Why Russia And Belarus’ Upcoming Military Exercises Are Scaring Their Neighbors
5 September, 2017

Is it offense of defense? Since Russia annexed Crimea and invaded Ukraine in 2014, Russia’s neighbors have often asked themselves this question when the country carried out military exercises. Now the question is returning.

From September 14 to 20, Russia and Belarus will hold joint military exercises known as Zapad-2017 (“West-2017” in Russian).

Russia’s neighbors, members of NATO military alliance, are concerned. These countries’ governments worry that Zapad may be a test run for Russian military aggression. But Russia and Belarus insist that the military exercises are defensive in nature.

Hromadske explains what exactly is Zapad and why Europe is concerned.

Why are these exercises taking place now? Have they been conducted before?

Since 2009, the Russian Federation and Belarus have held joint military exercises every two years. The two countries take turns hosting them. In Belarus, they are called “West.” In Russia, they are known as “Shield of the Union.” Roughly 12.5 thousand military forces — 6 thousand from Russia and 6.5 thousand from Belarus — took part in the 2009 exercises. This is approximately the same overall number that will participate in 2017, although the numbers from each country have changed.

Photo credit: Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation

During the first Zapad, several countries expressed concerns about the exercises. However, afterwards Anders Fogh Rasmussen, then Secretary General of NATO, stressed that there had been no reason to worry; the Alliance had monitored the exercises, but “didn’t consider them a source of danger.”

Where will the exercises take place?

The exercises will take place in Belarus. Although they do not begin until September 4, Russian military units have already arrived in the country. The troops will train at seven different sites – Lepel, Borisov, Losvida, Osipovichi, the Airborne and Air Defense Forces’ Ruzhany and Domanovo firing ranges, as well as one site near the village of Dretun.

How will the exercises be carried out?

Around 680 units of military vehicles and artillery will be involved in the exercises. The Atlantic Council think tank has concluded that the chosen sites in Belarus have the infrastructure necessary for a wide range of military operations.

Three sites – in Lepel, Borisov, and Osipovichi – are suitable for ground artillery exercises. The Losvida range is suited for aviation training. Ruzhany has the needed infrastructure for air force training. Domanovo is equipped for air defense trainings. And the Dretun range can be used for both aviation and land artillery exercises.

In addition, 4,162 railroad wagons will be sent from Russia to Belarus. It remains unclear exactly why they are necessary.

Who will take part in the exercises? How big will they be?

According to official information, up to 12,700 troops will participate in Zapad-2017: around 7,200 Belarusians and 3,000 Russians. It is unclear who will make up the remainder of the 12,700. According to the 2011 Vienna Document, which regulates such exercises, the presence of international observers is obligatory only when the number of soldiers exceeds 13 thousand.

But NATO states are concerned that more soldiers may come from the Russian Federation than officially announced. Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, Commander of the US Army in Europe, told Reuters in an interview that some members of the Alliance are afraid that the total number of soldiers might reach as high as 100 thousand.

Photo credit: Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation

“People are worried that it may become a ‘Trojan horse,’” Hodges said.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also believes "from past experience" that more troops will take part in Zapad-2017 than officially stated.

The Belarusian authorities say that they have invited observers from the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe, NATO, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Commonwealth of Independent States, the International Committee of the Red Cross, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia — a total of around 80 people.

Is there a reason to worry?

NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg’s current position is similar to that of his predecessor nine years ago.

"We will be watching the Zapad-2017 military exercises closely,” he said in an interview with Hromadske. “All countries have the right to train troops, but they must do it in a responsible manner and, of course, in accordance with international agreements and obligations."

According to Andrei Porotnikov, head of the Belarus Security Blog analytical project, the "information hysteria" surrounding the exercises is absolutely artificial.

Opponents of the exercises fear that Zapad-2017 will be a “one-way ticket” for Russian soldiers coming to Belarus, as Estonian Defense Minister Margus Tsahkna said this spring. But Russian officials deny that.

"...[A]fter the exercises, the troops will immediately return home. We have to prepare for winter, so why should we sit [in Belarus]?” said Aleksandr Surikov, Russia’s Ambassador to Belarus.

Who is against Zapad-2017? Why?

The Baltic states and Ukraine are among the countries most strongly opposed to these exercises.

According to Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid, Zapad-2017 will likely rehearse "a large-scale military operation against NATO." US military units have come to Estonia to prepare for Zapad-2017.

Russia could also use the exercises as an opportunity to bring thousands of Russian soldiers to Belarus, Estonia’s Tsahkna believes.

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said that the military exercises are one of the main threats to transatlantic security.

However, the Kremlin called this position "a manifestation of Russophobia".

According to analyst Andrei Porotnikov, many people want to “pour gas on the fire.”

"I do not exclude the possibility that it’s being provoked and financed by the Russian Federation,” he said. “In this manner, they are showing that the Belarusian authorities are completely helpless when it comes to security issues."

Photo credit: Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation

Ukraine also believes that the exercises may grow into aggression against all the countries that have a common border with the Russian Federation, Ukrainian Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak said.

However, during his July visit to Kyiv, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko insisted that Belarus would never serve as a springboard for aggression against Ukraine.

But no one is taking any chances. According to Lieutenant General Hodges, the United States will deploy three divisions of paratroopers — up to 600 soldiers — along the borders of the Baltic states.

/Text by Yevhen Savvateev

/Translated by Olga Kuchmagra