Lukashenko attempts to modernise Belarusian army amid conflict in Ukraine
Amid the armed conflict in Ukraine, the president is attempting to change military policy in Belarus. President Lukashenko seeks to develop special operations forces in the Belarusian Armed Forces as a key element for strategic deterrence and counter subversive activities in the country. Most likely, in the near future the Belarusian leadership will speed up the rearmament process in the army, and change its structure and ideological education by redistributing the limited resources in favour of mobile army units, which are the most capable of responding to today’s potential threats from the East.
President Lukashenko has appointed Major-General Andrew Ravkov as the Belarusian Defence Minister.
Ex-Defence Minister Yury Zhadobin has reached retirement age and has been released from duty by President Lukashenko. Major-General Ravkov has been appointed the new Defence Minister. Previously, he served as the North-Western Operational Troops Commander.
Major-General Ravkov is not a well-known figure and his appointment came as a surprise for military experts and analysts. Until now, the president’s personnel policy has been based on the rotation of senior officials – the same persons or security forces proxies were appointed to various positions, in particular, in key power bodies. President Lukashenko sees the need not only in the army’s technical modernisation, but also in reforming the outdated Soviet approaches to defence, especially given the recent developments in the region.
Lukashenko has rebuked Kyiv for failing to ensure Ukraine’s territorial integrity (in particular during the annexation of Crimea). In addition, the Belarusian authorities were well aware that the Ukrainian security forces and the army would be unable to confront the pro-Russian separatists when the conflict started in eastern Ukraine, including curbing Russian assistance to separatist groups.
President Lukashenko’s decision to strengthen the role of special operations forces in ensuring the country’s defence in the new ‘hybrid war’ conditions is only logical. Interestingly, Major-General Ravkov previously commanded the 103rd Mobile Guards brigade in Vitebsk.
Unlike the previous Defence Minister, Major-General Ravkov was born in Belarus and is an ethnic Belarusian, which is rare in the security forces’ leadership. Previously, many leaders in power forces had come from all over the post-Soviet space. Most of Belarus’ top military leaders were educated in Russia – in the Russian Academy of the General Staff – and started their careers in the Soviet army outside Belarus
Amid events in Ukraine, independent analysts regard the appointment of a Belarusian national to head the Army as the president’s desire to limit the Kremlin’s possibilities to influence Belarusian top military leaders and the Belarusian army. President Lukashenko underscored his desire to introduce new young staff who are not related to the armed forces’ central commandment: “Many people have warned me that he did not serve in the central office, was not familiar with these rules and so on. Perhaps this is a drawback, but often it is for the better. An intelligent person will always make sense of the situation in the central office, and will also contribute something from the bottom-up, which is what we really need. We need this in both civilian and, above all, military agencies”.
However, Belarus’ overwhelming military and economic dependence on Russia prevents her from radically revamping the armed forces and revising the military doctrine. Most likely, the Belarusian government will undertake some measures to improve the military training of soldiers and officers, and will work on strengthening the army’s loyalty to the state.
Over the past year, military-political relations between Minsk and Kyiv have become complicated. Due to their high inertia and peculiarities, this downward trend would be extremely difficult to overcome.
The root cause of the crisis is the absence of a common political agenda in the Belarusian-Ukrainian relations. Minsk is looking for a market for Belarusian exports in Ukraine and offers its services as a negotiation platform for the settlement of the Russo-Ukrainian war, thereby hoping to avoid political issues in the dialogue with Kiev. Meanwhile, Ukraine is hoping for political support from Minsk in the confrontation with Moscow. In addition, Ukraine’s integration with NATO presupposes her common position with the Alliance in relation to Belarus. The NATO leadership regards the Belarusian Armed Forces as an integral part of the Russian military machine in the western strategic front (the Baltic states and Poland). In addition, the ongoing military reform in Ukraine envisages a reduction in the number of generals and the domestic political struggle makes some Ukrainian top military leaders targets in politically motivated attacks.
Hence, the criticism of Belarus coming from Ukrainian military leadership is dictated primarily by internal and external political considerations, as well as by the need to protect the interests of generals, and only then by facts.
For instance, initially, the Ukrainian military leadership made statements about 100,000 Russian servicemen allegedly taking part in the Russo-Belarusian military drill West-2017. Then the exercises were labelled quazi-open and military observers from Ukraine refused to provide their assessment, which caused a negative reaction in Minsk. Further, without citing specific facts, it was stated that Russia was building up its military presence in Belarus.
Apparently, the Belarusian and Ukrainian Defence Ministries have entangled in a confrontational spiral (on the level of rhetoric). Moreover, only a small part of the overly hidden process has been disclosed. That said, third states are very likely to take advantage of the situation (or have already done so). This is not only about Russia.
The Belarusian Defence Ministry officials are restrained in assessing their Ukrainian counterparts. However, such a restraint is not enough. Current military-political relations between Belarus and Ukraine are unlikely to stabilise without the intervention of both presidents.