Military cooperation between Moscow and Minsk and its political significance is one of the most important topics today. Alexander Morozov (researcher in the Department of Philosophy at Charles University and iSANS expert) discussed this issue with well-known Russian military expert Pavel Luzin.
Morozov: Prior to the political crisis in Belarus, everything related to military cooperation between Russia and Belarus was viewed in the context of the slowdown of integration in general, because Alexander Lukashenko, at least after 2015 when the sanctions were lifted, was actively focused on contracts and interaction not only with Russia, but also with other countries. And, in fact, this is precisely what led to Dmitry Medvedev in December 2018 sharply attacking Lukashenko. After that, Lukashenko’s active anti-Russian rhetoric and staunchly defiant actions towards Moscow continued for another six months. Now, because of the political crisis, the pyramid has been upended and many issues that have generally been frozen are attracting a lot of attention. Among them is the question of military and military-technical cooperation between Russia and Belarus. What is the overall situation around this military and military-technical cooperation between Russia and Belarus now, in your opinion?
Luzin: For starters, it really makes sense to return to the situation from 2018 to early 2020, when the topic of deepening integration was again initiated by Russia. This was not done for nothing. As far as I can judge from circumstantial signs and fragmentary evidence, the Russian authorities had a very clear understanding that Lukashenko was running out of money. The Kremlin believed that it would be very difficult for him to buy the loyalty of the electorate. Russia wanted to take advantage of this situation. A political crisis in Belarus was expected. Of course, its form and scale were not clear, but Russia was ready to work, and it was preparing the ground for working with the Belarusian opposition: with Babariko, Tikhanovsky, and with many others. The task was not to swallow up Belarus or have an Anschluss. It was so that Belarus would remain in Russia’s political orbit, first, of course, through economic levers. Moscow intended to squeeze out the maximum. But it did not work out completely, as Lukashenko began to show his teeth to Moscow in 2018-19. And in 2021 he showed that he was ready to move for a complete break with the West, but he was not ready to give himself up to Putin so easily. That is, he was not ready to leave for Rostov with a respectable pension. He was going for broke.
Of course, the first point here is economics. That is, the acquisition of economic assets or other levers of pressure on the Belarusian economy. And the second aspect is military-technical cooperation.
But here, in military-technical cooperation, there is one paradox. If we take military products, and here we are talking almost exclusively about artillery tractors, then Russia is the main buyer. The second buyer some time ago was China, but China was able to copy the technology and went its own way. But the paradox is that the policy of import substitution, which Russia began to implement in 2014, has affected Belarus as well. That is, Russia did not want to depend on Belarus for the supply of artillery tractors, for example. And even the KAMAZ factory made attempts to make a line of tractors carrying YARS, Topols, and so on. KAMAZ, by the way, is not done very well today, but one way or another their R&D program is underway. And this means what? It means that Russia will not need Belarus as a supplier of even a small but very important segment of military equipment. And this is one side of the issue.
The second point is Russia’s military presence in the form of «Volga» radar and the long-range naval communications center in Vileika. Objectively, it is no longer necessary in a purely military sense because Russia duplicated this entire infrastructure on its territory a long time ago, including the radar on the Russian perimeter and the communication centers located in Russia. And Russia would like to convert this military presence into a joint military base, as was done, for example, in Kyrgyzstan, where it transformed several military facilities into a united Russian military base in Kant. The same in Armenia – there is a joint military base there. The same is true in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
A joint military base gives a more flexible presence because it allows you to intervene in internal political process in the event of any excesses. We saw this, by the way, in Crimea in 2014 with the presence of the Black Sea Fleet base, which allowed the Russian military presence to be scaled up.
And, obviously, from a political perspective – with Lukashenko, without Lukashenko, with a parliamentary republic or with a presidential one – a full-fledged base is a factor in Russia’s foreign policy influence on the situation in Belarus.
But there is one more point for which Russia would need the base for the long term – in the event of a full-fledged conflict with NATO, because this scenario cannot be discounted. After all, there is a scenario for a Baltic operation, which would not, of course, annex the Baltic countries, but destroy the NATO bloc politically. While the Poles are waiting for the arrival of an American landing in Gdansk, the defeat of NATO troops in the Baltic countries would be obvious, and no one would have time to support them. And after that, Russia could calmly withdraw its troops, hold some kind of international conference along the lines of a «Congress of Vienna» and that’s it.
