Lithuania is watching with unease as Russia and Belarus are gearing up for the biggest joint military exercise. The drills on Baltic borders come amid a border crisis fostered by the Minsk regime, with the threat of provocations “at its highest in four years”, according to Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis.
Zapad 2021 is kicking off on on Friday, the biggest war drills on NATO's eastern borders since Zapad 2017.
Back then, according to a tally by NATO Review, Russia deployed between 60,000 and 70,000 troops, even though it only declared 12,700 personnel.
“This will be even bigger than the previous Zapad exercise,” Lithuania's Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis has commented. “The threat of provocations is also at its highest in four years.”
Russia and Belarus assure that Zapad, which means “West” in Russian, is a strictly defensive exercise, but Lithuania's defence minister says that, just like in 2017, Russian and Belarusian troops will be practising offensive manoueuvres.
“The situation has been filled with threats, because not only are we in the middle of a pandemic, but also an irregular migration crisis,” says Defence Minister Arvydas Anušauskas.
Vilnius–Minsk relations have deteriorated significantly after last summer, when Belarusian strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko declared victory in a presidential election and unleashed a brutal crackdown on the opposition. Lithuania has been a vocal advocate in the European Union for sanctioning Belarus, eliciting threats from Lukashenko.
This summer, Lithuania experienced an unprecedented spike in irregular migrants crossing in from Belarus, and has accused the Minsk regime of orchestrating migrant smuggling as a way of pressuring the EU.
In Warsaw, too, anxieties are high as this year's Zapad will involve Russian and Belarusian troops moving closer to Polish and Ukrainian borders.
“We do not expect a decrease in tensions on the eastern border because in a few days the biggest military exercises in 40 years will start,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told a news conference earlier this week.
Addressing the Polish parliament later, he said “we are dealing with a wide-ranging political provocation. This political provocation concerns an attempt to illegally push thousands, tens of thousands of illegal migrants through Polish borders.”
Meanwhile, Anušauskas has assured that Lithuanian institutions are ready to respond to any provocations during Zapad 2021, with NATO experts assisting the country in neutralising hybrid threats.
Stoking fears in the Baltic countries and Poland is one of the goals for Russia and Belarus, he adds.
“They're putting effort into making neighbouring countries scared, inciting the atmosphere of fear, which is why they're sending many disinformation messages,” according to Anušauskas.
He adds that Lithuania monitors what is happening across its border. The country is sending several observers to the final part of Zapad 2021.
At the moment, Belarus represents a greater threat to Lithuania's security than Russia, says defence expert Darius Antanaitis.
“We have a dictator in Belarus who is interested in starting a small local conflict and elicit a response from NATO countries, Lithuania, in order to justify his inadequate actions,” he tells LRT TV.