Russia has started delivering S-300PS missile systems to Belarus

Belarus had expected deliveries of S-300 missile systems to start back in February or March, but Russia timed them to coincide with a joint defense ministry collegium meeting at which the question of establishing a united bilateral air defense system was considered once again.

Russia has started delivering S-300PS missile systems to Belarus. It’s worth noting that Minsk had expected the deliveries to start back in February or March, but Russia timed them to coincide with a joint defense ministry collegium meeting at which the question of establishing a united bilateral air defense system was considered once again.

Military union almost in place

It does indeed seem that it won’t be long before a bilateral air defense agreement is legally finalized. Belarusian Defense Minister Leonid Maltsev said that the collegium meeting in April had “resolved all questions about a joint air defense system agreement.” He added: “All we need to do now is carry out the inter-state procedures and sign the agreement.”

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov explained the benefits: “Once a joint air defense system agreement is signed, aviation will be able to cross the Russian-Belarusian border at the discretion of the joint system commander. This will be handled by professionals, with no political decisions required.”

The collegium meeting was accompanied by more political PR than any previous event of that nature. Clearly, both sides had an interest in this. The day before the meeting, an interview with Ivanov was published in “Sovetskaya Belorussiya,” the leading state newspaper of Belarus. This is noteworthy: in over five years as defense minister, Ivanov had never granted an exclusive interview to any media outlet in the CIS – only media outside the CIS. In this interview, he said: “The complicated process of establishing our Union State is currently under way. And I am satisfied to note once again that the defense ministries of both our countries are making a worthy contribution to this process.”

In Minsk, Ivanov was received by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. This was Lukashenko’s first meeting since his re-election for a third term with such a senior Russian state official, or any foreign politician at all. That is why Belarusian media registered the handshakes of their leader and the Russian Deputy Prime Minister with special diligence. In any case, observers also noticed another thing. President Lukashenko had never given anyone such frank compliments as those he gave to the guest from Moscow. After saying “we see that Russia and Belarus have a great interest in military cooperation,” Lukashenko started praising Ivanov personally: “This has been facilitated of late by your intervention and curatorship. This is evidence that you have an in-depth understanding of international events, and it is clear to us in which direction the Russian Federation is moving.” Lukashenko also thanked Ivanov “for honesty in the great support” that he “provided to Belarus in the international arena.” He promised, “Belarusians are grateful people and we will never remain indebted.”

The exact nature of Lukashenko’s promises to Ivanov remained undisclosed in their public exchange of compliments. There might be an impression that he thanked Ivanov, because his visit to Minsk seemed to mark Moscow’s recognition of Lukashenko’s third term in office. On the other hand, the Belarusian leader already obviously “worked” with Ivanov as a possible successor of Vladimir Putin after the elections of 2008.

Naturally, Lukashenko considers the issue of establishment of a joint regional group of air defense forces “very important.” He assured Ivanov that “we will constantly move in this direction while Russia is interested in such cooperation with Belarus.” According to him, Belarus “is not going to turn anywhere.” He added, “We are where there are our interests, first of all, in Russia, and we have no one closer than the Russians.”

Two or three months before this Lukashenko used expressions far from the diplomatic ones towards the Russian S-300. He was very offended that Russia did not present but sold to Belarus “these missiles removed off duty and laying under a fence now.” According to the Belarusian president, he started asking Vladimir Putin for the “unclaimed” S-300 systems back in 2002. Years were passing by but nobody hurried to pick up the missiles from under this fence. This circumstance made Lukashenko presume that they “probably decayed already.” In reality, bargaining was underway. At a certain moment, the delay in supplies made Lukashenko speak more harshly. He said that Belarus defended not only itself but also Russia and that to the west of Moscow Russia “does not have a single soldier except for the Belarusian ones.”

As a result, the relevant contract was signed last September and reports appeared saying that Moscow would reassign the S-300 to Minsk for free. These reports rouse the indignation of Lukashenko again and he said very emotionally that any free reassigning was out of the question, the market was in effect in Russia and in reality Moscow “charged us a lot of money for its rusty missiles.”

The truth is that the “rusty” missiles are being handed over to Belarus for free, and pre-export preparations, including bringing the systems to a combat ready condition, is done at Russian plants at expense of Minsk, plus transportation to the destination point. This is a commercial secret how much this has cost the Belarusian treasury. With regard to the “rust,” according to an earlier official statement of Lieutenant-General Aitech Bizhev, Deputy Commander of the Russian Air Force for the issues of the united air defense system of the CIS countries, the matter is about supplies of the absolutely new S-300PS, which have been mothballed at depots of the Russian Defense Ministry. Their overall current value is estimated at $13 million.