We must not forget that Moscow is guided by the fact that NATO must be dismantled, and Russia must regain its place as one of the key guarantors of European security. And the draft of a new treaty on European security, which was proposed by Dmitry Medvedev, has been tucked away, but it has not been thrown into the trash can. It exists.
In other words, Moscow’s strategy is as follows: we do not want to really depend on Belarus, in military-technical terms, but we want to be able to project force into Belarus and, in the event of a conflict with NATO, into the Baltic region. This is for the protection of Kaliningrad and to put pressure on the Suwalki corridor, thereby being able to influence the entire situation in Eastern Europe. Not necessarily to fight, I stress, but to have leverage over the Europeans to drive a wedge into transatlantic unity.
Morozov: Against this, how should we consider the creation of training centers? Is this a path to having a base or, on the contrary, is it a way of blocking the very idea of the base on Alexander Lukashenko’s part?
Luzin: As far as I can see, Lukashenko is resisting the integration of the Belarusian armed forces with the Russian armed forces with all his strength. He is struggling and constantly coming up with some kind of idea, like we’ll have a joint (officially joint) air defense / missile defense system, but in reality each will be managed separately with Russia and Belarus each controlling their own site. Russian generals do not command the Belarusian air defense / missile defense system, though these kinds of conversations were going on there initially. These training centers are also a fiction. The topic of a military base has existed for several years, whether as an air force base or a combined military base. And Lukashenko, in briefing journalists after every meeting with Putin, even if they do not ask him about it, constantly says: “No, the question of a military base was not raised.” That is, it is a painful moment for him.
In addition, according to some sources, after 2014 Lukashenko cleaned out the army generals. I cannot confirm or deny this information, but such actions seem logical.
Lukashenko understood that Belarusian generals are people who studied in Moscow. Some of these people studied under the Soviet system. There are fewer such people now, objectively, because the Soviet officer corps has naturally dissipated. This is a normal process. Lukashenko feared that the army would simply be more pro-Russian than pro-Belarusian.
And, as far as I understand, in the Belarusian army, maybe not in full measure, there is consensus that Belarus should be an independent state. And, accordingly, Lukashenko is resisting a military base, but he also has support from within the state apparatus and within the military establishment. He has support for this course of action – that we can come up with something, but we will remain independent… Rhetorically, Lukashenko says, «We are ready to take in your troops at any moment,» but there is also a very clear subtext: «Guys, you will be deployed here only in the event of a war with NATO , but you will not be placed here in order to twist my arm in internal political processes. I will control the process itself and I will transfer power – if and when I do – on my own.»
Morozov: I want to ask you the following. When we observed the Kremlin’s policy towards Ukraine in 2014 and later, we saw well that the Kremlin has not just operators, but people who are very active in pursuing a certain strategy, which took the form of «Novorossiya» and similar ideas. And these were high-placed Kremlin people. Who from the Moscow side serves as a bearer of a consistent strategy towards Belarus? I mean, the political, military, and geopolitical side. Do you see these kinds of figures or not?
Luzin: Dmitry Kozak is involved in the post-Soviet space, especially its eastern European segment. And it seems to me that the appointment of Yevgeny Lukyanov as Ambassador in March 2021 is also not a coincidence. This is a man from foreign intelligence, judging by his public biography, and he has a very clear specialization in the control of shadow financial chains and money laundering schemes. They say he did this in Latvia. It is logical to assume that with his transfer to Belarus comes the task of keeping track of where the Belarusian elite is transferring capital. Lukyanov’s task is quite hands on, so to speak – to track all the chains of financial communications between Belarus and Europe and, in general, to prevent these chains from being used.
Morozov: I like this interpretation. If you accept it, it is easier to explain the story with Viktor Sheiman. This is Lukashenko’s counter gesture. Since Alexander Grigorievich now needs to protect his connections more actively from a person like Lukyanov. All these channels of his created in the past 20-25 years to Latin America and Qatar and the Middle East.
Luzin: If we return to the Russian strategy towards Belarus, then it can be described in one phrase: «To prevent the creation of an ANTI-RUSSIA.» Both Ukraine and Belarus are very important for the Russian system of power. Putin wrote about this, by the way, in his last article about the brotherhood of peoples. The key meaning there was not the brotherhood of peoples. Few people really care about this brotherhood. The key meaning is in the term “anti-Russia.»
Neither Ukraine nor Belarus should serve as sources of ALTERNATIVES for the order that exists within Russia. God forbid that in Ukraine or Belarus there would be some kind of «democracy» or some «reforms.» It would be a catastrophe for the reputation of the Russian system.
