In the last few days, reports started surfacing on Twitter showing the alleged movement of Russian National Guard units into Belarus. At the very least this indicates Russian increasing role in the Belarusian political crisis (as “peacemakers”) and at the very worst setting the stage for an invasion. Whereas deployment of some internal service personnel into Belarus cannot be excluded, Russia is presently highly unlikely to ‘go in’ with its armed personnel, let alone to repeat the Crimea/Ukraine scenario. Here are a few loose thoughts why:
- Russia has no good options in Belarus and deploying combat troops would be the worst choice of all. It would antagonize large parts of Belarusian society, introduce further sanctions, and force Moscow to sustain the Belarusian economy. All of those things are now unaffordable. On top of that, what would these forces do? Shoot at people? Maintain curfew? Belarus possesses an effective security apparatus (as already evidenced) to perform such actions on its own.
- Crimea in 2014 presented Russia with a great opportunity. The regime was crumbling, the armed forces were temporarily ineffective. There was an element of strategic surprise in Russian operations as well. Now many analysts seem to predict a Russian invasion (even Francis Fukuyama) as if everyone was reading for it. This alone is one of the reasons why it will not happen.
- The Crimea scenario will be repeated neither in Belarus nor the Baltic States nor anywhere else.
- Belarus is some nine times larger than Crimea. The latter also being a peninsula made it easy to cut off especially as Russia messaged its ability to further escalate the situation. Russia would, therefore, need to prepare for the worst possible outcome of its military operation, such as counterinsurgency, even if limited and short-lived. This would necessitate the deployment of a large task force, comprising everything from the National Guard to special forces. There is no indication this is now happening.
- I would also like to remind the reader about how and Russia was messaging in days leading to Crimea: “The days before Russia’s invasion of Crimea were also marked by increased military activity on a scale incomparable with anything it had done before or has since. On 26th February Russia began a ‘comprehensive readiness check’ which included units from the Western MD, the 2nd Army of the Central MD and Airborne Troops, involving a total of some 150 000 military personnel. The Russian Armed Forces also redeployed 80 helicopters to operational airfields located more than 500 km from their permanent deployment positions. It redeployed 80 vessels from the Baltic and Northern Fleets and moved forward elements of the 1st GTA’s 6th Tank Brigade. According to the press reports, 80 aircraft were involved in this exercise, supported by Il-78 air-refueling tankers to ensure round-the-clock combat duty along Russia’s borders. Air defence assets were also deployed to operational sites and put on high combat alert. All these activities, alongside the start of a Russian naval blockade of Sevastopol, were strong indications that Russia’s intent was not defensive, but offensive. Holding a readiness exercise at this particular time served several purposes. First, in a characteristic move, it allowed Russia to mask the increase in readiness of its airborne units and conceal their deployment into Crimea, which occurred on 28th February, two days after the check was announced. Second, it served as a deterrent against any possible Ukrainian military response to the military occupation of Crimea. Third, it demonstrated Russian resolve and commitment to the eventual annexation of the peninsula and showed that Russia, at least officially, was willing to escalate the conflict to protect its interests in Ukraine.” It seems that the current tempo of Russian Armed Forces exercises, even if increased, reflects activities conducted within the summer training period, nothing else.
- I have not seen many reports mentioning the extent to which Russia is already politically, economically, and militarily established in Belarus. Being a military analyst, I would like to briefly focus on the last aspect. It is not really about the two facilities Russia maintains in Belarus. It should be noted that all high-ranking Belarussian military personnel finish Russian military schools. All of them. It is a perhaps less known fact that whereas the Belarusian Minister of Defense, commanders of Western and North-Western Operational Commands are ethnic Belarusians, the Chief of General Staff and the First Deputy Minister of Defense, Major General Alexander Volfovich, was born in Kazan, Russia, to a father who originally came from Odessa and mother who was Belarusian. Father, Lieutenant Colonel of the Reserve Grigory Volfovich, seems to have been sent into Belarus sometime in the 1970s where he settled and where Alexander Volfovich acquired his education and then started his military career. There is no doubt, in my mind, that the Russian military knows very well what is going on in the Belarusian Armed Forces and whether they require military assistance in the classical sense. At the same time, the former will provide what is politically feasible and militarily needed if the time comes.
- Both parties are in contact with each other all the time. Given Russian influence on Belarusian military circles, a question that comes to my mind is about the extent to which Lukashenko controls his armed forces. One thing is to conduct a readiness check in response to threats emanating from Poland, the other is to start a conflict that can potentially include Russia.
- Lukashenko used the Wagner mercenaries before the elections to showcase external threats to Belarusian integrity, he is now using the Polish/Lithuanian/NATO threat to force Russia to act and again gather citizens’ support around his rule. It does not seem to be working.
- Both Russian and Belarusian Armed Forces are linked to each other on all levels – strategic, operational, and tactical, and they train regularly across all domains: C2, CBRN, EW, Airborne, Engineering, etc. In case of an armed attack, the main task of Belarusian Armed Forces is to maintain the defensive line until Russians reinforce with the 1st Guards Tank Army upon which the command of the Belarusian forces will be moved to the Russian commander who will be in charge of a counteroffensive (Zapad-17 scenario).
- Lastly, when assessing Russian prospects for military intervention, I like looking at those five questions (they come from a book titled Anticipating Surprise by a former CIA warning analyst Cynthia Grabo):
- Is the national leadership committed to the achievement of the objective in question?
- Is the objective potentially attainable, or the situation potentially soluble, by military means?
- Does the military capability exist, and/or does the scale of the military build-up meet doctrinal criteria for offensive action?
- Have the political options run out?
- Is the risk factor low, or at least tolerable?
Let’s translate this into the current situation.
- Is the Russian leadership committed to the achievement of the objective in question? Yes, but the objective in question does not need to be to maintain Lukashenko in power. Russian can work to facilitate a regime change that will still be friendly towards Russia or to weaken Lukashenko so much that he will be forced to deepen co-operation and integration with Russia. The question is how protesters assess deeper integration between the two countries.
- Is this objective potentially attainable, or the situation potentially soluble, by military means? Definitely not. The current ‘problem’ is political, not military.
- Does Russia have the military capability, and/or does the scale of the military build-up meet doctrinal criteria for offensive action? Yes, they do have the capability to respond within 24-48 hours using airborne and special forces. The second echelon can be formed with units now deployed near the border with Belarus (20th Combined Arms Army), but they would require around a week to prepare and start moving. That said, there is no evidence to suggest (it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist) that Russia is building up.
- Have the political options run out? That’s the key question. Russia will only intervene militarily when it has no political options to pursue to enforce its course.
- Is the risk factor low, or at least tolerable? It depends on how Belarusian citizens will react. But they are unlikely to greet Russian troops with flowers. Internationally, this could bring condemnation, further sanctions and isolation. Putin has stated that any military intervention will be undertaken under the CSTO umbrella, which will provide legitimacy for the entire operation.
Summing up, as long as Russia can influence the situation on the ground it will not invade. For more notes on how Russia goes to war, the reader can refer to this analysis of mine.
(Image taken from anna-news.info)