As stated in chapter 2, military cooperation between Minsk and Moscow has been at the forefront of bilateral relations that developed in the 1990s after both republics’ declarations of independence from the Soviet Union. Most recently, in 2018 Russia adopted a new version of the joint military doctrine in the framework of the Union State, although this document has not yet been agreed upon by Belarus.[35] In between, and ever since, military cooperation has manifested itself through various additional agreements about the use of military facilities[36], the stationing of troops and multiple exercises, either in a CSTO framework, under the flag of the Union State (the ‘Union Shield’ exercises), in an ad hoc ‘Slavic Brotherhood’ formation (including Serbia) or as part of Russian exercise cycles, such as the quadrennial ‘Zapad’ (‘West’) drills.

Military and security cooperation between Belarus and Russia has become a more salient topic since the political crisis that erupted over the Belarusian presidential elections in August 2020. Whereas in the run-up to these elections, President Lukashenko was still playing his ‘independence from Russia’ hand, immediately after the disputed polls he abruptly changed course and warned that NATO was massing troops on Belarus’s western border[37], backed by Russian assertions about NATO countries meddling in Belarusian affairs.[38] NATO’s Secretary General reciprocated, urging Russia to respect Belarus’ sovereignty.[39]

It is to be expected that security policy concerns are among all interested parties’ most pressing considerations when assessing the various scenarios in the framework of further Union State integration. At the same time, it should be noted that Western leverage in this respect, and its ability to influence developments, is limited. After all, since the early 1990s Belarus and Russia have largely aligned their foreign and security policy outlooks and morphed their Soviet-era relationship into a sustained security partnership, whose potential has only been mitigated by Minsk’s sometimes laboured efforts to demonstrate its geopolitical sovereignty. The current circumstances leave considerably less wiggle room in this respect, and Russia’s ability to determine future developments has clearly been enhanced. It is therefore of key importance to dig deeper into the position and role of Belarus within Russian security strategies and its broader concerns about the stability of its western flank. Michael Kofman analyses the role of Belarus in Russia’s military planning in more detail in his external contribution in Annex 3.

Russia’s “West” anxieties

Historically, Russian leaders have attached great strategic importance to their western borders for reasons that are not always understood by Western observers. Practically all major invasions of Russia were launched from the West, by Swedish, Polish, Lithuanian, French and German troops, time and again exposing vulnerabilities to military incursions via Europe’s northern plains – and often via the territory of contemporary Belarus. Russia, in its various administrative incarnations, has always displayed a tendency to extend its sphere of influence as far west as possible, inter alia to gain advantages of ‘strategic depth’.

By the time the Soviet Union imploded in 1991 the Russian Federation had been reduced in size to approximately its 17th century borders, and policies were aimed at retaining influence in its newly independent western neighbourhood. NATO’s subsequent eastward enlargement, including the accession of the three Baltic republics in 2004, gave new impetus to this approach. In the case of Ukraine, Russia’s most strategic ‘buffer zone’ and host to its Black Sea fleet, the policy to maintain friendly relations ran afoul and eventually Russia intervened to establish faits accomplis (the annexation of Crimea and destabilization of the eastern Donbas region) to thwart Ukraine’s ambition of integrating with the West. After this episode, and with the ensuing stalemate with regard to Ukraine, the importance of Belarus in Moscow’s strategic calculations has grown. In May 2016, Russia’s Ministry of Defence announced the formation of three new divisions in its Western Military District, two in the Voronezh and Rostov Oblasts close to Ukraine, and one in the Smolensk Oblast close to Belarus; all three permanently based units apparently created with an eye towards Ukrainian and Belarusian contingencies[40], where Moscow will want to ensure that the latter will not turn into a repeat version of the former.

The ‘NATO spectre’

In Russia’s current Military Doctrine, which dates from 2014 and is expected to be updated shortly, NATO is considered to be a ‘military risk’ (still one category below a ‘military threat’)[41]. Since the publication of this document relations have steadily deteriorated, and the National Security Strategy adopted in July 2021 depicts “the build-up of [NATO] military infrastructure near Russian borders” as a threat.[42] Therefore, what NATO says and does in the context of the crisis in Belarus is closely watched by Moscow. NATO’s responses to the crisis in and around Ukraine may be interpreted by Russian policymakers as providing clues about possible future positions with regard to developments in Belarus, even though from the 1990s onwards the Alliance’s partnership with Ukraine has differed in qualitative terms from NATO-Belarus relations.[43] After the Ukraine crisis erupted in 2014, NATO suspended its cooperation with Russia through the NATO-Russia Council, adopted a Readiness Action Plan and enhanced the NATO Response Force by establishing a Very High Readiness Joint Task Force. In 2016, the allies decided to conclude a Comprehensive Assistance Package (CAP) for Ukraine and deployed four multinational battalion-size battle groups on a rotational basis in Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as part of an ‘Enhanced Forward Presence’ deterrent posture. Since 2020, Ukraine has enjoyed the status of a NATO Enhanced Opportunities Partner. Crucially, in 2008 the Alliance decided that Ukraine will become a member of NATO.[44] Some individual allies have stepped up military aid for Ukraine, such as the U.S. under the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative.[45]

As stated above, Belarus’ relations with NATO merely extend to participation in the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (a dialogue forum bringing NATO’s 30 members and 20 partner countries together) and a modest individual cooperation programme under the Partnership for Peace. Besides, Belarus is a founding member of the CSTO and has never expressed an unequivocal interest in upgrading its partner status. The scope of the NATO-Belarus relationship is limited, especially now with the Alliance’s increasingly critical stance towards the country’s leadership[46] (including diplomatic measures such as restricting the access of Belarusian personnel to its headquarters). Therefore, it is rather NATO’s overall posture on its eastern ‘flank’ that will inform Russia’s thinking, including on how to further incorporate Belarus into its own military planning. In that sense, the upcoming edition of the joint Zapad exercises, scheduled to start this September, will be indicative of Russia’s (and Belarus’) ideas in this regard.

