The Belarusian army in a nutshell
Even before Lukashenka came to power, an influential part of the Belarusian army consisted of Russian-born personnel. Due to the military policies of the USSR, people from the Russian part of the Soviet Union were the central part of military forces across its territories. After the collapse of the USSR, numerous Russian officers decided to stay in Belarus. Traditionally, such people expressed views that ideologically supported the image of the omnipotent Soviet army and dreamed of returning to the Soviet military system and, probably, even the Soviet Union itself.
When Lukashenko came to power, he addressed this demand for Sovietisation, and, in return, received loyalty and support from military elites. This combination devastated Belarusian national politics. Even now military elites in Belarus explicitly disdain national ideas and sympathize with Russia and the unification of Belarus and Russia. Numerous high-level posts in the army are occupied by people who made their careers in Russia. For example, Viktor Khrenin, the current Minister of Defense, has studied and devoted much of his life to serving in Siberia.
This Soviet-leaning component determined the Belarusian army’s leading cultural and planning direction: instead of rational thinking and analysis, following ideological dogmas and prejudices is praised.
Education – admissions and studies
The Belarusian army suffers from a severe lack of personnel. This problem is evident starting from first-level military education institutions. The reputation of the army is so low that in 2021 the results of the admission exams to study at the faculty of Air Defense were 120 out of 400 – a meager number. In addition, less than half of the devoted places in military academies are occupied, meaning that prospective students are significantly lacking.
To hide this catastrophe, in 2022, the admission statistics weren’t published at all. In addition, in the 2023 admission cycle, Belarusian Military Academy will admit around a third of its students without any competition: essentially, without any proof of academic capability.
The basis of the motivation to attend such institutions is money. Students and alummi of military academies not only receive low-interest loans and relatively competitive wages but are also obliged to serve for an extended amount of time under the threat that they will have to pay an enormous sum to compensate the government for the expenditures on their studies. In addition, military education exploits the narrative that people with a military past won’t find a place in civil life. This cultivates social anxiety, which keeps soldiers in their place.
Education – philosophy, professors, and alumni
Most professors in the Belarusian military academy are tuned to following Soviet dogmas and ideology. The official program includes only the history of WW2 on the territory of the USSR. No global or more modern examples are included, and the tactics of the 20th century are praised.
In addition, in the Belarusian military education system, knowledge or practice is not prioritized at all. What matters the most is the rituals and formal elements. For example, students can receive the highest mark if they create a nice-looking map, even if they have to falsify data to make the image pleasant. In addition, the students are assessed based on their voice while speaking, the position of their body, usage of cliché phrases, and other formal elements. In this situation, the content is wholly left out, which impressively decreases the quality of analysis and communication in Belarusian military forces.
What’s inside the Belarusian army?
According to official statistics, the number of personnel in the Belarusian army is 45,000, with a service staff included – 65,000. The military reserve is around 290,000 people, and territorial defence forces are 120,000. However, the most combat-suited structure is the Forces of Special Operations (6,000 people). Due to high financial investments, they are relatively ready for direct use in armed conflicts.
With such a small core of a functioning Belarusian army, it is hard to speak about any successful independent actions of the Belarusian military in Ukraine. If Belarus engages, it will result in catastrophic destruction. Neither quantity, quality, nor morale of Belarusian soldiers allows us to foresee anything successful in the Belarusian invasion.
Belarusian soldiers can be divided into three main groups: those who co-participated in crimes with Lukashenka, those who conform to ongoing changes, and those who support people’s protest and will refuse to obey in the case that a war with Ukraine begins.
Criminals in uniform
This group clearly understands that in case of the government changes, they feel they are at risk of being arrested for compliance with Lukashenka’s crimes. It is suspected they took part in several types of crimes, most of which were committed during and following the events of 2020.
First, during the presidential elections in Belarus, many polling stations were organized in partnership with military structures. Numerous officers used their power to make soldiers falsify the election’s results. Second, during the peaceful post-election protests, several soldiers were noted for torturing or even killing protestors. Third, Belarusian armed forces cooperated with the Russian army and gave the latter the military infrastructure to attack Ukraine.
This, the most numerous group, is observed among middle and low-level officers. These people prioritise daily life and stability. Ideologically, they appear to support neither Putin, Lukashenka, or anybody else.
This group is attracted by the army’s financial and social benefits, i.e., low-interest loans and retirement plans. They tend to ignore external perturbations and distance themselves from political processes in the country. However, there is a high probability that such people will ignore the orders of the higher military management in case of war. Again, they like military service for its conveniences, so they will avoid inconveniences at all costs.
This part of the army expresses discontent with current politics and will probably support the people in case of manifestations and disobey if a war breaks out.
With Russia in mind
The degree of Sovietization in the Belarusian army is enormous. Soviet traditions are so strong that Soviet military holidays are still especially noteworthy. In addition, military education heavily relies on Soviet practices; Belarusian military students even wear signs of Soviet military forces.
On the other side, Russia exerts its power too. The ideological pressure of pro-Russian telegram channels and ads makes the Belarusian army increasingly pro-Russian. In fact, the combination of this influence and official hate-speech rhetoric is directed to raise aggression towards Ukraine and convince Belarusian soldiers of their unity with Russia. Analysing current trends, we can assume that the Belarusian army is being groomed for the scenario when it could potentially enter the war.
Traditionally, the Belarusian army views Russian forces as its “elder brother.” The ideology of the “Russian world,” along with the better military equipment of the Russian army, compared to its Belarusian counterpart, makes the image of the Russian military very promising.
Such a relationship has resulted in autonomous actions of the Russian army in Belarus during military training predating its invasion of Ukraine. The status and position of Russian armed forces allow it to attack Ukraine from Belarusian territory without notifying the Belarusian government. During the invasion, Belarusian infrastructure was heavily used to treat Russian soldiers and train drafted men. Numerous efforts were made to recruit Belarusian generals to the Russian army, primarily by proposing exceptionally high income, associated with Russian corruption.
However, the situation could be changing. The war revealed increasing tensions and disbelief between the Russian and Belarusian armies. This is primarily caused by a discrepancy between the image of the Russian military as the second army in the world and its factual results in the war in Ukraine. Due to this, Belarusian soldiers start to question Russian possibilities, resulting in the number of people willing to join Russian aggression is decreasing. Time also works against Russian sentiment: young officers feel more Belarusian and nation-oriented. Hence they tend to criticize pro-Russian alignment in the war.
Russian military management forbids its soldiers to communicate with its Belarusian colleagues. Indeed, informal communication cannot be cut entirely, but the isolation is still significant. The situation is made even more explicit because, in case of any incidents in Belarusian cities where Russian soldiers conflict with the locals, Belarusian police try not to intervene, leaving mitigating these events to Russian structures.
Co-aggressor and servant
Belarusian involvement in the war in Ukraine shouldn’t be neither underestimated nor overestimated. Belarusian soldiers don’t directly participate in the war. Instead, Belarus provides its supplies and infrastructure to support Russian aggression. For example, the Russian army uses Belarusian hospitals and military bases to maintain its soldiers and launch aerial attacks on Ukraine.
One of the reasons for such a relatively low degree of participation is a rather realistic assessment of Belarusian forces by Russian command: they consider that the Belarusian role is more efficient in supporting the aggression not directly participating in it. This is because the Belarusian army lacks morale and funding. Due to this, the Kremlin doesn’t exert much pressure to force Lukashenko to join in the invasion.
The main function of Lukashenka is supporting, training, and supplying the Russian military, and he tries to demonstrate that it is done well. However, Belarusian participation in the war can intensify, though the most likely scenario includes political cooperation, not military.