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Alongside Ukraine, Belarus has for centuries been a significant part of Russia’s own history, both as part of an ancestral empire and – in Russia’s perception – as an extension of Russia’s own security space. The political and defence ties between Belarus and Russia have gained new prominence as a result of the war in Ukraine. But a nuanced understanding of this relationship suggests that Russia’s dependence on Belarus for logistical support and training could become a weakness.
This paper examines Belarus’s military role as the provider of fundamental logistical and practical support for the Russian armed forces, without which the Russian army would struggle to function, particularly during wartime. It identifies some of the ideological, practical and political points of contention in the two countries’ security relationship and seeks to challenge prevailing wisdom that casts Belarus as the only dependent party. For now, Russia’s and Belarus’s occasionally differing threat perceptions may be temporarily consolidated around the Ukraine war, with Western sanctions – including those specifically targeting Belarus for its role as co-aggressor – obliging President Alexander Lukashenko to turn to Russia to guarantee his political future and prop up the economy. But Russia’s dependence on Belarus as a defence manufacturer and logistical provider could one day become a critical vulnerability, particularly in the event of significant political or economic change in Belarus.
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Analysis of the Belarus–Russia relationship tends to focus on Belarus’s political and financial dependence on Russia, but in defence, Russia’s reliance on Belarus for military-grade components, as well as logistical services in war and peacetime, could be an area of critical weakness for Russia, particularly in the longer-term event of regime change in Belarus.
Belarus and Russia cooperate military and politically through several platforms and agreements, of which the Union State and the Regional Group of Forces are the most significant. The Ukraine war may have aligned Lukashenko’s and Putin’s threat perceptions of NATO for now, but while defence is often framed as their closest area of cooperation, significant frictions remain between the two.
There is a high degree of interoperability between the armies at a strategic, operational and tactical level, but Belarus is not a mere military district of Russia. Belarus’s most important role in the current Ukraine war is acting as the tyl (rear) of the Russian army. Belarus performs vital functions as a logistical supplier; hosting and offering medical and practical support to Russian troops stationed on Belarusian territory and facilitating the transfer of troops and hardware around the country and into Ukrainian territory through its rail network. But frictions remain in defence, among them Belarus’s frustrations at receiving secondhand Russian weapons, Russian attempts to take over Belarusian defence–industrial manufacturers, and periodic disagreements over military–ideological training.
There are links at numerous levels, including between the Belarusian and Russian senior military command, with many officers having received training at Russian institutions, which makes the political loyalties of the Belarusian armed forces difficult to gauge. These close links are particularly stark in the defence–industrial complex. Belarus is one of the few manufacturers of some military-grade components and repair services suitable for Russian army equipment, and Russia has failed to fully replace these industries domestically – hence its decades-long efforts at ‘integrating’ the Belarusian military–industrial complex into its own, which have been resisted so far. Belarus has long been pigeonholed as a defence exporter of unfinished components, which it sells to a limited range of clients abroad, but mostly to Russia. This mutual dependence also has a great impact on Russia, aspects of which would function less efficiently without Belarus’s machine parts.
Economic pressure on Belarus, including sanctions that are isolating Belarus from the international supply chain, could have implications for Russia’s defence industry. Unless Russia gives greater support to the Belarusian economy, particularly its industrial sector, reliable supplies of components will be difficult to acquire, and are likely to impact on Russia’s ability to rearm, as well as deliver on its existing contracts as a global weapons supplier.
Research Fellow, Russian and Eurasian Security