How Russia is consuming Belarus: signs showing a nuclear state inching closer toward Lithuania

Vladimir Putin, Alexander Lukashenko
Putin and Lukashenka, AP/Scanpix

Russia is taking root in Belarus at nearly no cost – the two countries’ military integration is deepening, with this meaning Russian forces are increasingly close to Lithuania and NATO’s borders. According to international security expert and conflict management specialist Gražvydas Jasutis, after the 2020 presidential elections, Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko has lost his ability to manoeuvre between the West and Moscow, thus being forced to pay for Moscow’s support. And the price is yielding to Moscow, Eglė Samoškaitė wrote in TV3.lt.

“If up to the elections we saw A. Lukashenko trying to sit on two seats at once, manoeuvring over the alliance doctrine, certain games happening, Belarus demonstrating multivectorality. But now, one of the chairs burned down and only one remains that A. Lukashenko can sit down to rest on, but it is firmly held by the neighbour in Russia. In such a case, if you are stuck with a desire to rest, naturally, you must pay. One of the prices, I think, is namely military integration,” G. Jasutis explained.

The scientist teaches post-Soviet security courses in Switzerland, Spain and France, looking into security sector reforms, political transformation processes and terrorism in the post-Soviet space.

“Belarus’ political elite only see a single partner – Russia. And Russia need not invest, the political costs are very low; Belarus is becoming a part of Russia’s security orbit,” G. Jasutis notes.

It would have been more beneficial for Lithuania if Belarus had continued its multivectoral policies, which is maintaining friendly relations with neighbours and the EU at the same time as doing so with Russia. However, it is impossible in this case. After the fraudulent presidential elections, Western states have imposed new sanctions on Belarus and A. Lukashenko responded with particular hostility to these. A little later, Belarus forced through violence and cunning the landing of a civilian flight from Athens to Vilnius.

“The sanctions have both a positive and negative impact. The sanctions are “building a wall” around Belarus, leaving it the sole choice of neighbouring Russia. It is really a matter of values for NATO states. Yes, we can continue pressuring Belarus, but where to does this lead? This is because it is us fully playing into Russia’s hands. Does it benefit NATO? This is a question that needs raising. On the other hand, failing to do anything, only partially reacting to Belarus’ processes also leads to certain value questions,” the scientist believes.

“I really am no big fan of those sanctions, which fundamentally helped push Belarus into Russia’s hands. Perhaps it was necessary to think about how to take a more balanced look at this state and its political situation. We essentially slammed the door and A. Lukashenko also locked them. Thus, we are now in a situation where we could essentially go knocking, but the key is in Minsk and, due to a certain value and philosophical matters, we can no longer do so,” G. Jasutis adds.

According to him, it could be interpreted that Lithuania made a mistake in foreign policy toward Belarus. Not in recent years, but previously because the question arises as to whether our state had an adequate strategy of what to do with the neighbour, how to plan relations with it, whether to act on values or whether to look at it as a state, which can impact our security.

Increased joint military exercises, Russia takes root in Belarus

Russia and Belarus agreed on forming a union state back in the year 1999. A military doctrine was approved in a few years, fundamentally meaning joint military organisation, a joint outlook on security problems. G. Jasutis writes in his article Research into the durability of military alliance: the case of Russia and Belarus that in 2018, a new military doctrine was being discussed, but A. Lukashenko refused to approve it. He tried to withstand Russian pressure.

Despite Minsk’s manoeuvring, Russia and Belarus formed the Western region security group even before, with it being tasked with the protection of Western state borders and providing assistance to Kaliningrad Oblast. The two countries’ special operations forces cooperate closely, significant attention is directed at the training of military personnel, several hundred Belarusian officers go to Russia for training every year. This also helps pursue a similarity in ideology and thinking, which contributes to cooperation in both exercises and the battlefield.

This all happened even before the year 2020, while Belarus was still manoeuvring between East and West. However, A. Lukashenko has little choice now – according to G. Jasutis, the military integration of Russia and Belarus is now deepening and taking root. This integration is also facilitated by the closeness to Russia of the Belarusian military elite.

“They see Russia as a potential partner, they are keen to continue with the integration, happily participating in exercises and viewing it positively. I see this ideological closeness between the Russian and Belarusian security sectors. After the elections, I’ve been seeing numerous indicators that suggest that military integration will progress,” G. Jasutis says.

