Belarus acquires more air defense missiles

Belarus has ordered a new battery of surface-to-air Tor-M2 missiles (NATO name SA-15 Gauntlet), bringing the number to a total of five batteries, according to the Russian defense blog bmpd. The first battery was acquired in 2011, and since then the arsenal has grown steadily with the goal to end at ten batteries in 2020. The weapons are delivered as part of an agreement between Belarus and Russia about the development of military technology.

Belarus has bought the 9K332MK version of the Tor-M2, which is a short-range missile with a maximum range of 16 kilometers, a maximum altitude of 10 kilometers, and a maximum speed of 1000 m/s. Typically a battery consists of four vehicles with 8 missiles each and a command vehicle.

Air defense missiles seem to be the thing these days. Lithuania just announced the purchase of a Norwegian made air defense system, and Sweden is having an intense debate about the purchase of air defense missiles which has run into some political turmoil after the realization that the price tag is billions of SEK. Denmark is expected to equip its frigates with SM2 missiles as part of the next political defense agreement, which will give much improved air defense capabilities.

Lithuanian borders violated by Russia and Belarus in September

You would expect border guards to know where the border is. Or at least you would think that border guards had enough respect for the concept of a border to keep a safe margin if they are in doubt. But nevertheless there were two cases in September where border guards entered illegally into Lithuania.

The first incident happened on September 9 when a Russian border guard was captured near Kaliningrad. He explained that he had gotten lost, and after straying around all night he swam across a lake in search for help, unaware that he had crossed into another country. At first, Russia denied any connection with the border guard, but later admitted the work relationship. According to the Lithuanian prosecutor the border guard worked for FSB. The detainee, who admitted his guilt and was sentenced to 30 days of prison, was released on Monday.

The other incident happened a few days later and involved a Belarusian border guard who was caught on camera crossing the border. On the video two border guards are seen strolling practically on the border when one of them decides to make a quick visit to Lithuania. He returned to his own country after less than a minute.

While the first case alludes to possible espionage, the second seems more like recklessness. But nevertheless it shows a disturbing disregard of the integrity of the Lithuanian border on the part of Russian and Belarusian institutions.

In addition to these incidents on land, Lithuania also experienced a violation of its airspace during the Russian-Belarusian exercise Zapad 2017. Russia has explained that incident as a necessary maneuver to avoid bad weather.

Zapad was not a test for the West

Igor Fedyk tries to derive some conclusions about the just finished Zapad 2017 exercise in this piece called Zapad 2017: A Test for the West for Jamestown.org. I think some of his points are somewhat sensationalistic, though, and Fedyk partly falls into the trap of confusing the nature of warfare with sinister intentions on behalf of its practitioners. So let me add a few comments to some of Fedyk’s points where I think the conclusions are dubious:

Generally speaking, the military tasks accomplished within the scope of Zapad 2017 were typical for maneuvers of such scale. But at the same time, the exercise had some distinctive features. In particular, the Russian military top brass was using the joint drills to check the readiness of the Belarusian army to act under the command of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces. The exercise also included an assessment of the Belarusian Armed Forces’ compliance with Russian military standards in order to ensure their full compatibility in joint operations (Regnum, September 19). […]

In other words, within the framework of Zapad 2017—and Union Shield 2015 before it— the Russian side specifically sought to evaluate how smoothly the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation could bypass various pre-existing layers of command and control, including the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Belarus, in order to take direct command of Belarusian units. Russia’s ongoing focus on this issue is telling. It highlights the thinking in Moscow that, in the event of an offensive operation in the western strategic direction, the Russian General Staff would need to be certain that all its orders will be carried without question by Belarusian soldiers. Russian commanders also want to be sure they will not encounter any obstacles or push back from individual patriotically-minded (to their homeland) Belarusian military leaders.

In fact the ability to coordinate operations between nations is perhaps the most important aspect of any combined exercise. It makes a lot of sense that Russia and Belarus would practice the compliance of standards, and it also makes sense to subject the smaller nation to the standards of the larger. It surely is possible that the Russian General Staff would like total subordination of its Belarussian counterparts, but it is not a valid conclusion based on Read more

Lukashenko not allowed in Russia during Zapad 2017

Belarusian president Aleksandr Lukashenko will not visit the Russian part of exercise Zapad 2017. Kommersant.ru reports that Lukashenko was scheduled to appear at training sites in Russia alongside Vladimir Putin but for unknown reasons the plans have changed. Putin may still show up to spectate the exercise in Russia but Lukashenko will only observe the exercise on Belarusian training grounds.

During Zapad 2013 the two presidents appeared together in both countries but this year something is different. I guess the Russians are really serious about not allowing foreign observers to the exercise on their territory.

Rundown of the Zapad 2017 Scenario

Interesting rundown of Zapad 2017 by Anna Maria Dyner from the Polish Institute of International Affairs. It is interesting that Russia and Belarus use fictional adversaries but real geography for their own side. This seems like a good approach compared to the rather artificial scenarios you sometimes see at NATO exercises where participants end up spending unreasonable amounts of time trying to figure out the dynamics of the scenario.

This part of Dyner’s analysis is too politicized, though:

This year’s scenario shows that Belarusian military leaders, like the Russians, see NATO as the main threat. This proves there is a difference between the thinking and the military doctrine adopted in 2016 that stressed that Belarus does not treat any state as an opponent. At the same time, the exercises plan proves the weaknesses of Belarus, whose authorities, even at a rhetorical level, do not assume Belarus can defend its territory by itself and that support from Russia is crucial. It also indirectly confirms that Russia de facto holds military control over Belarus.

This kind of lightweight finger-pointing makes nobody smarter. Substitute “Poland” for “Belarus” and “USA” for “Russia”, and the same statement would make sense. If anything, this shows that the Belarusian authorities have a realistic understanding of their military circumstances.

Russia denies access for observers to Zapad 2017

Ben Hodges, the U.S. Army’s commander in Europe, accuses Russia of fiddling with the numbers in order to keep foreign observers away from the upcoming exercise Zapad 2017, according to The Baltic Times:

“The Russians had not given us a lot of reason to trust the numbers that they say. But again, the exercise hasn’t happened yet, so we don’t know what they are going to do,” Lieutenant General Ben Hodges said at a joint news conference with Lithuanian Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis in Vilnius.

Moscow says that Zapad 2017 will involve fewer than 13,000 troops, but NATO officials think that the number was artificially reduced by splitting the exercise into separate parts so as not to give wider access to observers, as required by international rules.

If more than 13,000 troops are involved, Russia and Belarus are obligated to invite observers from OSCE countries. Speculations are that as many as 60,000-100,000 Russian troops could be involved, making Zapad 2017 the largest exercise since the Cold War.

The Russian word “Zapad” means “West”, indicating that it is a geographically limited exercise in the Western part of the country. Belarus actually did invite observers to the exercise to be held on its territory (link in Estonian), but no observers were invited to oversee the simultaneous exercises that take place across Russia, which possibly involve many more troops than indicated in official statements.

The same tactics were used during Zapad 2013, where officially 10,000 troops participated but an estimated 70,000 troops actually were involved.