The recent action against a civilian flight between two EU capitals has removed any remaining doubt Belarus is content to continue down the path of becoming a rogue state. There could be no clearer statement that President Lukashenka has turned his back on the West and abandoned any restraint or concern for international censure.
Since the rigged presidential election in August 2020, Lukashenka has placed all his bets on Moscow and Russia has been quick to take advantage of the military opportunities this offered. Russian troops have held demonstrative exercises showing how speedily they can be inserted by air directly from Russia onto Belarus’s borders with Poland and Lithuania – all with full cooperation from Minsk.
Closer integration between the two armed forces has seen the establishment of joint military training centres and a rolling series of exercises and, with the massive Zapad-2021 military exercise now on the horizon this coming September – the first for four years – many of the restraints Russia might have felt in what it could do with this exercise have been lifted.
Back in 2017, Europe and NATO watched in alarm when Russia and Belarus held Zapad, concerned the manoeuvres could be either cover for a permanent move of Russian troops into Belarus – as units stayed behind after the exercise was over – or it was concealing preparations for military action against one of Russia’s neighbours in the same way the Kavkaz exercise in 2008 lined up the military offensive against Georgia and snap exercises in 2014 covered movements of troops in preparation for the seizure of Crimea.
A security situation in decline
Thankfully no such moves took place but with Zapad scheduled for 10-16 September 2021, the situation in eastern Europe is radically different from 2017 and, if anything, even more fraught from a security perspective.
Four years ago Belarus was still ostensibly nurturing a fragile form of independence, maintaining a degree of willfullness in its independent foreign policy from Russia, trying to quietly grow ties with the West while not alienating President Putin, and resisting Moscow’s attempts to take over the military defence of Belarusian territory.
Persistent efforts by Moscow to secure an airbase in Belarus had been rebuffed, a notional integrated air defence system existed only on paper and, contrary to impressions, Russia’s military presence in Belarus consisted only of a missile warning radar station and a naval communications centre.
Despite close cooperation between the two armed forces, Belarus had limited appetite for joining in Russian military adventures and none at all for welcoming Russian troops on a permanent basis.
But now Europe and its allies need to watch even more carefully what is happening across the whole of Russia’s western periphery, before, during and especially after Zapad. NATO’s enhanced forward presence (eFP) in Poland and the Baltic states, set up since the last Zapad, has reduced still further the already unlikely possibility of large-scale Russian military adventurism against Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania. But this does not prevent Russia reaching for positive outcomes elsewhere.
Russia’s military buildup on the border with Ukraine in April has been largely drawn down, but leaving stocks of heavy equipment in place so that moving troops back again would be faster and easier. And the option remains once again of Russian ground forces deployed to Belarus for the exercise remaining behind when it ends, presenting Belarus’s neighbours with an entirely new set of security concerns.
Pretexts and imaginary escalations
Belarus’s neighbours are acutely aware of the threat posed by closer military integration with Russia. Belarusian defense minister Viktor Khrenin says Zapad’s scenario will be based on ‘escalation of the military and political situation’, and Belarus has already practised for imaginary escalations with unprecedented demonstrations of force on its western borders in response to supposed threats from NATO via Poland and Lithuania.
Trying to boost his own domestic support, Lukashenka has claimed Poland wants to occupy part of Belarus and that Lithuania and other countries were fomenting unrest in the west of the country. And, in September, this pretence will be easier for both Belarus and Russia to uphold because Zapad will not be the only set of military deployments under way.
Military exercises and movements in the same region are being held by NATO and the UK-led Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) so, if Russia is looking for a pretext for assertive action, it may be tempted to find one in the concurrent, but uncoordinated, military activities taking place across northern and central Europe.
The Ryanair plane incident certainly shows Belarus sees no downside in returning to the status of a pariah, and no value or hope in being at peace with the West. Whatever Russia’s role in the incident has been, Moscow will be alert to any opening to exploit Lukashenka’s new lurch away from Europe to its benefit and to improve the balance of power between itself and NATO. Both the EU and NATO need to be not only alert, but also as ready as possible with their own responses.