By Siarhei Bohdan
On Friday, a joint Belarusian-Russian military exercise started in Belarus and in the Kaliningrad Province of Russia. For months Polish media discussed whether the exercise is potentially aimed at mounting aggression and even a nuclear arms deployment against Poland and NATO.
Neighbouring Baltic states remained more reserved. Only the deputy chief of staff of Estonian army told «Eesti Päevaleht», a major Estonian daily, that he is concerned about the scale of the military exercise, as Russia's military power has significantly rose in a western direction. Apparently, he meant not the Belarusian forces but rather the Russian part of the exercises. Regardless, Belarus has at its disposal no serious offensive capabilities and the joint current military exercises can be counted as a real demonstration of its humble military might.
The Magic of Numbers
Ten thousand Belarusian and twelve thousand Russian troops are taking part in this military exercise through Thursday. At first glance, it looks like more than in the previous exercises in 2009. But only 2,520 Russian military personnel will take part in the exercises on Belarusian territory, the rest of Russians will be deployed in Russia. Some military units from Kazakhstan, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan will also take part in the exercises.
In the 2011 military exercises, which were held only in Russia, 6,000 Belarusian and Russian troops took part in the drills. In Zapad-2009 in Belarus and Western Russia, 12,500 troops participated – 6,500 from Belarus and 6,000 from Russia, as well as a small group of Kazakhstani soldiers. In the Belarusian-Russian military exercises in 2006 around 8,800 soldiers participated, 7,000 of whom Belarusian troops and 1,800 were Russian military personnel.
Zakhad-2013: Two-in-One Military Exercise
This year a rise in the numbers of troops participating is remarkable, yet at the same time unusual. First, this military exercise looks much less impressive in comparison to the Russian military exercise in its Eastern military district where 160,000 troops were deployed.
Second, the military exercise Zakhad-2013 for the first time embraces smaller military exercises held by the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO or ODKB). Rapid deployment forces from the CSTO states members have their own tasks and as military analyst Alyaksandr Alesin noted, the point of holding both exercises together is to save money and to improve coordination between their respective staffs.
Two years ago, after a coup in Kyrgyzstan, Lukashenka said that the CSTO should deploy its special forces to crush possible revolutions in the post-Soviet states. While this idea has not yet been pursued in this CSTO exercise, according to Belarusian Defence Ministry, “the joint forces will isolate and exterminate extremist forces which might have entered from a neighbouring country to launch an internal conflict in Belarus.”
It Belarusian and international media, in particular Radio of Liberty, they talk about a “Syrian scenario” of military exercises as if Belarus would train for the suppression of an uprising by Polish minority in the western regions of the country. Meanwhile, many journalists did not mention that the “extermination of extremist forces” is a plot of only one part of the military exercises.
Moreover, this part belongs to the CSTO domain and this organisation is much more concerned about Central Asia and forthcoming takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban with the next spillover of extremist militancy flooding into Central Asia. To fight Polish guerillas in Belarus is almost as outlandish a task, and idea, as a fighting Martian invasion.
Of course, some Polish politicians, like former short-term defence minister Romuald Szeremetiew, as early as in January claimed that the Belarusian-Russian military exercise had been planned to prepare for a possible conflict with Poland after a hypothetical uprising of the Polish national minority in Belarus. But one shall regard such statements in the context of attempts by the Polish military and defence industries to make the government renounce its plans to cut funding for defence.
After the disclosure of the plans for a Russian air base in Belarus, Aleh Muslovets of Afn.by noted that Warsaw and Minsk found that by speculating on an imaginary threat emanating from each other, Poland and Belarus can get money from its own allies in Moscow and Washington, respectively. The Polish and Czech elite have a hard time competing for NATO funds and US military aid which goes to such critical places as Afghanistan or Middle East.
Minsk has even more frequently failed to convince Russia of its own strategic defensive importance and the Kremlin simply refuses to grant Belarusians arms anymore. Warsaw and Prague hoped in vain that the US missile defence system would increase their importance to the Americans. The strategic importance of Eastern Europe is inexorably diminishing as the Cold War becomes more and more apart of history and Russia weakens.
Minsk and Moscow Have No Offensive Capabilities towards the West
Precise statistics on Belarusian and Russian forces show that they pose no threat for Poland or any other country. Soviet strategy for a European war emphasised the role of tanks and Belarus had more tanks than all other European countries westwards of it together. But these tanks, inheritors of Soviet Union technology, have remained where the Soviet army left them. Belarus is capable of modernising them, yet has no money - and actually no need - to do so.
The air force was always a Soviet weak point and while Soviet fighter jets provided reasonable defence, fighter jets and bombers were inferior in comparison to their Western counterparts. As for offensive air force capabilities, Belarus, after decommissioning the Su-24s in 2012, reportedly has only two dozen rather old, Soviet-era Su-25 aircrafts of close air support for ground forces. Most likely, not all of them are functional.
The only tangible offensive air force capability is, hypothetically, the four dozens attack helicopters Mi-24 which the Belarusian army nominally possesses. But they all are old and the number of effectively functioning Mi-24s is unknown.
The Russian Western Military District forms together with the Belarusian army the Regional Group of Belarusian and Russian Troops. Yet the 20th Army of this District is smaller now after reforms than its famous Taman division before the reforms. Some Russian equipment is newer than what the Belarusians have, yet just by a little.
Neither Belarus, nor Russia has any significant offensive military capabilities that can be deployed in a Western direction. Russia theoretically could bring some of its troops from other districts, yet it would dangerously expose itself in the Caucasus, Central Asia or Far East where powerful competitors and a real, rather than imaginary, radical forces are constantly working against Russian interests.
It means that when Belarusian and Russian officials say that the military exercises have nothing to do with Eastern Europe, they are probably telling the truth. For Russia it is a rather ordinary training of forces and demonstration to its citizens that Moscow has still some influence in Eastern Europe. It does not matter that such little war games look pitiful against the backdrop of Ukraine preferring integration with the European Union rather that the Russian-led Customs Union.
For Belarus this military exercise means an opportunity to train its own armed forces which are – despite some speculations – in a rather decent state when compared to other post-Soviet nations. Having rather sophisticated armed forces helps Minsk to convince Moscow that Russian needs its Belarusian ally.