The Authorities Choose How to Respond to Violations of Belarus’ Airspace
On July 4, the Swedish media published a video of a single-engine airplane with two passengers on board crossing Belarus’ border from the territory of Lithuania and dropping teddy-bears with texts in support of freedom of speech in Belarus over the town of Ivyanets. Later on, local citizens presented evidence of the incident. The Belarusian authorities either give no comment or deny any violation of Belarus’ airspace.
The level of media publicity drawn by the incident establishes a framework for response from the Belarusian authorities. They vary from strictly punishing and dismissing the guilty persons to acknowledging drawbacks in the air defense system and the need for modernization. In reality, the authorities have avoided choosing between these two extremes and have postponed taking a decision, due to their reluctance to acknowledge the mistake. Their unwillingness to make a final decision is also explained by an acute shortage of management personnel in the Air Force, the high cost of retrofitting an air defense system and the lack of reaction from Russia.
There is evidence that proves the incident. Swedish activists presented a video recording of the flight, there is evidence from local citizens and Ivanyets’ Chief of the Communal service, as well as a press release from the Lithuanian Air Forces which acknowledges a violation of their airspace on July 4. According to the Swedish activists, the duration of the flight over Belarusian territory was about an hour and a half.
However, the Belarusian State Border Committee denies the fact that Belarus’ airspace was violated. The Belarusian Ministry of Defense issued a statement saying that the video and photos of the flight were crude fakes. Such a restrained stance of the Belarusian law enforcement agencies is explained by at least three factors.
Firstly, the commanders of the Air Force and Air Defense Forces are unwilling to acknowledge their mistake, especially after the national holiday on July 3, Independence Day, during which the special honour is given to the military forces (the incident occurred the morning after the holiday).
Secondly, commanders of Belarus’ Air Force and Air Defense Forces have been changed twice in the last eighteen months. To acknowledge such a grave mistake would lead to the recently appointed officers being dismissed.
Finally, on July 5, President Lukashenko took part in the commencement of the Faculty of General Staff of the Armed Forces Academy of Belarus, where he personally handed the diplomas and awards to graduates, among whom were also soldiers from Russia and Kazakhstan.
Even if Belarusian military officials have not found the courage to report Lukashenko about the incident, he has reasons not to give any comment on the mistake of the Belarusian air defense system which is a part of Russia and Belarus’ joint regional air defense system.
However, the growth of media publicity, especially from the Russian media (on July 5, the First Russian federal TV channel released a news story) may force the president’s entourage to take some action.
In this case the President will be forced to make decisions in a fairly narrow framework and to choose between the two conventional ways: traditional or modernization.
The traditional way implies finding and punishing the guilty parties, but this choice is complicated by the high volatility in the Ministry of Defense personnel. In November 2011, the former commander of the Air Force and Air Defense of Belarus Igor Azarenok was sentenced to 9.5 years of imprisonment for bribery . In February 2012, Azarenok’s successor in office Major-General Sergei Lemeshevsky was discharged for discrediting the military ranks. A current commander Major-General Pakhmelkin has been in office for less than a year. Such a high staff turnover has a negative impact on work of the Defense Ministry in general and military capabilities of the air defense system in particular. Therefore, President Lukashenko is hardly interested in continuing such rigid personnel policies.
A second way, namely of modernization, accounts for the acknowledgement of the mistake and modernization of Belarus’ air defense system. Although it is quite up-to-date, it is not capable of tracking targets flying lower than 20-30 meters above the ground. According to some military experts, the solution to the problem would be to introduce a new radar system such as \"Rosa RB,\" which can detect targets at a height of several meters above the ground. This path is painful for the Belarusian authorities, who view any recognition of their mistakes as a sign of weakness.
As a result, the Belarusian authorities prefer to avoid deciding how to respond. They continue to keep silent about the incident. The Belarusian authorities might be forced to take action in the near future if Russia reacts to the incident. If the attention from the media or Russia’s law enforcement agencies increases, Belarus will have to respond. A decline in attention will most likely allow the issue to drift; several officials from the Ministry of Defense might be dismissed without attracting public attention.
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.