Days before Shoigu’s unheralded arrival, the seemingly healthy 64-year-old Belarusian Foreign Minister, Uladzimir Makei, Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s main point of contact with the West, passed away. Against this background, Shoigu’s sudden visit was seen by many as ominous proof that Vladimir Putin had finally pressured Lukashenka into going to war, that opponents were being removed, and that Shoigu had come to sort out the details.
How true is this, and are we really on the verge of Belarus joining the war?
First, a few details about the visit. Shoigu and his Belarusian counterpart Viktar Khrenin signed a protocol to amend a 1997 agreement on joint regional security. The details of the changes can only be guessed at, but there are clues. Belarusian Deputy Prime Minister for Industry Pyotr Parkhomchyk and Chairman of the Military-Industrial Committee Dzmitry Pantus were present at the signing. From this we can conclude that the protocol most likely deals with increasing Belarusian participation in equipping the Russian army, determining the legal basis for the stationing of troops and financial compensation for the supply of equipment, gear, and ammunition, as well as the (continuing) use of military infrastructure.
According to Belarusian military analyst Aleksandr Alesin, this may involve the transfer to Russia and resumption of production of the Belarusian-Chinese Polonez multiple launch rocket system (MLRS), which are similar in characteristics to US HIMARS, and which Russia badly needs. The only issue is that the Polonez uses Chinese-made missiles and their transfer to Russia would require Chinese consent for what appears a major breach of sanctions. Judging by the recent visits of the chairman of the Belarusian Military-Industrial Committee to Syria and Iran, Belarus is actively looking for other possible options.
After the signing, Shoigu discussed with Lukashenka the Belarusian-Russian regional grouping of troops created in October and thanked him for the training of Russian reservists in Belarus by local instructors. “This [division] already looks like a sort of army that can perform [combat] tasks,” he said, adding that from now on Russia would like more active and constructive contacts with the Belarusian defense minister and personally with Lukashenka.
In other words, the 9,000 mobilized Russian soldiers who arrived in Belarus in October have already undergone combat training, and Belarus is now required to become more involved (as Shoigu explicitly said.)
But in what way? If Russia plans to use the Belarusian bridgehead for a new attack on Ukraine from the north, this division should not just stay in Belarus, but would need to be further reinforced with heavy equipment, as Russia’s mobilized men arrived almost empty-handed. Yet the equipment has been going in the opposite direction. Belarus sent at least 94 T-72 tanks and 65,000 tons of ammunition to Russia. Only 15 Tor-M2 surface-to-air missiles have been transferred to Belarus in recent months, clearly insufficient for the new formation to reach combat readiness.
According to Ukrainian intelligence, the threat of a new attack from Belarus is still low, and the Russian forces trained in Belarus may not stay there, but may be redeployed to the Kharkiv area, whereupon any talk of a threat from Belarus becomes meaningless. Even if the Russian military remains in Belarus, the joint Belarusian-Russian regional grouping will not pose a threat until two conditions are met. First, its Russian component must be equipped with hardware. And second, Belarus must conduct mobilization, as its ground forces have at most 11,000-12,000 men, which is insufficient for an offensive operation.
While no word has yet been heard about new equipment deliveries, Belarusian preparations for a possible mobilization are in full swing. In September, on Lukashenka’s orders, a major mobilization exercise began. By the end of the year, all Belarusians liable for military service (one and a half million people) will have attended at military enlistment offices to update their records. The exercise is an extensive test of the mobilization system inspired by Russia’s dismal experience. Lukashenka has openly admitted this during his meetings with generals, urging them to take into account Russia’s mistakes.
Has Putin pressed Lukashenka to take part in the war, and did Shoigu come to settle the details? We don’t know for sure, but at this point, the answer is more likely no than yes. So far, it can only be said with certainty that the sides have agreed to increase Belarusian efforts to equip the Russian army.
And even if the answer is yes, this doesn’t make Belarusian involvement imminent. Preparations for mobilization must be completed, and the Russian military presence must be further reinforced, which in the best-case scenario cannot happen before January-February.
Otherwise, a second attempted offensive from Belarus could end in an even greater disaster than the first.
Tadeusz Giczan is a Non-resident Fellow with CEPA. He is a London-based journalist with Infopoint Media Network and a PhD candidate at University College London, School of Slavonic and East European Studies.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.