At the very first stage of planning the joint Belarus-Russia strategic drills „Zapad-2017” Minsk attempted to solve a complicated dilemma. On the one hand, it needed to hold the military maneuvers in such a way that they would not destabilize and undermine the regional security. On the other hand, these strategic drills were meant to demonstrate that Minsk fulfills its ally obligations to Kremlin in the frames of the military and political alliance with Russia.
At the same time Belarus provided the unprecedented openness and transparency in preparing, organizing and hosting the „Zapad-2017” drills. Therefore Belarus was determined not only to confirm its status of the regional stability donor, but also to distance itself from its ally that uses the large-scale military drills and sudden checks of the wartime readiness for generating and sending some „asymmetric” signals to the Western countries, especially following 2014, which marked the start of the new „cold war” between Russia and the West.
This is exactly the reason to separate the joint Belarus and Russia military drills that took place mostly on the territory of Belarus
The first task was successfully completed by Belarus, however, solving the second task, as the very course of the preparing and holding the „Zapad-2017” drills showed, presented the certain difficulties. As a result, the failed meeting between the presidents of Russia and Belarus at the final stage of the military maneuvers demonstrated the tension in the relations between the allies.. The event which was initially planned as an illustration of the unity turned into the demonstration of the diffirences and controversies.
Fears and concerns
Both preparing and hosting the „Zapad-2017” drills attracted the unprecended international attention. It was caused by the fact that starting at least from 2008 Russia instrumentalized its large-scale military maneuvers and wartime readiness checks in order to serve its geopolitical purposes. For example, the strategic drills of the Russian military forces „Caucasus-2008” were held before the outbreak of the Russian-Georgian war in August, 2008, and the sudden check of the combat readiness by the Russian forces on its border with Ukraine smoothly transformed into the annexation of the Crimea and the destabilization of the Donbas situation in 2014.
Many Western countries including Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Ukraine raised their concerns with regard to the joint drills held by Belarus and Russia being able to serve as a cover for the concocting aggression against the countries neighboring Belarus. For example, the Main Intelligence Department of the Defense Ministry of Ukraine believes that the operational order of the battlegroups in the course of „Zapad-2013” drills had the same pattern as the operational order of the battlegroups that was created and used by Russia in 2014 in the course of the „hybrid war” in the East of Ukraine.
Other concerns raised by the Western military experts were connected to Russia being able to leave its military contingent and equipment on the territory of Belarus after the drills were finished in order to create the base for the possible future conflicts with the neighboring countries. Therefore, „Zapad-2017” could become a certain „Trojan horse” for the countries of Eastern Europe.
All these fears and concerns were based on several presumptions. On the one hand, since 2015 Kremlin has demonstrated a clear strategic intention of organizing its military presence on the territory of Belarus having established an airbase there. On the other hand, Belarus is still perceived by many Western countries as a Russia’s military and political extension without its own independent foreign and military policies. On the top of that, Russia recently used the large military drills as a cover for the military surprises preparing, and Russia’s both foreign and military policies are of very unpredictable nature.
The combination of these factors pictured a rather gloomy perspective, however, did not take into account the subjectivity and security guarantees of Belarus, which were formulated by Minsk at the very start of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict in 2014, and concerned the impossibility of the territory of Belarus being used by the third countries for the aggression of the neighboring countries (from the point of view of the international law such actions would automatically put Belarus on the aggressor’s side).
Finally, the intention of Belarus to keep its regional stability and security donor status, as well as to stay aside of the military and political clashes between Russia and the West, predetermined the modest parameters and exclusively defensive scenario and thoughts behind the „Zapad-2017” drills on the territory of Belarus.
The Belarusian side started to generate rather contradictory signals that were not interpreted in the same manner by the foreign observers even at the stage of the planning. For instance, at the meeting of the Defense Ministers of the participating countries of the Treaty on Collective Security Organization in June Aleksander Lukashenko stated that the „Zapad-2017” drills will be held on a large scale and taken seriously despite the pressure with regard to the issue. On 3, July, the Independence Day of Belarus, he voiced his concerns connected to the growing militarization of the European countries, the U.S. anti-missile defense launch near the Belarusian borders, as well as its nuclear potential modernizing. Moreover, he added that Belarus, together with „brotherly Russia” will defend the borders of the Union State.
