus. The Kremlin, however, has a track record of extorting or concocting invitations to introduce its troops into other countries, or doing so undercover without formalities.
Minsk has, thus far, not allowed the pre-positioning of Russian war materiel in Belarus in peacetime. Under a 2017 agreement, applicable during wartime or a war-threat period, Russia may introduce its weapons and other equipment into Belarus (using Belarus’s infrastructure) for the use of Russia’s 1st Guards Tank Army (which forms a part of the Belarus-Russia RGF, to be activated in the event of war or threat of war—see above). Any deployment decision, however, may only be adopted by the two state presidents in consensus, which can be used as a decision-blocking device.
Russia and Belarus operate a Unified Regional Air Defense System (URADS), foreseen in the 1999 Union State Treaty but delayed until 2013 by Minsk to cement its own decision-making powers within this system. URADS includes all of Belarus’s air force and air-defense units as well as Russia’s 6th Air Force and Air Defense Army (based in Russia’s Western Military District). The URADS is permanently active (not only in wartime or in a war-threat period). However, Belarusian and Russian units in URADS remain subordinated to their respective national commands, which coordinate plans for developing and using the system. The position of commander is rotational, the appointment being subject to approval of the Supreme Council (headed by the two presidents—see above) by consensus. From URADS’s full operationalization in 2013 onward, only Belarusian air force and air-defense commanders have held this post. In wartime or a war-threat period, the URADS is allocated to the RGF; thus, URADS’s commander is subordinated to the RGF’s commander (a Belarusian—see above). Under a 2009 agreement on the air-defense system, Belarus retains the ultimate authority to decide on whether to use force against foreign intruders (Glen E. Howard, “The Growing Importance of Belarus on NATO’s Baltic Flank,” The Jamestown Foundation, September 2019).
Two non-combat Russian military units operate technical installations on Belarusian territory: the early-warning missile radar at Hantsavichi and the naval communications station at Vileika. The Russian side shares the space and air-defense data with the Belarusian side. Both of those installations are owned by Belarus and leased by the Russian military, on a 20-year contract ending in 2021. Their future beyond that date is uncertain. Russia has, in the meantime, built two modern installations on its own territory to perform those same tasks. Moscow might either give up the two Belarusian installations or perhaps opt in favor of redundancy.
Belarus has never contributed troops to Russia-led “peacekeeping” operations in the frameworks of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) or Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), although it is a member of both and professes “alliance obligations” to the Moscow-led CSTO. In this multilateral alliance (as in the bilateral Belarus-Russia alliance), Belarus adheres to the principle that its own armed forces may only be used defensively on the country’s territory; and its alliance commitments apply only to the territory of Belarus. The country’s currently valid military doctrine (2016) reconfirms this long-standing policy (Arseny Sivitsky, “Belarus’s Contributions to Security and Stability in Central Europe: Regional Safeguards, Strategic Autonomy and National Defense Modernization,” The Jamestown Foundation, March 2, 2020).
Military transparency is also a feature of Minsk’s overall policy to prevent Russia from posing threats to third countries (Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia) from Belarusian territory. For the Zapad 2017 exercise (latest iteration of this quadrennial series) Belarus on its own initiative invited military observers from North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries for the first time (notwithstanding that the size of the drill did not require such an invitation under the Vienna Document). Lukashanka also rebuked Moscow’s sudden move to increase its pre-scheduled troop contingent; and Minsk insisted that all Russian troops leave without delay after the completion of the exercise (see EDM, October 4, 2017).
In all, President Lukashenka and Belarus’s political-military elite around him have carved out a wide measure of strategic autonomy for Belarus in the context of its formal alliance with Russia. In time, Belarus has de facto achieved military sovereignty vis-à-vis Russia. This is still the current status quo in their relationship, and consequently—more broadly—for the region around Belarus. The Kremlin, however, will seek to exploit Belarus’s external isolation and destabilization in order to regain influence over Belarus, curtail its military sovereignty, and use its territory to pose threats and challenges to Belarus’s neighboring countries.