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Planes, Trains, and Tanks: Russia-Belarus Military Exercises Scare Neighbors
17 September, 2017
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On September 14, Russia and Belarus began joint military exercises known around the world as Zapad-2017. The drills will take place in Belarus and run until September 20. But although Zapad is officially intended for training purposes, the exercises have the two countries’ neighbors worried.

The reason is fairly straightforward: around 13,000 soldiers and and hundreds of military vehicles will take part in Zapad. This has led countries like Ukraine and the Baltic states to sound the alarm. Russia and Belarus, on the other hand, insist that the exercises are defensive in nature.

But according to Viktar Malishevsky, editor-in-chief of Belarus’ Euroradio,  Zapad-2017 is also provoking fear in Belarus. “Belarusians are afraid that the Russian contingent of troops that will enter Belarus will stay there,” he says. “It’s understandable. Everyone is afraid that it will be like in Ukraine.” People also fear that these troops will move from Belarus to neighbouring countries such as Lithuania, he adds.

Photo credit: Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation

For most ordinary Belarusian citizens, however, the military exercises have mostly been a source of jokes and scandals. But, as Malishevsky points out, they are also geopolitically detrimental for the country. “Only Belarus loses in geopolitical terms,” he says. “It seems that Belarus has to agree with Russia every time. Belarus has to justify itself because of Russia. Belarus cannot refuse Russia.”

Hromadske sat down with Viktar Malishevsky, the editor-in-chief of Belarus’ Euroradio to discuss discusses what Zapad-2017 means for Belarus and its European neighbours.

READ MORE: Why Russia And Belarus’ Upcoming Military Exercises Are Scaring Their Neighbors

What do you hear about the Zapad-2017 exercises in Belarus, are they important and what is expected from them?

They aren’t exactly important to the average Belarusian. But average Belarusians follow the scandals that begin with the exercises. Such Russian-Belarusian exercises take place every few years and they call them “Zapad.” The frequency isn’t important, but every time there are scandals surrounding these exercises.

In 2012, for example, everyone was concerned that a nuclear attack against Warsaw was being rehearsed in the exercise.

And was it rehearsed in the exercises?

No, it was a scenario that everyone feared. The exercises – and we emphasize this – are always defensive in character. This was really stressed this time, as well.

These scenarios are also very interesting. This time everyone is afraid of two things: Belarusians are afraid that the Russian contingent of troops that will enter Belarus will stay there. It’s understandable, everyone is afraid that it will be like in Ukraine. The second thing that everyone’s afraid of is that they won’t stay there and that they will go somewhere else. Somewhere west, somewhere north. Lithuania is the most concerned. It causes [concern] in Lithuania.

The exercises began with a scandal because some information was allegedly leaked that showed that on Belarusian territory there was a tender by the Russian Ministry of Defense for the delivery of military trains to Belarusian territory. And it turned out that there were several tens of thousands of them. Experts have estimated that during the exercises there will be five hundred thousand Russian soldiers on Belarusian territory. The Russian Ministry of Defense denied this. They said there was a mistake. And such mistakes, or such denials, they happen periodically, and every time they provoke a splash of emotions in Belarus and neighbouring countries. Experts even agree that maybe Russia itself provokes the discussion of these exercises, which in principle are really typical, there’s been many of them.

What do the Zapad-2017 exercises look like?

Very curious: there are three [fictional] countries, they gave them some very strange names, but only one country caught public attention in Belarus. This is Veyshnoriya, which is located in the Grodno region of Belarus. And someone is trying to launch an attack on Belarusian territory from these three “states.” But not just to seize a chunk of territory. Rather, they are some kind of terrorist organization or separatists trying to attack in order to cause conflict between the members of the [Russian-Belarusian] union state for some reason.

If we shift to the situation that’s happening in the world now, it looks like [the idea is] that some separatists or terrorist-separatist organizations have emerged and are attacking some small region of Belarus, and Belarus asks for Russia’s help in eliminating these conflicts. It’s as if Ukraine asked for Russia’s help in eliminating the Donetsk People’s Republic – [Igor] Strelkov’s separatist group and others.

That is, no one will be “fighting” against NATO in these exercises?

No, it seems they will not. Is NATO a terrorist organization? As it turns out, no. But judging by the amount of combat equipment involved, not-so-weak terrorist organizations are going to attack us.

I know that the appearance of these imaginary states has caused a lot of jokes. Tell me about how Belarusians are joking about the exercises.

The Belarusians made a very strange joke, they have suddenly taken one of the aggressors as their own. This is Veyshnoriya, which is located in the Grodno region [of Belarus]. Everyone here has already started to compare, who lives there – there’s a map of Veyshnoriya – it seems that in 2004 those who lived there voted for [Zenon] Poznyak in the elections. Poznyak was the opposition candidate, the most important opposition forces.  

Photo credit: Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation

Everyone took a look and yes, it’s on the border with Lithuania, and everyone wanted to live in Veyshnoriya, which will be the winner of these exercises. The internet has already issued Veyshnoriyan passports, everyone is actively obtaining them, signing them. It’s a type of ID, a “Veyshnoriyan Passport.” Veyshnoriya t-shirts. There are a lot of jokes. Economists are already jokingly, or perhaps not joking, discussing how we will restore the economy after the victory of Veyshnoriya in these exercises.

So it turns out that someone has already managed to do business on this story?

I don’t know about business, but everyone is hyping it.

How do ordinary citizens perceive these military exercises?

This doesn’t concern ordinary citizens strongly, it only concerns the political powers that are conducting some kind of political events when these exercises are taking place. “Russian soldiers, stay away from Belarus!” – there were [slogans] such as this. Ordinary people are only concerned in the event that someone is called up as a reservist. We have such partisans who are being called upon. There will probably be around 1,500 of such people.

Ordinary people are only concerned in terms of these jokes which are spreading on social networks. Young people are now actively joking. That’s all, nothing more.

Russia is interested in there being scandals surrounding these exercises, because if there are scandals, it draws more attention. All the scandals are linked to the fact that Russia needs to be feared – and Russia doesn’t hide the fact that it likes that: “Be afraid, just in case.”

Only Belarus loses in geopolitical terms. It seems that Belarus has to agree with Russia every time, Belarus has to justify itself because of Russia. Belarus cannot refuse Russia. And moreover, the Belarusian Ministry of Defense states, for example, that Russian troops began arriving on Belarusian territory for the exercises. If you understand that this is a scandalous topic, and if it causes a negative reaction in society...it’s better not to speak in official messages, to not throw wood on the fire. But the Ministry of Defense throws it with pleasure. At the same time, they don’t hold press conferences for journalists but briefings in which one can’t ask questions and can only hear about the nature of the exercises.  

/Interview by Yana Sedova

/Text by Eilish Hart