These statements were perceived by the foreign observers, first of all, in the context of the comments made by the Russian Minister of Defence Sergey Shoygu in Minsk in November, 2016 when the joint board of the defense institutions of both countries was held. Then he made a statement that the scenario of the „Zapad-2017” drills will take into consideration the NATO activity growth on the border with the Union State.
Yet the Ministry of Defense and the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Belarus clearly articulated their position, according to which they do not consider the NATO military activity (enhancing its presence with four multinational battlegroups and increasing the number of the drills at the Belarusian borders) as a direct military threat. Moreover, the President Lukashenko himself made a statement at the meeting with Michael Carpenter, the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, saying that he does not believe the USA and NATO are planning to attack Belarus or Russia.
The „Zapad-2017” drills themselves were positioned by the Belarusian side as a routine event of the military preparation for the Regional grouping of Russia and Belarus military forces, of the exclusively defensive nature without targeting the third countries, and is, first and foremost, the demonstration of the strong ties between Belarus and Russia (eng.belta.by/president/view/lukashenko-it-is-impossible-to-balance-the-situation-in-ukraine-without-the-usa-90098-2016/) and the positive dynamic of the integration processes in the frames of the Union State defense capabilities improving.
Despite the rhetorics of the Belarusian side regarding the scale of the „Zapad-2017” joint military drills with Russia, their parameters on the territory of Belarus turned out to be quite modest (almost identical to those of the „Zapad-2013” drills). According to the thoughts behind the „Zapad-2017”, their thematic content was determined as a preparing and using the military groups (forces) with the interests of providing the military security for the Union State. Today there are two of such joint groups in the frames of the Union State: the Regional Group of Forces including 65 thousand of the Armed Forces of Belarus and the 1st Guards Tank Army of the Western Command of Russia with more than 50 thousand people, as well as the United regional air defense system, uniting the air forces and the air defense forces of the Armed Forces of Belarus and the forces and means of the Aerospace Forces of Russia located in the Western direction.
It is worth mentioning that in a peaceful time these joint groups only exist on paper, which means that Russia and Belarus control their own security separately, and in order to use each other’s territories both countries need an official permit. The deployment of the forces, as well as forming the allied command takes place only in the period of the direct threat of the military aggression and at a wartime, with forming the allied command of the Regional Group of Forces taking place at the base of the Ministry of Defense and the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Belarus. It was exactly this reason due to which the Belarusian side had the leading role in planning and determining the parameters, designing and scenario of the „Zapad-2017” drills, instead of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia (even though this institution was also involved in the process), as it was delivered by some Western experts.
And even though the Regional Group of Forces and the United air defense system were mentioned in the drills, it did not mean that the entire numerous armada of the Russian Forces was planned to be deployed to the territory of Belarus. However, it was exactly this situation that provided the grounds for the suspicions of some Western experts and politicians who thought that 100 thousand of Russian contingent will be deployed on the territory of Belarus.
Finally, according to the Belarusian side, up to 12.700 soldiers and up to 680 units of the military equipment took part in the drills at seven Belarusian training areas and three Russian training areas (Luga in the Leningrad region, Strugi Krasnye in the Pskov region, Pravdinsky in the Kaliningrad region).
Out of these around 10.200 people took part in the drills on the territory of Belarus including 3.100 of the Russian soldiers; approximately 370 units of the military equipment including about 140 battle tanks; to 150 artillery units and multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS); more than 40 aircrafts and helicopters including 280 units of the Russian equipment. The rest 2.500 Russian military men took park in the „Zapad-2017” drills at three Russian training areas.
According to our data, the Russian contingent on the territory of Belarus was represented by three battalion tactical groups from the 4th Kantemir tank division and the 2nd Tamaskaya Motor Rifle division, as well as the 6th Separate Tank Brigade of the 1st Guards Tank Army of the Western Command. They arrived in Belarus already in August, prior to the drills with the military equipment including 98 main battle tanks, 104 armored combat vehicles, 32 artillery units and MLRS. The Russian aviation was represented by 27 aircrafts and helicopters (four units of SU-34, SU-24MR, MIG-29СМТ aircrafts and one airborne warning and control system aircraft A-50; four units of Mi-24, Mi-28H, Mi-35 and KA-52 helicopters). By 30, September the Russian troops participating in the „Zapad-2017” drills left the territory of Belarus.