The shipment of the first trainload of S-300s to Minsk was accompanied by another scandal. The media reported immediately that the S-300 would not stay in Belarus for long, but would be resold to Iran through Minsk. A double hint was made: either it was Moscow that traded in arms in such a “smart” way or it was Lukashenko who “once again” wanted to profit from armament business and to add money to his secret bank accounts abroad. The misinformation was blatantly obvious, but four days before the trainload of missiles arrived in Minsk, the Russian Defense Ministry considered it necessary to deny these insinuations. This was also remarkable. The Defense Ministry released an official statement: “Supplies of the air defense missile systems to Belarus are carried out in the framework of the united air defense forces group of the newly established Union State and in accordance with the agreements the missiles cannot be supplied to any other countries.” When the air defense missile system components arrived at the destination point it was General Maltsev who called the reports “nonsense.”

Tehran did not comment on this information.

One way or another, the S-300 really is very important for establishing the unified air defense system of the two countries. According to General Bizhev, S-300 will significantly reinforce the joint air defense group in the East European theater, “The group of the air defense forces in this direction will actually be refilled with two regiments of the two-division composition, which will allow movement of the distant border of the envelope for killing of air targets by 150 kilometers in the western direction. Along with this, the envelope for detection of targets will grow approximately by 400 kilometers.” According to General Bizhev, simultaneously with the air defense missile systems Belarus will also receive two command posts. General Bizhev explains that S-300PS can attack four targets simultaneously and strike them at altitudes from 20 meters to 45 kilometers (the American counterpart, the Patriot, can attack only four air targets simultaneously).

According to our sources, the position area of the air defense missile brigade that is to receive the supplied systems is already prepared for deployment of the S-300. Incidentally, maintenance of the S-300 will require about 750 servicemen (President Alexander Lukashenko spoke about this occasionally).

Colonel Igor Azarenok, commander of the Western operational tactical command of the Air Force and Air Defense Forces of Belarus, reported that “the entire process of rearming will take approximately six months and will be accomplished in autumn of 2006.”

Taking into account the rearming Belarus will have already three brigades armed with these systems. Two Belarusian brigades have been armed with S-300 since the mid-1980s. Belarusian Defense Minister Leonid Maltsev believes that availability of such quantity of missiles of this system to the republic “will allow very dense coverage of the airspace of the country.” Confirming his presumption he has even mentioned an interesting fact, “During the war in Yugoslavia, that country asked for one division of S-300 systems – and that would have solved their problems to a large extent. We will have three brigades consisting of several divisions each.”

In this aspect political collisions of the supplies to Belarus are not only in the framework of buildup of the Union State that is suspended, like it has been stressed constantly during the visit of Ivanov to Minsk. It is necessary to bear in mind that Lukashenko has turned to Moscow for S-300 at the moment when the US has been actively preparing for the war against Iraq. Large-scale military exercises under the code name of Clear Sky were even held in the country in 2003. The exercises were organized nearly according to the scenario of development of combat operations in Iraq and the main “actors” of the exercises were Air Defense and Air Force of the republic. Lukashenko who had conflicts with Russia then about the principles of entrance of Belarus into the Union State, introduction of the common currency unit and prices of gas had serious reasons to be afraid that “in the worst-case scenario” Moscow would leave him tete-a-tete with the aggressor. At that period political attacks of the West at Belarus were very noticeable. Access of the “last dictator in Europe” (as US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice named him once) together with six other supreme officials of Belarus to Europe was barred. That is why Lukashenko urged Russia to supply the missiles.

Colonel Azarenok said, “Rearming of the brigade with S-300 will allow significant improvement of efficiency of not only Belarusian Air Force and Air Defense Forces but also the entire operational system of the air defense of the CIS in the western direction.” He emphasized that “this efficiency will grow fourfold in comparison to S-125 to be substituted with S-300.” Azarenok also explained, “If we take the air defense system in the western direction in general, its efficiency will grow by approximately 20% from rearming of the brigade with S-300. This is a very serious figure. This will incur serious changes both in combat planning and in combat use of our forces in a special period.”

This is not simply a “private opinion” of the Belarusian commander who has started receiving S-300. Mayor General Igor Antonov, former chief of staff of the air defense missile troops of the Russian Air Force, is convinced that supplies of S-300 to Belarus will strengthen not only the air defense of the republic significantly but will also noticeably improve combat capabilities of the Russian-Belarusian group of forces in the western direction. The general remarks that the Air Force and Air Defense Forces of Belarus possess practically all close-range, medium-range and long-range air defense systems, “They have S-75, S-125, S-200 and S-300 but appearance of S-300 of new improved modifications will, of course, add a much bigger efficiency to the uniform air defense system.” Antonov sees this gain in efficiency in the fact that “as a result there will be a possibility to attack efficiently not only airplanes of the enemy but also cruise missiles and even some ballistic targets.” According to him, “This will also allow achievement of a level of practically full automation of the uniform air defense system and inclusion of the Belarusian Air Defense Forces into the uniform system of automatic control at command posts.”