Let’s go West

The previous edition of Zapad in 2017 (the first to be held after the Ukraine crisis) caused considerable tensions in Western and neighbouring countries. That was because Russia toyed with troop numbers in order to circumvent notification and monitoring obligations under the so-called Vienna Document[47], a politically binding set of Confidence and Security Building Measures (CSBMs) within the framework of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).[48] The exercise also included a “Union State” victory over a fictive ‘Veyshnoriya’ which had tried to stage border incursions, as further discussed by Michael Kofman in Annex 3.[49]

Zapad 2021 will be scrutinized at least as closely as its predecessor. First, because of the continued ‘Ukraine’ factor, which has attracted renewed attention with the recent spike in cease-fire violations in the Donbas region and Russian troop concentrations on the Russo-Ukrainian border, according to Moscow in response to NATO activities.[50] Second, because the ‘Belarus’ factor is now far more topical and Minsk’s earlier reluctance to host more Russian military infrastructure may carry less weight. Some experts agree that, as always, Russia will use Zapad (in reality a whole range of various exercises put together) to evaluate combat readiness, test concepts and new technologies, train logistics and sustaining land and air operations and examine force generation and reserve system procedures. Zapad 2021 will probably yield new levels of Russian-Belarusian operational integration or even the incremental subordination of Belarusian armed forces to Russia’s Western Military District. It is expected that this year more activities will be rolled out on Belarusian territory and that Minsk, this time to a lesser extent the ‘junior partner’, will display greater ownership of Zapad than previously in terms of communications to third parties.

As far as the often debated question of ‘permanent Russian bases in Belarus’ is concerned, the forecasts are rather that Russia may want to ‘mirror’ NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence in Poland and the Baltic Republics, which means deploying troops on a ‘near permanent’ rotational basis to existing joint training facilities. With the current and growing level of operational integration and Belarus already being part of Russia’s integrated air defence system, it seems that no spectacular new institutional arrangements are in the offing, essentially because, for the time being, the evolution of the current framework already serves Russia’s immediate security purposes.[51]

To conclude, the security policy dimension of the evolving political crisis in Belarus is especially prominent, given the overall dire relations between the Russian Federation and NATO and the fact that Belarus occupies centre stage in Moscow’s strategic calculations, certainly after Moscow’s fallout with Ukraine. At the same time, military cooperation has been the most steady bilateral platform between Russia and Belarus in their post-Soviet relationship, despite intermittent efforts by Minsk to portray an independent course. In the security realm, the West’s (including NATO’s) relations with Belarus are least developed, which severely limits leverage to promote its own interests. This chapter is premised on the expectation that the political crisis in Belarus will be drawn out and that Russia will be in a position to carefully orchestrate further moves and navigate between the various integration frameworks (including the Union State) to protect its security interests – also because Lukashenko’s ‘nuisance’ potential has diminished. In more extreme scenarios, like a sudden collapse of the Lukashenko regime and/or a ‘hostile takeover’ by Russia, the equation will obviously alter dramatically, as further discussed in chapter 6.

Anna Maria Dyner, “Possible Scenarios of Russian-Belarusian Military Integration," The Polish Institute of International Affairs, 17 December 2020.
These concern the 43rd Vileika signal centre used by the Russian Navy and the Baranovichi radar station integrated with Russia’s early warning system.
Reid Standish, “As Lukashenko Turns To Geopolitics, The West Faces Learning Curve In Belarus,” Radio Free Europe, 24 August 2020.
Guy Chazan, Henry Foy, and Michael Peel, “Putin warns western leaders over ‘meddling’ in Belarus,” Financial Times, 18 August, 2020.
Michael Kofman, “Russia’s New Divisions in the West – Russia Military Analysis,” Russia Military Analysis, 7 May 2016.
“The Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation”, The Embassy of the Russian Federation to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, 29 June 2015.
O Strategii nacional'noj bezopasnosti Rossijskoj Federacii,” Ukaz Prezidenta Rossijskoj Federacii, Oficialnyj internet-portal pravovoj informacii, 2 July 2021.
Bucharest Summit Declaration,” NATO, 3 April 2008.
Aaron Mehta and Howard Altman, “US announces $125 million in military aid for Ukraine,” Defense News, 1 March 2021.
See paragraph 54, “Brussels Summit Communiqué,” NATO, 14 June 2021.
RUSI, “Zapad-2017: Why Do the Numbers Matter?,” Wiredgov, 13 September 2017.
See also Mathieu Boulègue, “Five Things to Know About the Zapad-2017 Military Exercise,” Chatham House, 25 September 2017; Keir Giles, “Russia Hit Multiple Targets with Zapad-2017,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 25 January 2018.
Cyrus Newlin, Heather A. Conley, Matthew P. Funaiole, and Joseph S. Bermudez Jr, “Unpacking the Russian Troop Buildup along Ukraine’s Border,” Center for Strategic & International Studies, 22 April 2021.
These notions are derived from a CSIS-organized discussion with Lieutenant General (Ret.) Ben Hodges and the analyst Michael Kofman: “Zapad 2021 and the Future of Russia's Force Presence in Belarus,” Center for Strategic & International Studies, 15 June 2021.