The official start of the joint Belarusian-Russian military exercise is just 3 days off. ‘Zapad’ is staged in our territory every 4 years, but after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and sending hybrid troops to Donbas, the upcoming war game gives rise to concerns among Belarusians and our neighbours.
The Russians, who participated in the military operations in Ukraine, seem to have made themselves at home in Belarus.
Activist Natallya Harachka spotted and filmed ‘little green men’ at a training ground near Barysau as far back as September, 1. Interestingly, the Russians told her that the military exercise was ‘in progress’ at that moment. The Russian military detained the Belarusian citizen and took her to the police. The woman, who was of using foul language, had to spend three days in jail.
According to the legend, the Russian-Belarusian group will ‘fight ‘against a fictional rebellious country Veyshnoryia which is situated in Belarus’ Hrodna region. It is supported by ‘Lubeniya’ and ‘Vesbaryia’. Looking at the improvised map, one can mix up ‘Lubeniya’ with present-day Poland. ‘Vesbaryia’ is placed where Lithuania is located. The military exercise is reported to be defensive.
“We should stop making excuses saying that the exercise is defensive and so on! We have an army, a joint army group of Belarus and Russia in the western direction. And if it exists (and we have never concealed the fact), it should be trained – just in case,” Belarus president Alyaksandr Lukashenka said in early September.
In turn, Ukraine recalls a similar exercise before the Russian attack on Georgia in 2008.
Ukrainian presedent Petro Poroshenko does not rule out that under the guise of ‘strategic command and staff exercises’ new strike groups of Russian troops are created for the invasion of Ukraine.
“Seven thousand platforms with soldiers and technology are approaching or approached our borders. And, unfortunately, there are no guarantees that after the training all of them will come back from Belarus,” he stressed.
Moscow and Minsk say that the war game will only have 12,700 participants, several hundred military vehicles and fleet. But a number of NATO experts and politicians question their claim.
“I believe it is clear that we are witnessing yet another Russian demonstration of power and capabilities,” German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said at a defense ministers’ meeting in Tallinn, Estonia.
She dismissed the official numbers provided by Russia and said the true number of participants would likely be ‘over 100,000’.
Belarus invited only three NATO observers, who will see only a facade, not a real war game, says Lithuania’s former Defense Minister. Rasa Juknevičienė studied the results of ‘Zapad-2009’ and ‘Zapad- 2013’. According to her, ‘Zapad-2017’ will be of offensive character.
“Nuclear weapons will be involved in the exercise so that there will be so-called de-escalation stage of the conflict,” she believes.
In addition to improving Russia’s military preparedness and completing some intelligence tasks, the Kremlin is testing the Belarusians’ response to the presence of their troops and is carrying out information operations, Zmitser Mitskevich, an analyst at Belarus Security Blog, says.
“Their goal is to Belarus a dependent actor. The question is how our government will react to it. Correspondingly, They [Russia] are also aiming at degrading the image of Belarus and neutralizing its influence on the international scene,” the expert stresses.
So far, the authorities are losing the information battle – to be more exact, they are hardly resisting.
“Unfortunately, the integration of the Belarusian army with Russia’s armed forces is going too fast. We would like to have more sovereign neighbours,” Rasa Juknevičienė added.
According to Belsat TV sources, in some western areas of Belarus hangars for armored vehicles have been renovated at Russia’s expense. There are Russian tanks APCs as well as Russian military. It is highly likely that guests will not leave.
“Any movement in this direction would mean a complete defeat of Belarus on the world stage and would virtually eliminate it as a subject of international relations,” Zmitser Mitskevich warns.
Even if the worst-case scenario does not happen, Moscow has already managed to make a military threat to the Baltic countries, Poland and Ukraine out of Belarus.
Yaraslau Stseshyk; photo – Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters