Call them the military exercises that rocked the Eastern European world. From September 14 to 20, Russia and Belarus held the joint Zapad 2017 exercises at six training grounds in Belarus and three in Russia.
Long before the exercises began, the NATO countries of Eastern Europe as well as Ukraine repeatedly voiced concerns. Given Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and occupation of territory in its Donetsk and Luhansk regions, these Russian “little green men” were very close to the borders of Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Ukraine.
Although only 13 thousand soldiers were scheduled to take part in the exercises, NATO leaders suggest that the number was actually 70 to 100 thousand. Aware of its neighbors’ concerns, Belarus did not cancel the exercises on its territory. Rather, it simply invited observers from neighboring countries and accredited three hundred foreign journalists to cover the military maneuvers.
Hromadske was on the ground at Zapad. Here’s what the exercises looked like.
“I’ve never seen so many journalists in my life,” says Thomas Mueller, a colonel in the Swiss Armed Forces. “It’s a little scary,” he adds with a laugh.
We meet with him and a dozen of his colleagues from Norway, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine at the observation tower of the Ruzhansky training ground in western Belarus. They were invited here within the framework of the Vienna Protocol, an agreement of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), according to which member states pledged to invite observers from different countries to military exercises that involve more than 13,000 military personnel.
Photo credit: Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation
The Zapad-2017 military exercises claimed to include 12,700 soldiers, but Belarus invited foreign observers nonetheless. A few Belarusians were assigned to each group of foreign military personnel. They each have a badge on their sleeves: “escort.”
In Minsk, Hromadske journalists stay at the same hotel as the military observers. Every morning the international guests come to the hotel dining room first. Their escorts have breakfast after them. After breakfast everyone leaves for the training ground together.
If army representatives from neighboring countries were invited to five or six training grounds, journalists were only allowed to see the exercises at one of them. The Belarusian Ministry of Defense chose exactly where the media was to be taken.
“There’s never been so many journalists in the last twenty-five years that these exercises have been conducted. You understand that it’s theoretically impossible to bring all of the accredited journalists to the training ground, because it’s impossible in principle,” explains the official representative of the Belarusian Ministry of Defense, Colonel Vladimir Makarov.
Hromadske journalists were invited to visit an airfield near Ruzhany, a town in the Brest region of western Belarus — that’s four hours of travel there and back for an hour-and-a-half of work. The press are taken there in buses and immediately led to the observation tower. There, Major General Andrei Gurtsevich, Deputy Commander of the Belarusian Air Force, reads the planned air-exercises from a piece of paper. The press service informed everyone in advance that they cannot ask the General questions.
“A plane from the Aerospace Forces of the Russian Federation carried out reconnaissance,” one of the soldiers says into the microphone.
Photo credit: Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation
From the observation tower, forty journalists and ten international military observers look to the sky. No airplanes are visible. The sky is filled with clouds, and it’s pouring rain. But the voice over the loudspeaker insists that the planes are there.
“The allied aircraft shot down the enemy’s anti-aircraft missile system. Now you can observe the ejection of the pilots,” the voice says.
The colonel invited from Ukraine smiles silently. He promises to make an assessment of what he saw at the end of the maneuvers.
According to the exercises’ scenario, separatists from the fictional quasi-state “Veyshnoria” have seized the airfield in Ruzhany. In the very real war in Ukraine’s east, Russian forces are not only supporting the separatists, but also fighting on their side. However, in this exercise, it’s the other way around: Russian forces are helping the Belarusians beat back their attackers.
The allied forces need to “bomb” the runway so that the airfield isn’t used by fighter planes from “Veyshnoria” and “Lubenia” – countries specially invented for these maneuvers – that are “supporting” the separatists. Some four kilometers from us something explodes. Smoke can be seen from between the bushes. They’re bombing “enemy vehicles” – the voice from the loudspeaker explains. All we manage to identify are the rescue operations searching for the pilots from the damaged aircraft
The “Roaming” Division
The operation has been successfully completed. Everyone climbs back into the vehicles. Journalists did not see a single soldier taking part in the exercises — excluding the two pilots and two rescue workers two kilometers away.
