With MLRS Polonaise Minsk has more room for manoeuvre
Initially, MLRS Polonaise has been developed in order to replace Soviet missile legacy. As a result, Belarus has a missile system, which is technically completely independent from co-operation with post-Soviet countries. This explains its political and symbolic significance and expands foreign manoeuvre opportunities for Belarus.
Last week, the state media informed that Belarus introduced into service the heavy multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) Polonaise and supplied the first batch to the army. The weapon was designed for precision striking against ground targets at ranges from 50 to 200 km.
In the mid-2000s, at the peak of their financial capacity the Belarusian authorities decided about weapon upgrades. By then, the storage deadline for the tactical missile complex Tochka-U, inherited from the Soviet Union, had almost expired. Russia then refused to supply new tactical missile to Belarus, which prompted her to seek technical assistance in China. Polonaise came as a result of Sino-Belarusian cooperation.
It is worth noting that Polonaise is not something revolutionary: with China’s technical assistance, Turkey and Thailand have launched the production of heavy MLRS. Yet Polonaise is one of the most modern MRLs in the class and has some characteristic close to the tactical ballistic missile.
It has been an ongoing trend for many Belarusian neighbours to supply their armies with ballistic missiles for ground strikes. For example, Russia has 9K720 Iskander, Ukraine is at an advanced stage of developing the ballistic missile Grim, Poland purchased the Norwegian NSM and the American AGM-158 JASSM air-land cruise missiles. All of the above weapons have / will have a range greater than 200 km.
Minsk has weapons of strategic deterrence at its disposal, which to some extent widens the field for political manoeuvring, as it increases Belarus’ ability to sustain possible external pressure. Highly mobile heavy MLRS may be used in any direction, depending on where the threat comes from. The MLRS Polonaise is one of the few weapons in the Belarusian army, which do not require Russian maintenance. However, they require Chinese services in terms of missiles supply (or their main parts). Due to the need to achieve a strategic parity with the neighbours, the Belarusian army requires ballistic missile systems capable to strike at distances over 200 km.
Over the past year, military-political relations between Minsk and Kyiv have become complicated. Due to their high inertia and peculiarities, this downward trend would be extremely difficult to overcome.
The root cause of the crisis is the absence of a common political agenda in the Belarusian-Ukrainian relations. Minsk is looking for a market for Belarusian exports in Ukraine and offers its services as a negotiation platform for the settlement of the Russo-Ukrainian war, thereby hoping to avoid political issues in the dialogue with Kiev. Meanwhile, Ukraine is hoping for political support from Minsk in the confrontation with Moscow. In addition, Ukraine’s integration with NATO presupposes her common position with the Alliance in relation to Belarus. The NATO leadership regards the Belarusian Armed Forces as an integral part of the Russian military machine in the western strategic front (the Baltic states and Poland). In addition, the ongoing military reform in Ukraine envisages a reduction in the number of generals and the domestic political struggle makes some Ukrainian top military leaders targets in politically motivated attacks.
Hence, the criticism of Belarus coming from Ukrainian military leadership is dictated primarily by internal and external political considerations, as well as by the need to protect the interests of generals, and only then by facts.
For instance, initially, the Ukrainian military leadership made statements about 100,000 Russian servicemen allegedly taking part in the Russo-Belarusian military drill West-2017. Then the exercises were labelled quazi-open and military observers from Ukraine refused to provide their assessment, which caused a negative reaction in Minsk. Further, without citing specific facts, it was stated that Russia was building up its military presence in Belarus.
Apparently, the Belarusian and Ukrainian Defence Ministries have entangled in a confrontational spiral (on the level of rhetoric). Moreover, only a small part of the overly hidden process has been disclosed. That said, third states are very likely to take advantage of the situation (or have already done so). This is not only about Russia.
The Belarusian Defence Ministry officials are restrained in assessing their Ukrainian counterparts. However, such a restraint is not enough. Current military-political relations between Belarus and Ukraine are unlikely to stabilise without the intervention of both presidents.