Recent reports that Russia and Belarus are planning to hold a record number of joint military exercises this year are more than just the obvious sign that Alexander Lukashenko is retreating deeply into the Kremlin’s embrace.
Belarus remains Russia’s most important military ally. The recently released Estonian intelligence report shows that due to its geographical location and territorial extension, Belarus is a buffer for Russia on its western border and adds depth to its western strategic direction.
The current military cooperation between Russia and Belarus has several aspects:
1. Army organization (currently presented by United Regional Air Defence System and Regional Force Grouping).
2. Regular military exercises with involvement of Russian and Belarusian armed forces (“Union Shield”, “Zapad”) and other operational and tactical drills.
3. Crucial number of high-rank Belarus military servants either of Russian origin or having studied or trained in Russian military institutions).
4. Belarusian armed forces are supplied with Russian weapons and equipment, while Belarus government provides the Russian military forces with MAZ heavy trucks on regular basis.
5. Russian military facilities that are not officially named as military bases, are situated in Belarus.
It is worth mentioning that though declarations about no Russian military bases in Belarus, the presence of Russian military servants is confirmed fact.
Russia has already two permanent military installations in Belarus: the 43rd Communications Center of the Russian Navy and a Russian Aerospace Forces Radar Station in Hantsavichy. It appears to be necessary minimum for Russian military command to support current level of military presence alongside with the opportunity to achieve full control over Belarus military forces and to establish military bases on Belarus territory should the case be.
The annual military exercises of both countries play key role in the integration process of both military forces. Russian media “Izvestia” is reporting that during the months prior to Zapad-2021, the two countries’ forces will focus on establishing “material and technical basis” for the Russian military forces to stay in Belarus for a long period of time.
It is quite important that members of the Belarusian officer corps were educated in Soviet and Russian military educational institutions, having the same training systems, service regulation, the same hierarchy of military posts and ranks. Therefore, they share similar threat perception and fundamental understanding of warfare with Russian officers. The Russian Federation and Belarus have the compulsory military services and the timeframe for military call-up is same for both countries.
The strategic significance of Belarus’ reshaping of its geostrategic posture cannot be underestimated. It could alter the entire security balance on NATO’s eastern flank. Bordering NATO members Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, Belarus plays crucial role in any Russian war strategy against the West. It would be an essential element in Moscow’s efforts to use Belarus as a foothold for troops deployment as well as for blocking air space above Suwalki Corridor and cutting off the Baltic states and Poland from the NATO.
Given all these factors it becomes quite obvious that the real Russian attempts to integrate Belarus military forces will meet immediate and appropriate respond of NATO allies.