Morozov: I will return to military-technical cooperation. Before the political crisis, Lukashenko, as you know, sold military gear and equipment not only to Russia, but to many other countries. Are sanctions paralyzing these opportunities? Or not?
Luzin: It would be possible to predict with confidence the consequences of sanctions when the data on the arms market for 2020 is published. And these data will be fully clear in 2022, when SIPRI will collect data and when the Military Balance report is released. This does not come out right away, but rather is reported on from the year previous. But I would say that one should not grossly exaggerate the importance of these arms exports for the stability of Belarus. Because, again, it comes for the most part from warehouses. This is often updating of Soviet technology. And I think that some kind of discount will be possible. Maybe some contracts won’t come together, but European sanctions against Belarus should not today, as far as I see, strongly undermine Belarusian arms exports. What Belarus has supplied for export is home-produced conventional weapons, such as the Polonez multiple launch rocket system, which was exported to Azerbaijan, plus small arms and light armored vehicles, which are called depots. This is primarily slightly modernized Soviet equipment for African and Asian countries. Countries that buy Belarusian weapons do not depend very much on European opinion. Plus, there may be shadow schemes through an intermediary, through Russian ports. Overall, they will cope. But another thing is that buyers will start twisting the arms of Belarusians under the pretext of sanctions; that is, demanding an additional discount. This, of course, is a blow to revenues – which at the same time are not so great in comparison with other arms exporters – amounting to tens of millions of dollars a year.
Morozov: In 2021, it was noticeable that active meetings of the military leaders of the two countries had begun – meetings of the General Staffs, meetings of generals, talks. What will this galvanization lead to in your opinion?
Luzin: For the Russian military establishment, this all matters for two reasons. I discussed the first one, the possibility of conducting a «Baltic operation.» The second is that although the Ukrainian conflict seems to be frozen, the shooting continues on the line of contact between the two sides. Russian troops from Donbass have not gone anywhere, they are there. And in the event of any exacerbation, the Russian military operation against Ukraine will need support from Belarus. The military alarm of spring, when Putin knocked out Biden’s call with maneuvers on the Ukrainian border, is a great success for the Kremlin. This form of pressure worked. And since nothing has ended in the military campaign against Ukraine, it cannot be ruled out that at some point support will be required against the Ukrainian army not only from the east and south, but also from the north. And this is the strategic meaning of all this integrative military activity for Moscow.
Morozov: There is now an understanding that all the latest episodes – the hijacking of the plane, the organization of the migration crisis – are not just Lukashenko’s actions, but some joint operations of the Russian and Belarusian special services. And the SVR or the FSB is involved in planning all this. And many are convinced that such complex operations could not have been devised by the Belarusian special services at all and this is Moscow’s doing. What do you think?
Luzin: I would not underestimate Lukashenko’s special services and the ability of his team to plan these kinds of operations. You see, he has been in power for 27 years, demonstrating miracles of political survival. Again, seeing how hard he bargains with Putin, he constantly moves masterfully. In my opinion, the Belarusian special services conduct operations like with the Ryanair aircraft independently. Lukashenko should not be underestimated. Moreover, his special services are an infrastructure for shadow flows of funds and are, therefore, a guarantee of the well-being of the Belarusian elite, regardless of what the situation is here and now.
Morozov: In the end, do you think the Kremlin will get this military base in Belarus? And, if so, at what cost? At the beginning of the political crisis, many wrote that Putin could crush Lukashenko with the push of a button. But now, when we open obviously Kremlin-biased media, we see articles that say that the Kremlin has not been able to take full advantage of the crisis and that Lukashenko is confidently manipulating Putin. A kind of paradox exists here…
Luzin: Well, first, the Kremlin is in no hurry. I always try to take a systems analysis position or of material analysis. I try never to get into psychology because I am not a psychologist. I admit that there is something personal here between Putin and Lukashenko. But I always exclude this from my analysis because I am not an expert in this. And if you look at the systemic factors, I think Russia intends to get its base. Whether it will get it or not, I cannot say. Because Putin, after all, needs to do this so as not to receive another package of sanctions. In this sense, the Kremlin benefits from a large-scale humanitarian crisis in Belarus. Then it will be possible to say to the West, “Here, we are doing our duty for the union state,” so that is why troops were brought in. The Kremlin is in no hurry but will look to achieve this goal.
Материал доступен на русском языке: Кремлю нужна военная база в Беларуси