“They show us the same thing they show you. We can’t decide where to go and what to watch,” says Colonel Mueller from Switzerland.
It’s forbidden to talk to participants in the exercise about the rules at other training grounds. We ask the official representative of the Ministry of Defense, Colonel Makarov.
“Please communicate with me, we have all participants in the exercises here,” he answers during the daily briefing.
Every day, journalists ask Makarov the same question: What is the total number of participants in the exercise? Every day, he repeats: 12,700 soldiers, of which around 10,000 are on Belarusian territory. 3,000 of the ones in Belarus are Russian. The remaining 2,700 are in Russia.
“It’s interesting, what will you write about when all of the soldiers return to their dislocation points?” the colonel asks the media. The Ministry of Defense has promised that the Russian allies will leave Belarus on September 30.
Earlier, there were reports that the Russian Armed Forces’ Kantemirovskaya tank division was moving into Belarus — something not in the exercises’ plan. The Belarusian General Staff couldn’t comment on this. However, the Russians denied this information within five hours.
“We trust our Belarusian colleagues. I think it will be as they promised. But we do not trust the Russians at all, and until they leave here, we will be uneasy. This Kantemirovskaya division...you know, I also served in a tank division once...where did this tank division go? It can appear anywhere,” warns Ihor Kyzym, Ukraine’s Ambassador to Belarus.
Belarusian military analyst Aleksandr Alesyn believes there may be reason to distrust Russia. He interprets the story of the “roaming” Kantemirovskaya division as an information attack by the Russians to test the reaction of both NATO troops and other neighbors. According to Alesyn, the Russians and Belarusians are training against NATO troops, and not the separatists mentioned in the “legend of Veyshnoria,” after all. And Belarus couldn’t deflect this information attack.
“The exercises demonstrated the complete inability of the Belarusian army to conduct information war,” he says. “It’s clear that [Belarusian President Alexander] Lukashenko really didn’t want these exercises, he’s trying to reconcile with Europe, to build a bridge of understanding here between the West and the East. But we are economically dependent on the Russians, and so there was no choice. Putin demonstrated that Belarus is his sphere of influence and he makes decisions here.”
“This Doesn’t Concern You”
On Belarusian state television, the Zapad-2017 exercises are far from headline news. Lukashenko himself has yet to comment on the “allied military maneuvers.” According to Alesyn, the President of Belarus is trying to present the exercises as something of little significance.
“There was more information about the ‘Slavyansk Bazaar’ festival on the news,” laughs Alesyn.
The Belarusian media is only emphasizing the unprecedented admission of journalists and observers. On state television channel Belarus 1, the Minister of Defense stated that even those “who should not have been allowed” were allowed to come observe. When asked who the minister had in mind, the official representative of the defense department replied, “Believe me, this really isn’t your concern.”
But journalists from the Baltic states are only interested in one thing: why, according to the exercise scenario, are the aggressor states (the ones that support the separatists of “Veyshnoria”) located in Lativa, Lithuania, and Poland? And are the allied forces going to these countries to defend themselves or attack?
“We, as officials, guarantee that we will not attack Poland to take back the Podlaskie Voivodeship, we will not attack Lithuania to take back Vilnius. We and our Russian brothers, we won’t attack these territories.”
Hromadske asks specifically whether, in this case, Belarus is afraid of threats from the north and the east (that is from its allies), given that the “little green men” are already on their territory?
“We don’t have any green men. Here, we have groupings of Russian contingents – our allies and strategic partners. And as for the ‘little green men,’ as soon as they appear they’ll also cease to exist.”
/Written by Nastya Stanko & Mykola Dondyuk
/Translated & Adapted by Eilish Hart