Russia and Belarus are actively preparing to hold large-scale military drills that will involve up to 200,000 troops, around 80 aircraft and helicopters, up to 760 pieces of military equipment, including 290 tanks, and up to 15 ships. Russian anti-aircraft missile troops have already arrived in Belarus, near the border with Poland and Lithuania, and neighboring countries fear that Moscow and Minsk could use the massive military maneuvers as a cover for invasion. But will that really happen?
The Zapad-2021 (West-2021) joint Russo-Belarusian drills will run at five training grounds and one terrain section in the Republic of Belarus, and nine practice ranges on the territory of the Russian Federation on September 10-16. In total, out of 200.000 troops, only 12.8 thousand soldiers will take part in the maneuvers on Belarusian territory, of which about 2.5 thousand are Russian military personnel, as well as 50 Kazakh soldiers and officers from the Russia-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization. Military contingents of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, India, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Serbia and Sri Lanka have been invited to participate in the Russian stage of the West-2021 exercise. In addition, the armed forces of China, Vietnam, Myanmar, Pakistan and Uzbekistan are expected to be represented by military observers.
It is virtually impossible for 12.8 thousand Russo-Belarusian troops to invade any of the Belarusian neighbors. Still, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky already started using fearmongering rhetoric saying that Russian and Belarusian armies will “exercise capturing the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, as well as large cities such as Odessa and Kharkov”. Ever since Ukraine, Russia, European mediators, and representatives of the self-proclaimed Donbass republics signed the so-called Minsk 2 ceasefire agreement in 2015, Kyiv has been announcing an “imminent” Russian invasion of Ukraine. It is worth remembering that in 2017, when Russia and Belarus held their joint Zapad exercises, the then Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said that drills might be “a smokescreen to create new Russian army assault groups to invade Ukrainian territory”. In reality, to this day, the frontline in the Donbass region in Eastern Ukraine remains unchanged. Thus, it is extremely improbable that the Zapad-2021 drills will serve as a pretext for a Russo-Belarusian invasion of Ukraine – a country that is strongly backed by the West. It is equally unlikely that Moscow and Minsk will try to provoke NATO members Lithuania and Poland.
Russia and Belarus have repeatedly stated the upcoming maneuvers are of defensive nature and are not aimed against any country. Indeed, Moscow and Minsk plan to create three training centers for joint training of military personnel in the Nizhny Novgorod and Kaliningrad regions of Russia, and also in the Grodno region of Belarus, but that still does not mean that they will try to provoke a confrontation with NATO or Ukraine. Officially, the purpose of the maneuvers is to demonstrate the determination and readiness of the countries to defend sovereignty and independence, although it is entirely possible that Moscow will use the drills to additionally strengthen its political and economic positions in Belarus.
During a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on August 20, Russian President Vladimir Putin indirectly stressed that Belarus is in Russia’s sphere of influence, and made it clear the current situation in the Eastern European country is absolutely satisfactory for Moscow. On August 23 Putin and Lukashenko discussed the Zapad-2021 drills, and they are expected to meet soon to discuss Belarus’ deeper integration into the Russia Belarus Union State. On August 17, Deputy Prime Minister of Belarus Nikolai Snopkov said that the two sides have “almost completely agreed” on the package of integration, and given that Lukashenko’s space for political maneuvers has been limited since the West imposed sanctions on Belarus, it is not improbable the Belarusian leader will eventually have to agree to additionally strengthen the nation’s ties with Russia.
After Lithuania joined anti-Belarus sanctions, and imposed restrictions on the export of Belarusian potash through Lithuanian port of Klaipeda, Minsk was forced to reorient its exports to Russian ports. The more sanctions the West imposes on Belarus, the less options Lukashenko will have, which means he may have to make significant concessions to the Kremlin in order to keep receiving loans from Russia. Moscow presently insists on common tax and customs systems, but in the foreseeable future the Kremlin’s appetite could grow and Russia could raise questions about the common currency, as well as strengthening the role of supranational bodies of the Union State.
During 2017 military drills, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko was still maneuvering between the West and Russia, and now that he is heavily dependent on the Kremlin, some analysts fear that Russia could leave its troops in Belarus after the exercises, and the Belarusian leader would not have much choice but to welcome such a decision. It is questionable, however, if Russia really plans to permanently deploy its troops to Belarus. For Moscow, at least at this point, economic integrations – especially energy policy – remain the top priority in its relations with Belarus. The Kremlin will be completely satisfied if Lukashenko signs the 28 integration documents by the end of the year. Military maneuvers are rather part of a joint media performance, and also a message to the West that Belarus will remain in the Russian geopolitical orbit.
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