The Belarusian contingent consisted of approximately 7.100 people, 40 tanks, 130 armored combat vehicles, 112 units of artillery and MLRS, and was represented by the subdivisions of the 120th, 11th and 19th separate mechanized brigades, 38th air assault and 103rd airborne brigades, 191st artillery group, 336th missile artillery brigade, 51st artillery and 465th missile brigades, as well as the cooperation group consisting of the employees from the Investigation Committee, the Ministry of Emergencies, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Committee for State Security and the State Border Committee. As for the Belarusian airforces, the aircraft flights of 4 units of aircrafts SU-25, Yak-130 and a helicopter Mi-8MTB-5 were used.
„The Western” vs. „the Northern”
The biggest media resonance related to the „Zapad-2017” drills was caused by the scenario of the maneuvers developed by the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Belarus, according to which Belarus together with Russia fought several fake states. It needs to be said that the Belarusian Military Department was forced to react to the active publicity, correcting the content of the further briefings for the press, some international organizations (OSCE, NATO) and the observers (all briefings were given to us from the sources in the Belarusian Military Department).
So according to the first briefing, taking into account the events happening in the countries of Northern Africa and the Middle East, the „Zapad-2017” drills basic design was based on a crisis situation appearing and escalating due to a flare-up between the states based on the national, ethnic and religious clashes and territorial claims. However, already during the second briefing the scenario became more precise: based on the events happening in the countries of the Middle East and Europe, the design included the variant of a crisis situation appearing and a conflict escalation related to a bigger acitivity of some illegal militant groups, international separatist and terroristic organizations having foreign support.
The plan determined singling out the following fighting sides: „the Western”, or the coalition of the interested states (Veishnoria, Vesbaria, Lubenia) and on the other side — „the Northern”, including the Union State of Belarus and Russia.
The fake state of Veishnoria was located in the Western part of the real territory of Belarus, while Vesbaria and Lubenia were located to the West of Veishnoria, however, their territories and the state borders were determined only nominally. Belarus was located in the Eastern part of its true territory, while a conflict zone was within the border lines of the real borders of the Republic of Belarus. It is worth mentioning that starting from „Zapad-2009” drills the territory of Belarus, according to the scenarios, has always been divided into two fake states located within the borders of the real territory border lines of Belarus.
According to „Zapad-2017” scenario, taking measures of a political, diplomatic and economic nature as well as of some information confrontation, the „Coalition of Interested States” attempted to achieve a break between the subjects of the Union State, worsen the domestic social and political environment and change the political authorities in Belarus. Moreover, Veishnoria was determined to join some regions of Belarus to its own territory. Having destabilized the situation in some border regions, however not having achieved its key goals, the „Coalition” started to prepare an open military aggression against the „Northern”. In its turn Belarus aspired to not allow the breakout of the military conflict, destabilization of the region situation, and Russia, in accordance with the incumbent rule, the regulations and its ally obligations, provided a political, financial, military and technical support. As for the Regional Group of Forces of Russia and Belarus, it started to prepare to fight the aggression.
In general the scenario description is not very different from the same one of 2013. However, there is a significant change in the military and political environment in the region and around Belarus, in particular, which needs to be taken into account. In 2013 official Minsk could have suspicions regarding Poland attempting to inspire the regime change and a color revolution in Belarus while being supported by the Western countries. However, after the breakout of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict in 2014 and the normalization of the relations between Belarus and the West such concerns no longer have a real basis. The very perception of the threats changed, ow they can come not only from the West, but from Russia as well.
Veishnoria as „DNR” analogue
What’s more, in 2016 Belarus adopted a new military doctrine, which specifically took into account the military conflict experience between Ukraine and Russia, which was expressed by its definition of a domestic military conflict. In their essence these doctrinal changes were also taken into account during the drills. And the conflict of Belarus with the fake state of Veishnoria on the Belarusian territory is in fact a domestic military conflict.
