Belarus plays an integral part in Russian military thinking and organization when it comes to the defence of the country’s Western borders, specifically the Western strategic direction, and what is sometimes referred to as the ‘Smolensk Gate’ to the Moscow oblast. The country is a buffer state, part of a Russian strategy of extended defence. It is also the locus of Russian military concerns, where a realistic road to war scenario exists which could bring Russia into conflict with NATO. Today, Moscow seeks to retain a degree of permanent military presence in Belarus, and to establish the ability to coordinate with a Belarusian regional combat grouping of forces (RGF). In the event of conflict, these can serve as an operational grouping within a broader military effort led by the Western Military District’s Joint Strategic Command (JSC).

For years Belarus has played a two-level game, positioning itself as a reluctant ally, seeking to extract rents without giving up too much of its sovereignty in exchange. There are numerous agreements governing military cooperation between the two states, from the use of a radar facility in southwestern Belarus, to a joint regional air defence system (2009), to special arrangements for collaboration during a time of imminent threat (or a threatened period of war). These of course have been subject to the endless machinations and two-level games between Minsk and Moscow. However, Russia conducts regular exercises with Belarusian forces, and hosts their officers in Russian military academies. The most prominent of these had been Union Shield, alternating between Russia and Belarus, and the Zapad series of strategic command staff exercises. There are also Trilateral exercises, such as Slavic Brotherhood which includes Serbia, and events under the auspices of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

Changes to the state of play

Since the political crisis in Belarus, the Lukashenko regime has few options or partners besides Moscow, and is in regime survival mode. Russia has often used the back and forth haggling with Lukashenko to try and extract a military base, even though it appeared to have access to Baranvichy airbase, and in the past had stored aircraft there. However, the dance over whether Moscow will get an airbase in Belarus has been overcome by certain events. Russia and Belarus now regularly hold joint tactical drills, for example the March 2021 drills at Osipovichsky and Ulyanovsk. These feature paratroopers and Belarusian special forces. The unit selection is unsurprising, since Russia’s Airborne troops are in the lead and are the most likely to intervene in Belarus first. Some exercises have begun to test combined Russian-Belarusian battalions, demonstrating further plans for integration at the tactical level.

A significant number of Belarusian units have been rotating through Russian training ranges for exercises, suggesting that Russia is investing much more intensely in supporting Belarusian levels of readiness, and interoperability with those forces. Russia has also agreed with Belarus to establish three permanent joint training centres, two of them in Russia (Kaliningrad, Nizhny Novgorod), and one in Grodno, Belarus. The latter is significant, since it will permit a more permanent Russian presence in Belarus, on the Polish border, and the ability to rotate forces through the country. Such agreements create the legal basis for Russian military presence, rotation, and upload capacity, which can prove significant in a crisis (as was demonstrated in Crimea in February 2014). The main thrust of these efforts is to establish a small deterrent force in Belarus, develop practical interoperability with Belarusian forces at tactical levels which would allow Russian units to reinforce them in a crisis, and further integrate a regional grouping of forces (Belarusian military) into the Western Military District’s planning.

Figure 7
Disposition of Russian forces in the Western Military District.[106]
Disposition of Russian forces in the Western Military District.

At the Russian end of the equation, force structure continues to expand in the Western Military District, with conversions from brigades to divisions taking place both north and south (see figure 7). The 11th Army Corps in Kaliningrad now fields a restored 18th Motor Rifle Division. This unit will take a while to man; converting from a brigade (~3500 men) to a division of 8,500 is not a quick process. Yet the overall force expansion will feature going from fielding six motor rifle battalions to ten, and from the currently deployed two tank battalions to six in total. There will also be a substantial addition of artillery to fill out the division’s manoeuvre battalions, and artillery regiment. Kaliningrad has been receiving major upgrades since 2013 to air defence, tactical aviation, the missile brigade, rocket artillery units, and coastal defence cruise missile batteries.

Supporting on the other side of Belarus, Russia has continued to expand the 20th Combined Arms Army (CAA). The 144th Division (part of the 20th CAA) is substantially under strength, but is growing. This division is headquartered near the Belarusian border in Yelnya, with two regiments positioned further south in Klintsy/Zaymishche. They are positioned to move into Belarus or northern Ukraine at short notice, backing them is the much larger firepower of the First Guards Tank Army. Associated units include Spetsnaz brigades and VDV airborne units, which once again feature armored battalions, and increased artillery support. Thus, Russia has the military power to quickly deploy into Belarus and hold ground lines of communication for follow-on forces.

Figure 8
Disposition of the 20 th Combined Arms Army[107]
Disposition of the 20th Combined Arms Army

Strategy, doctrine, and operations

Russian military doctrine has historically been divided into a socio-political and military-technical component. Hence there can be some confusion when Russian leaders reference the doctrine as containing a defensive character, but they are correct in terms of its political orientation. The military-technical elements are a different story. Russia’s current military strategy is called ‘active defence,’ although it is in fact an evolved and refined version of the late Soviet military’s strategy by the same name. There are several pillars worth discussing.

First, the strategy is characterized as defensive because it does not feature a strategic offensive in the initial period of war, and because conceptually the Russian military does not believe territory to be the centre of gravity in the fight. This is a perspective inherited from deliberations in the latter years of the Cold War, when the USSR adopted a defensive military doctrine, and the Soviet General Staff began to adapt operational concepts, missions, and tasks. In Russian military thinking, the war is principally to be fought from Russian or allied (Belarus) territory, and strikes to be conducted from territory already held. This is a significant departure, because during much of the Cold War, the strategy called for displacing the conflict into an opponent’s territory. That said, Russian operational concepts are both offensive and defensive in nature, and there is a consensus that no such distinction exists any longer in strategic operational concepts. For example, the strategic aerospace operation involves an offensive strike component, suppressing and disorganizing the strike, and deflecting an opponent’s aerospace attack. The preferential Russian terms are parry and deflect, not defend.