Russia itself also has certain goals in Belarus. For example, a Russian radiolocation station operates in Belarus, as does a submarine control station, but their rent contracts end this year. Moscow needs them extended. Russia is also keen on establishing an air force base in Belarus. But these are minor details. One of Moscow’s core pursuits has been to further reinforce its conventional military advantage against NATO in the region.

The markedly increased number of joint military exercises is a particularly visual showcase of Russian-Belarusian military cooperation.

For example, the Zapad military exercises recently concluded. They are officially described as defensive exercises, but scenarios have been released of how the unified state concentrates around 200 thousand troops to combat terrorist organisations and “evil Westerners”, which betrays an offensive inclination.

Russia and Belarus are testing their military compatibility in other exercises as well. “From September 2020 onward, Russian and Belarusian military forces have performed exercises and manoeuvres every month,” G. Jasutis points out.

Based on a variety of sources, he states that a total of 160 military events are planned for this year, up from last year’s 120. During such exercises, Russia demonstrates an incredible pace. For example, during the exercises Slavic Brotherhood, Russia transported its troops with the IL-76 aircraft by a thousand five hundred kilometres within an hour and a half.

Russia is overall inclined in military exercises to test its capacities comprehensible and in thorough detail, which is to say that it performs what it plans and does so at full capacity. Security expert Daivis Petraitis emphasised in his article The Anatomy of Zapad-2017: Certain Features of Russian Military Planning that Russian officers are typically inclined toward a Prussian military tradition and philosophy of thinking, which fundamentally means that all actions are precisely planned, all-encompassing and synchronised in terms of time and space.

Thus, if Russia plans drills on how to ensure the country’s mass defence, the use of strategic nuclear weaponry, it will be able to evacuate around 1.4 million people. This happened during the third state of Zapad 2017 despite there being no official link between the exercises and the evacuation.

Zapad exercises usually always bring up the question of a ramp-up in Russian military capabilities in Belarus. Russian forces can linger in Belarus after exercises, Moscow’s natural military entrenchment in the allied state is also visible from other signs. For example, it was announced this year that three military training centres are to be created, with one established in Belarus. Where there is military training, there are troops and equipment.

“In terms of the training base in Belarus, there were discussions of deploying SU-30SM combat aircraft, as well as crew training. The Belarusian side expects to simply obtain Russian fighters and train its pilots to fly them. The Russian side hopes to have its planes and pilots on Belarusian soil. This is yet another step, which will form conditions for an increased contingent of Russian Federation forces in Belarus,” G. Jasutis writes.

Minsk can turn nowhere other than Russia when it intends to modernise its weaponry.

It is currently only one problem, but it can be resolved – during peacetime, matters of command and control are currently left to each country individually, with a joint headquarters taking over if a threat looms. Russia seeks to reach a deal where there would be a joint headquarters even during peacetime.

“However, I think that Belarus would like to retain some sovereignty. Whether it will be successful or not is hard to say, but negotiations are ongoing,” G. Jasutis notes, adding that these matters should be resolved in negotiations over the union state’s doctrine.

For Lithuania, this means a nuclear state inching ever closer

The military integration of Russia and Belarus is nothing new. However, the acceleration of this process means that nuclear-armed Russia will be close not only from the direction of Kaliningrad but also the southeast. G. Jasutis says that we need not be overly intimidated by this, but this is certainly food for thought for defence planners.

“The border of a nuclear-armed state is expanding. I’m not even talking about Russia’s conventional advantage in the region,” the scientist says.

G. Jasutis notes that such processes are worrying, particularly when you consider Russia’s behaviour in the region. As we know, in 2014, Russia forcibly took Crimea away from Ukraine and organised a continuing conflict in Donbas. In 2008, Russia attacked Georgia.

In Belarus’ case, A. Lukashenko chose Russia’s side himself because the West will no longer talk to him due to his illegitimate status, his behaviour toward the opposition and society, as well as his actions in forcing an aircraft landing in Minsk. This means that there no longer is even a theoretical buffer zone between Russia and Lithuania.

“Since Russia and Belarus are demonstrating that they perceive the West as a potential battlefield, the situation is slightly worrying. But neither should we dramatise this because there’s NATO, which has its own forces. Russia may have a conventional advantage in the region, but I do not perceive military action against us. What I do see are hybrid actions – the migrants, intelligence work, blackmail, cyber-attacks. However, real conventional warfare, the sort that we see against Ukraine, I don’t see it in the region,” the scientist said. According to him, NATO could answer Russia’s increased capabilities in the region by strengthening its forces. “This isn’t bad. Of course, at some point, it would lead to a security dilemma for both them and us,” G. Jasutis believes.

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