As for its genesis, strategy and tactics of a warfare with a focus on using some illegal militant groups and sabotage-reconnaissance groups Veishnoria reminds more of the separatist formations of the „Donetsk People’s Republic” („DNR”) and „Luhanks People’s Republic” („LNR”), as in fact the very scenario of the drills more likely describes the course of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict rather than presents a hypothetical variant of the conflict between Belarus and the neighboring countries. However, due to the obvious reasons the Belarusian side formed the scenario of the drills in such a way that it avoids any direct analogy and therefore does not trigger Kremlin.
There are no expected conflict situations with Belarus and the neighboring countries participating, which may be based on the territorial claims or any ethnical, religious and cultural clashes today, as well as in the medium-term perspective.
In order to emphasize the exclusively defensive nature of the drills, Belarus needed to be divided into two fake parts, one of these parts being the fake state of Veishnoria, which was heavily featured in mass media and social networks. Almost immediately there appeared several different versions on the subject of the geographical correspondence of the fake states with Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland, as well as the correlation of Veishnoria borders with the region mostly inhabited by the Belarusian Catholics and the Polish-speaking minority. However, these analogies brought on by the same sounding names of the fake states with some Baltic names, as well as the Russian interpretation of the „Zapad-2017” scenario, miss an important point.
According to the drills design, the conflict zone did not surpass the real territory of Belarus, and that means that the defense actions of Belarus and Russia after ending the conflict on the real Belarusian territory did not transform into an offensive operation against other states. Moreover, the location of seven training areas in the central part of Belarus where „Zapad-2017” took place reminded the border lines of Veishnoria. Choosing them was predetermined by the large distance between them and the state borders in order to avoid tensions in the course of the drills.
Finally, in the latest briefings of the Belarusian military officials the fake states of Veishnoria, Vesbaria and Lubenia were mentioned no more and were replaced for a fake coalition of the states named „the West”, in order to avoid instigating any additional interpretations subjected to their correspondence to Poland and the Baltic States, or „DNR” and „LNR”.
What’s more, the Deputy Minister of Defense of Russia Alexander Fomin’s briefing had more specific geographic details concerning the „Zapad-2017” drills. According to him, the design of the drills envisaged that the extremist groups aiming to carry out the terroristic acts and destabilize the situation in the Union State infiltrated the territory of Belarus and the Kaliningrad region in Russia. This way the Belarusian interpretation of the drills’ geography was questioned. The Russian version created a rather specific field for the interpretations including the conflict scenarios involving using the so-called Suwalki corridor connecting Belarus and Kaliningrad through the border territory of Lithuania and Poland.
If the origin and the warfare tactics of the fake Veishnoria reminded more of „DNR” and "„LNR”, then the Armed Forces of Belarus were going to fight it using the tactics actively used by the Russian forces during the course of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict in Donbas. To be more particular, the so-called battalion tactical groups were actively used as the main tactical element in the course of the combat action instead of the traditional battalions. Even though earlier the Belarusian military tactical art operated the notion of the „enforced battalion”, which is an analogy of a battalion task force. For example, during one drill episode a battalion task force was formed on the basis of a separate armored battalion of the 120th armored brigade team where reinforcing means were also included: a tank, a carriage motor howitzer artillery and an air defense gun, and some missile system units.
In general during the „Zapad-2017”, when fighting the illegal armed groups and the sabotage-reconnaissance groups, the Belarusian forces used a model „special reconnaissance and air reconnaissance — area and locality isolation — artillery and missile attack”, which was actively used by the Russian forces and separatist groups in Donbas in
Does it mean that now the Belarusian land forces will massively transform in the system of the battalion tactical groups according to the Russian example? It looks more like this tactic novelty need to be seen as for learning new tactical skills and modes of warfare.
For example, earlier on some Belarusian military authorities, including the Belarusian Minister of Defense Andrei Ravkov, made statements on learning the experience of the Armed Forces of Ukraine responding to the hybrid threats in Donbas. So, as they say, nothing personal, just studies.