There are two elements to the term ‘active.’ The first is a set of preventive measures that Russian forces intend to take to neutralize an emerging threat, and manage escalation. For example, in the event of hostilities between Belarus and its neighbour, Russian forces will deploy to deter other countries from entering the conflict and seek to prevent it from escalating. Such steps range from raising forces on alert, deploying ready formations, testing advanced weapons, conducting visible exercises to intimidate an opponent and demonstrate that they would suffer unacceptable consequences in a military conflict. The first phase consists of demonstrative acts and threats.

Moving further along the conflict spiral, Russia’s concept of deterrence through the limited use of force involves calibrated forms of escalation, namely single or grouped strikes with conventional weapons against an adversary’s critically important objects. This is intended to be iterative, and have a stunning effect, by inflicting ‘deterrent damage’ to the opponent (a subjective level of damage). These are escalation management approaches, but essential in Russian thinking to avoid surprise, and to give the military a clear role during a period of heightened confrontation or undeclared war.

The second element deals with actual warfighting in the theatre of military operations. Here the term ‘active’ indicates the sustained engagement of an opponent through operational depths and across the theatre. Since military capabilities can engage critically important objects in depth from the outset of a war, the initial period is decisive, and there is no reason why the conflict would be artificially constrained to the geographical boundaries within which it arose. Indeed, this is what the strategic command-staff exercise “Zapad” simulates. The Russian military spends the first three days conducting defensive manoeuvres, deflecting an aerospace attack, and deploying quick reaction forces to blunt an opponent. The scenario is typically a coalition intervention in Belarus, led by Poland and Lithuania, but backed by the United States. The conflagration escalates from a local to a regional war. The second half of the exercise involves a substantial counter-attack, degrading the opponent with firepower and strikes, then restoring the status quo antebellum (or pursuing follow-on political objectives). Belarus is the centrepiece of these exercises, in which Russian airborne and other elite infantry deploy to blunt a supposed intervention in the country, and hold the flanks, while the rest of the Russian military force generates to move into the battlespace.

Figure 9
Map of the 2017 Zapad scenario from the official presentation by Major-General Oleg Belokonev.[108]
Map of the 2017 Zapad scenario from the official presentation by Major-General Oleg Belokonev.

Looking at the general tenets of Russia’s approach to war, there is an assumption that conflicts are not won by fighting over territory, but by the successful destruction of an opponent’s ability or will to sustain the fight at the operational and strategic levels. The logic is therefore to emphasize destroying critically important objects from the outset of the war, and disorganizing an opponent’s campaign. This devalues the land domain, and positional defence, in favour of a fluid battlefield, manoeuvre warfare, firepower and strikes. Thus, there is no strategy premised on the denial prowess of Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD), or other forms of positional defence, instead featuring manoeuvre, and sustained counter-attack. Belarus offers that space for a meeting engagement with a NATO member coalition, the ability to conduct defensive manoeuvre and counter-attack without allowing enemy forces onto Russian territory. In many respects it is Russia’s version of a preferred war with NATO, originating on a third party’s territory, with available allied forces, and the ability to deploy Russian forces on both sides of the conflict space.

Figure 10
Map illustrating rotary aviation and strike support in a hypothetical scenario with Russian forces deployed on either side of the Suwalki gap. Source: V.V. Aristov et al.[109]
Map illustrating rotary aviation and strike support in a hypothetical scenario with Russian forces deployed on either side of the Suwalki gap. Source: V.V. Aristov et al.

Looking more narrowly at specific operational directions or sectors, the Russian military can use Belarus to interdict force flow into the Baltics, and retain substantial freedom of manoeuvre, without having to heavily occupy the Suwalki gap. Reconnaissance or airborne units are sufficient, with artillery and strike support. Interestingly, Grodno would be an anchor point here. Although this is not indicative of Russian plans for an offensive, recalling that in Russian military constructs they are the defending side, responding to a NATO coalition intervening in Belarus. Nonetheless, a Belarusian regional grouping of forces, if integrated into the Western Military District’s joint command structures, would provide a useful operational level formation in support, and could pin NATO coalition forces. Naturally, they would be far more useful if tactical formations were reinforced by Russian units, and command-control could be directly aligned in that manner. Therefore, the Russian end goal would be to further develop Belarus as an integral element of its planning around the Western strategic direction.

Michael Kofman serves as the Director of the Russia Studies Program at the CNA Corporation and a Fellow at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, D.C.
Konrad Muzyka and Rochan Consulting, “Russian Forces in the Western Military District,” CNA, June 2021.
As retrieved from Dzianis Melyantsoul, “ZAPAD-2017 : THE CASE OF "VEYSHNORIA",” SciencesPo, September 2017.
V.V. Aristov, V.I. Kovalev, V.V. Belonozhkin, and S.V. Mitrofanova, “Metodika ocenki jeffektivnosti vypolnenija ognevyh zadach podrazdelenijami armejskoj aviacii v temnoe vremja sutok s uchetom meteorologicheskih uslovij,” Vozdushno-kosmicheskie sily. Teorija i praktika, no. 12 (December 2019): 11-19.