The large-scale Russian and Belarusian military drills on Baltic borders have happened before. In light on the ongoing political crisis in Minsk, however, this time it is different, argues Gustav Gressel at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
On September 10–16, Russia and Belarus will jointly host the large-scale military manoeuvre Zapad 21, simulating a major war with NATO.
The plot is unlikely to change compared to 2009, 2013, and 2017: so called terrorists, sponsored and supported by the West, threatened the stability of the Union State and hence a combined offensive of the Russian and Belarusian armed forces need to remove the threat, ending with the occupation of Russia’s western neighbours.
Usually European debates then erupting on whether the fictional war would have involved nuclear weapons/ Western-European analyst say no, limiting their scope of analysis only to manoeuvre phase of Zapad. Those who follow Russian military manoeuvres regularly state yes, as multiple other manoeuvres – particularly that of the Northern Fleet and the Strategic Rocket Forces – are connected to Zapad, exercising the same fictional conflict, fitting into the operative plans of Zapad, but being formally run as “separate” manoeuvres in order to keep official numbers of Russian military exercises in the West low.
This time, the issue is bigger.
At a first glance, Zapad 21 seems to be bigger and better – from Moscow’s point of view – version of its predecessors. While that is true, it also reveals some of the effects of the change in Belarus geopolitical situation since August 2020.
In previous years, Belarus hosted the manoeuvres, but was much more forthcoming on confidence building measures to the West than Russia. Also the numbers of troops deployed to Belarus were within the limits of the Vienna document – larger parts of the strategic exercise took place in Russia proper however, there without limits or oversight.
While Belarus had maintained military infrastructure in excess of its units to allow Russian forces to reinforce it in crisis, they were not used over extended periods in the past.
While Belarus military had roughly followed Russia’s new look reforms – it had to in order to maintain a certain degree of interoperability – much less money and effort was put behind military modernisation.
In short, Minsk wanted to re-assure Moscow that it would remain a loyal ally, while on the other hand did not perceive the West as an active threat and would not want to worsen the prospects of closer economic ties by being a threat to it. It was part of the complex choreography of the Lukashenka regime to preserve as many political options as possible.
Now, restraints are off the window.
While the maximum number of troops exercising in Belarus is officially set with 12,800 (to avoid tougher inspections) out of which 2500 should be Russian, the actual manoeuvre within Belarus will be larger.
Konrad Muzyka’s analysis of satellite imagery showing Russian troops already deployed to Belarus also suggest that the current level already exceeds the numbers cited in official statements. Also the facilities for housing and recreation are beyond the usual, adding to speculation that some of them will stay well beyond the Zapad exercise.
In return, Belarusian troops are also moved to Russia for exercises at the same time, indicating an even closer synchronisation of drills on both sides of the border. Far from being dragged along, Lukashenko himself embraces the idea that the West – and Ukraine – are an active threat to his country (which he confuses with his personal reign) as a key feature to rally for support in Moscow.
For Lukashenko, concessions in the military realm restrict his power to a much lesser degree than the Moscow-proposed deepening of integration in the Union State. Hence one may rather expect rapid progress in the former field rather than the latter.
For NATO, this means that pre-warning time in facing a possible Russian offensive is effectively reduced.
In the past, logistical preparations and deployment of Russian troops into Belarus, activation of military infrastructure were signals indicating hostile Russian intentions – but a signal the West could read, and that would be readable for at least weeks prior to military actions.
If Russian forces would continue to use military sites in Belarus and regularly rotate formations in and out to serve them, this would create a constant clutter or movements that are much harder to read. In this situation, the alliance needs to reassess whether it can continue to “balance from a distance” relying on reserves to be brought into theatre in crisis, and even if, what consequences for readiness levels and force posture, and to be developed capabilities are to be drawn?
Particularly for the Baltic countries, but also for Ukraine, the level of military insecurity has increased.
And European hesitation “not to provoke Russia” with preventive defensive military deployment will expose them even more. However, the limits even what can be deployed within the Russia-NATO founding act have not yet been fully explored and are always relative to the current security environment.
Moscow altering this environment to the negative should not go without a response.
Finally, one needs to recur the speed of Belarusian decent from a sovereign state to the military outpost of another country.
After the outbreak of the Russian–Ukrainian war in 2014, some academics in the West thought that this could have been avoided by pushing countries of the former Soviet Union into a being neutral buffer states: militarily neutral, and economically not aligned.
Stability was preferred over democracy and self-determination, and back then, Belarus seemed a more “stable” option than Ukraine. Hence instead of “pulling” Ukraine to the West (which in fact was only the Ukrainian people’s desire to oust their then president), the West should not engage, even if that meant greater exposure to Moscow.
In light of what happens in Belarus – not only in terms of military affairs, but also its domestic politics – and the pace to which the Belarusian multivectoring collapsed and Moscow tightened its grip on the country, it is obvious how dangerously naive these proposals were.
And Zapad-21 may also remind us that Moscow will not be satisfied to “just” own Belarus, it will – and is – immediately pushing the perimeter to “secure” Belarus by “defending” it further to the West.
Instead of perpetually seeking for a golden treaty that would ensure European security, Zapad 21 should serve as another reminder that security can only be achieved by a credible deterrence.
Gustav Gressel is a senior policy fellow with the Wider Europe Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Berlin office. His topics of focus include Russia, Eastern Europe, and defense policy.