Belarusian transparency vs. Russian „camouflage”
Despite the „Zapad-2017” being planned by Minsk as a demonstration of its ally obligations to Moscow, the Belarusian side was determined to distance itself from the aggressive foreign and military policies of its ally. More so after a new American sanction law on Russia entered into force as there was a high possibility of Kremlin reacting with a heavy metal diplomacy (according to Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russia, and his spot on expression), and holding the parallel large scale aggressive „Zapad” strategic drills on its own territory in order to send a message of being ready for the further tensions escalating. And this is exactly what actually happened.
What’s more, even before the joint Belarus-Russia drills were planned, Kremlin was going to force an escalation agenda in relations of by Minsk and the West. In particular, the tender of the Russian Ministry of Defense bore witness to the plans of delivering 4.162 railway cars with the military cargo to Belarus in 2017, which signified the plans of a large scale redeployment of the Russian forces to the territory of Belarus (approximately one motor-rifle division additionally). It is obvious that if Minsk had agreed to such a scenario, the drills would have been of a demonstratively aggressive and provocative nature aimed at the neighboring NATO countries and Ukraine.
Yet when this March Aleksander Lukashenko approved the „Zapad-2017” parameters it was clear that Belarus is not going to host these drills in the confrontational format. And in order to avoid any different miscalculations, misunderstandings and associations with the Russia’s provocative behavior on behalf of the international community, Belarus provided the unprecedented regime of transparency and openness.
All of this was done despite the fact that the „Zapad-2017” drills parameters did not exceed the allowed thresholds and limits according to the Vienna Document, 2011 on the Confidence and the Security-Building Measures. As a result, around 80 international observers from the United Nations, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, International Committee of the Red Cross, The Collective Security Treaty Organization, Commonwealth of Independent States and for the first time NATO were invited. An agreement was reached on the bilateral basis regarding inviting the observers delegations from Norway, Sweden, and Estonia.
It is obvious that such unprecedented transparency acted as an insurance in case of any provocations from the Russian side. And it turned out that it was not in vain. Despite the earlier discussed parameters of the joint drills, Russia performed a number of provocations. For instance, on the first day of the joint drills (14, September) there was a sudden statement by the Ministry of Defense of Russia, saying that a battle tank force of the 1st Tank Army in the Moscow region is alerted and taken by train to Belarus to participate in the „Zapad-2017” drills (that is the 4th Kantemir division that consists of almost 10 thousand people).
Simultaneously the Pskov, Tula and Ivanovo divisions of the Russian Airborne Troops (this is another 24 thousand people) were alerted as well. Therefore, it was only on the first day of the joint „Zapad-2017” drills that involved 34 thousand people, thus threefold increased the parameters discussed earlier as 12.700 taking part in the joint drills. It is obvious that nothing like this was previously discussed or coordinated with the Belarusian side. Moreover, our insiders indicate that Minsk could not get hold of their colleagues in Moscow to clear the situation for several hours. Our sources also state that Kremlin intentionally created an information vacuum and did not inform Aleksander Lukashenko of the Russian military movements in the Western Command at the border with Belarus. It is obvious that such steps of Moscow are the instruments of the psychological pressure on Minsk.
Therefore, since the very beginning of the joint drills Kremlin was determined to undermine trust to the Minsk position regarding the issues of transparency and openness of the drills, as well as sending a signal to the Western countries that Belarus is subject to the goals and aims of the escalation dominance strategy in its relations with the West.
The coincidence of holding the Russia’s very own parallel strategic maneuvers under the nominal name of „Zapad”, that started at the end of July and are still taking place, with joint Belarus-Russia „Zapad-2017” drills was meant to create a foreign observers’ impression that there exists a joint and united strategic design, in other words, to demonstrate the lack of the independent Belarusian foreign and military policy, which in the eyes of the Russian strategic thinkers is only an operational space for the deployment of the 1st tank army of the Western Command.
