Updated at 14:52,24-02-2021

Brothers in arms: Russia in Belarus’s new military doctrine

Paul Hansbury, BelarusDigest

On 20 July 2016 Belarus’s new military doctrine came into force. Although there was lively discussion about the contents of the new doctrine earlier this year, its text was not then public.

Early speculation focused on officials’ references to new threats including “hybrid warfare.” Even Jane’s Defence Weekly, a highly credible source of military information and analysis, interpreted this as a reference to Russia.

However, contrary to the expectations of some Western commentators, the new doctrine consolidates Belarus’s alliance with Ru­ssia and its obligations under the Collective Security Treaty.

Although the doctrine proceeds from the claim “that no one state (or coalition of states) presents itself to Belarus as an adversary,” we can infer that the main threats identified are NATO expansion and prospective regime change in Belarus.

The two may go hand-in-hand, and we should understand references to hybrid war (the term itself does not appear in the text of the doctrine) – an admixture of traditional and non-traditional methods – in this context.

There is no significant change about the origins of security threats in the new doctrine; the claimed expansion of “the spectrum of sources of military threat” is a vague formulation that signifies little. It is the nature of the threats that is perceived differently from in the past.

As Stanislaŭ Zaś, State Secretary of the Security Council, told CTV in January: “emphasis … is more on information warfare. This is one of the components of present-day hostilities.”

A more complicated security environment

This is Belarus’s third such doctrine, and it complements the military doctrine of the Union State of Belarus and Russia. Sources at the time said that the original military doctrine of 1992 advocated “armed neutrality,” the policy of not participating in any alliance during wartime. Belarus under Lukashenka never seriously contemplated armed neutrality, despite occasional remarks that Belarus will not commit troops outside its borders.

The doctrine adopted in 2002 was more compatible with Belarus’s membership since 1994 of a military alliance (the Collective Security Treaty Organisation), and its ostensible integration into a Union State with Russia. However, the European security environment changed significantly after the previous version came into force.

These changes necessitated a new doctrine. First, NATO’s 2004 enlargement brought the three Baltic states – two of which have borders with Belarus – into its fold. Secondly, Belarus’s leaders watched the “colour revolutions” in former Soviet states nervously.

Accordingly, work on the new doctrine was announced long before the annexation of Crimea and the war in Ukraine. On the one hand, the doctrine does not solely respond to recent events in Ukraine. On the other hand, regional instability gave impetus to work on the doctrine. References to “illegal armed groups,” “non-state subjects,” and “private military formations” in its pages are reactions to events in the Middle East as well as Ukraine.

The Russian threat

This does not mean no threat is perceived as originating from Russia. Despite tight military cooperation between the two states, Belarus’s military would be acting responsibly if it considers the possibility of Russian moves against Belarus.

The Belarusians do not know what discussions go on in the Kremlin; for example, details of Russia’s operation in Crimea were probably not shared with Belarus. Russia’s persistent refusal to provide Belarus with requested military equipment is consistent with efforts to minimise Belarus’s autonomy, and has left Belarus dependent on Soviet-era stock.

Moreover, in the event of a war between NATO member states and Russia, a land corridor between Russia and the semi-enclave of Kaliningrad becomes a vital strategic interest to Russia. Russia will want to ensure reliable supply lines to its military facilities in Kaliningrad. Belarus needs to think through the implications of such a conflict.

Security policy inevitably demands speculation about threats. As Viktar Šadurski, Dean of the International Relations faculty at the Belarusian State University, remarked recently: “I don’t think NATO is a direct threat to Belarus, but I could not think that Russia was a direct threat to Ukraine a few years ago.”

Whose hybrid war?

Certain Western analysts mistakenly think that all references to “hybrid warfare” imply Russia. For sure, the term hybrid warfare gained currency in the Western press against the backdrop of Ukraine, which link the concept to Russia.

However, hybrid warfare has more pedigree than this acknowledges. Debates in military circles date to at least the early 2000s. Russia has used cyber warfare and proxies in Ukraine, and is as capable (if not more so) than Western states of bringing about regime change in Belarus. However, in the Russian literature, which the Belarusian elites read, references to hybrid warfare methods are shorthand for perceived US-led tactics to bring about regime change. Hybrid warfare thus refers to the “colour revolutions” that brought down governments in the mid-2000s.

A little ambiguity in the doctrine – it does not name an enemy – serves Belarus well in this respect. It is a mistake, though, to think that Belarus is doing anything other than consolidating its military alliance with Russia. The process of consolidation includes establishing the limits of alliance commitments, and the doctrine is part of a process of ongoing negotiations with Russia.

The focus on NATO appears elsewhere in the doctrine. Although declaring that any military-political alliances ambitions for “global functions” threaten world order, this is primarily a reaction to mission creep within NATO. The relevant Article confirms this by invoking as its subject military-political organisations “to which Belarus does not belong.” Meanwhile, Belarus strives “to strengthen the status of the CSTO in the international arena.”

The Union State framework

Earlier this year Russian sources announced revisions to the military doctrine of the Union State. This will take into account and nest with both Belarus and Russia’s (December 2014) new doctrines. Both states’ national doctrines underscore the concept of strategic deterrence or containment (strategicheskoe sderzhivanie), which suggests some coordination. Indeed, Andras Racz at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs says it would be “scandalous” if Russia was not consulted on the draft.

Belarus will continue to trust Russia knowing it cannot defend itself against an attack by its ally. Russia spends more of its GDP on defence than any other major state; 5.42% in 2015 according to the International Institute of Strategic Studies’ annual Military Balance. In absolute terms this is far less than the USA spends (3.27% of GDP), but a comparison of total expenditure does not tell us very much of interest; the USA’s distant location limits the direct military threat.

No choice?

The leadership in Belarus thinks it has no alternative to alliance with Russia, because Russia would not consent to Belarus’s neutrality. The coming-into-force of an integrated air defence system covering Belarus and Russia reminds us that a break with Russia is neither imminent nor likely in the medium term.

The revised military doctrine is part of a process of consolidation and negotiation of the two states’ alliance, and reflects a security environment that greatly changed over the past fifteen years.

Paul Hansbury. Paul has degrees from the University of London and the University of Oxford. He is currently a doctoral candidate in International Relations, also at the University of Oxford.