The Russian side also effectively used the frenzy around the joint Belarus-Russia drills in order to side-track the attention from its own military preparations and camouflage its preparations for the strategic maneuvers. Judging from the military activities which could be observed since the end of July in the areas of the responsibility of the Western, Southern and Central military command regions, as well as the Northern Fleet, other security institutes and services of Russia, it is possible to state that the thematic content of these maneuvers contains the aspects of forming, managing and using the joint force grouping with the interest of a multidimensional fight with an enemy placed at the European theatre of war actions. Thus it is about working out a scenario of the conflict with NATO. And the total number of the military men and institution personnel involved in the Russian „Zapad” drills can make up approximately 150 thousand people.
It is assumed that in the course of these maneuvers the provisions of the strategic deterrence, the military conflict prevention strategy and the doctrine on using the strategic and battlefield nuclear weapons are drilled, as well as the improving of the military organization of the state, the ways and the methods of using the military forces of Russia, other forces, fighting units and bodies and increasing the Russia’s mobilization readiness and the readiness of the civilian forces and means.
Among those participating are the following: the entire military and separate group troops, including the strategic missile forces, which was confirmed by the test-firing of the intercontinental ballistic missiles „Yars” (RS-24) and "Topol-M„(RS-12М) in September. Such sudden drills and tests are the elements of the so-called „nuclear diplomacy” aiming to be used as a scare tactic for the Western countries.
It is important to underline that the Belarusian side is not only not involved in the planning of these Russian maneuvers, but also is not informed of the course of their preparation and holding the maneuvers by the Russian side. Therefore it makes sense to separate the joint Russia-Belarus military drills „Zapad-2017” and the Russian parallel „Zapad” maneuvers with regard to their structure, design, scale, number and composition of the forces and means, transparency and openness.
The devaluation of special ally status
It looks like some principal differences in the Belarussian and Russian approaches to planning and hosting the „Zapad” drills served as a basis for the conflict between Minsk and Kremlin, as a result of which the meeting of Aleksander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin did not take place. It was the first time since hosting the very first joint „Zapad” drills in 2009 that the two Presidents, as well as the Commanders-In-Chief, according to the joint decision of whom, by the way, the Regional Group of Forces is formed and the plans of using it are activated, did not meet to watch the final active phase of the maneuvers, even though this ritual was performed in the course of the previous „Zapad” drills in 2009 and 2013. The absence of the Russian Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu and Valery Gerasimov, the Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia at the command-and-observation post together with Aleksander Lukashenko attracted everyone’s attention having emphasized the tensions in the relations between the two strategic allies.
All of this can signify that Moscow no longer considers Minsk its equal and special partner in providing the security of the Union State, as it was initially determined by its architecture. In general such a state of affairs has been observed since 2015 when Kremlin unilaterally made a decision to launch an airbase on the territory of Belarus without the permission of the Belarusian side. Later on in 2016 Moscow started to move the motor-rifle units to the Belarusian border, where by the end of this year a fully-fledged motor-rifle division will be deployed in the frames of the 1st Guards Tank Army.
Another one is being deployed by Kremlin right now with the 20th Guards Combined Army at the border with Ukraine at the Western Command. However, unlike Belarus, Ukraine and Russia are in fact at war. Finally, the fact of the bilateral renewal of the border control with Belarus by the Russian side can be added.
All these facts together demonstrate that the status of Belarus as the Russia’s security guarantor in the Western strategic direction is being devaluated. Kremlin no longer needs Belarus to provide security in the named direction and is moving on to providing its own security unilaterally supported by its own capabilities, however using the Belarusian side without taking into account the Belarusian interests.
The meeting between Aleksander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin that never took place symbolically confirmed this tendency. Despite demonstrating its ally obligations to Russia in the military and political spheres, which the joint military „Zapad-2017” drills were supposed to demonstrate, Kremlin continued to put some pressure on Minsk, first of all, in the economic sphere. However, judging by the tendency, this pressure can easily be applied to the other spheres as well. There is no doubt that the Kremlin’s better military and political control over Belarus using the deployment of the Russian military bases and the requirements of the further strategic concessions in the economy and the domestic policy will be one of the priorities of Russia. This scenario of the development is highly possible, especially at the backdrop of a new round of putting pressure on Russia at the end of this year and the beginning of the next one, as the USA new sanction law on Russia is coming into force. Since nothing from the above-mentioned factors corresponds to the national interests of Belarus, a deeper crisis for the Belarus-Russia relations is programmed.