Argument

Is Russia Practicing a Dry Run for an Invasion of Belarus?

With tensions worsening between the two countries, Russia’s massive military exercise is firing a couple thousand warning shots at a reluctant ally.

Russian T-90 tanks take position before firing in Kubinka Patriot Park outside Moscow on August 22, 2017 during the first day of the "Army 2017" International Military-Technical Forum. / AFP PHOTO / Alexander NEMENOV        (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian T-90 tanks take position before firing in Kubinka Patriot Park outside Moscow on August 22, 2017 during the first day of the "Army 2017" International Military-Technical Forum. / AFP PHOTO / Alexander NEMENOV (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)

Russia does military exercises regularly, but this year’s version, underway right now, deserves especially close attention. It’s called Zapad (“West”) and involves thousands of troops doing maneuvers on the borders of the Baltic states and Poland. The motivating scenario is to defend against an imagined invasion of Belarus by foreign-backed extremists. One of the fictional enemy states, “Vesbaria,” seems to be a thinly disguised Lithuania; the other, “Lubenia,” looks a bit like Poland. There will no doubt be the usual low-level provocations, with Russian planes buzzing borders, that will make the whole passive-aggressive show of strength look more like an invasion of the West than the other way around.

One extra element this time, however, is that these are joint exercises with Belarus, and not everyone in Belarus is happy to play host. The exercises are being staged in the northwest of the country, given the name of another fictional state, “Veyshnoria.” This is the historical heartland of real Belarusian nationalism, where Belarusian activists in the early 20th century competed with Poles, Lithuanians, and Jews to claim the old Tsarist administrative region of Vilna. Unfortunately for the Belarusians, much of this became Vilnius, the capital of modern-day Lithuania. But the rest remains in the northwest of modern Belarus, with the division testament to the long-standing love-hate relationship between Baltic peoples and Belarusians. Hence the Baltic-style spelling of Veyshnoria.

But the region also voted for President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s main opponent, the nationalist Zianon Pazniak, the last time Belarus had a real competitive election, back in 1994. So Zapad is directed as much against an “internal enemy” as against NATO powers, namely nationalists backed by the West. And that, worryingly, is the same scenario that Russia claimed to detect in Ukraine in 2014.

Some Belarusians have had fun with this. Veyshnoria now has its own Twitter account. You can buy T-shirts and mugs. Some 7,000 people have applied for its passports.

But there’s a serious aspect to all this, too. Russian exercises have a habit of becoming real. The Kavkaz (“Caucasus”) maneuvers in 2008 were basically a dry run for the invasion of Georgia. The last version of Zapad in 2013 preceded Russian action against Ukraine. The most notorious exercise of all was in 1981, when massive maneuvers were used to intimidate Communist Poland into suppressing the Solidarity movement. The fear this time is that Russian troops might manufacture an excuse to stay behind. In which case, the same scenario of nationalist extremists could be used as an excuse to “save” Lukashenko or even depose him. The official figure of only 12,700 soldiers involved would not be enough to occupy Belarus, but other estimates are 10 times as high.

Other neighbors are equally alarmed. NATO now has revolving forward deployments in Poland and the Baltic states. The U.K. has 800 troops in Estonia, the United States up to 1,000 in Poland. Ukraine’s official statement declares that “such exercises have been used repeatedly to achieve hidden military-political goals.… Transition of the state border and military invasion into the territory of Ukraine is not excluded.”

But Belarus bears the closest scrutiny. Tensions between Belarus and Russia have been growing acutely since 2014 — if not yet by enough for Belarus to dare to pull out of Zapad completely (though it has invited in neutral observers). In observing the exercises, the West would be wise not to treat Belarus as a potential belligerent but rather as an increasingly reluctant ally of Russia.

Lukashenko’s priority has always been survival. Belarus’s priority has always been protecting its sovereignty. The close relationship with Russia used to help on both counts. Now it is seen as laying Belarus open to the same kind of “hybrid war” or “active measures” used by Russia against Ukraine, especially as Moscow’s definition of “loyalty” has grown ever more demanding since 2014.

Lukashenko has taken elementary precautions to try to ensure that his security services are more loyal to him than the Ukrainian equivalents were to former President Viktor Yanukovych. But this has proved a Sisyphean task, as they are so closely institutionally connected with Russia. Senior Belarusian officers and KGB (a name Belarus is still proud to use) still do their training in Russia.

Lukashenko has maneuvered to appear diplomatically neutral. The capital of Belarus has hosted the Minsk process on peace in Ukraine. Belarus has not backed Russia militarily over Crimea or in eastern Ukraine and has resisted fierce pressure for several years to host a Russian air base on its territory.

Lukashenko has tried to balance Russia by expanding his options with the West. Belarus had been under sanctions since a rigged election in 2010 and subsequent crackdown against protests. But all political prisoners were released in August 2015. The EU then lifted its sanctions in February 2016 (though the United States was unable to follow, as its hands are more closely tied by the Belarus Democracy Act, passed in 2004). Lukashenko has sought loans, flirted with the IMF, and deepened relations with any organization that won’t lecture him too hard about his democratic credentials. This year, Belarus took the chair of the Central European Initiative, and the city of Minsk hosted the Parliamentary Assembly for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. EU officials have explored ways to make Belarus a real, rather than nominal, member of its flagship Eastern Partnership policy. In just two days in July, no fewer than four separate EU delegations visited Minsk.

Lukashenko, who was indifferent or even hostile to traditional Belarusian nationalism before 2014, has quietly pushed a program of “soft Belarusianization.” He has rejected Russian President Vladimir Putin’s pet idea that Belarus is part of the “Russian world.” Schoolbooks are being rewritten.

Lukashenko has endorsed pre-Soviet historiography beloved by nationalists, like the ancient history of Polatsk (in the north of Veyshnoria), as “our historical cradle … a peaceful, hard-working, and friendly state,” independent of both Moscow and Kiev. Lukashenko has even used Belarusian in public speeches, which is a first.

Peace has become Belarus’s new brand. It appeals to a very conservative population and gives Belarus another card to play with the West by posing as a “donor of security in the European region.” On a visit to Minsk in August, the streets were lined with state-sponsored billboards proclaiming, “We Belarusians are a peaceful people,” which is also the first line of the national anthem.

Lukashenko doesn’t want Ukrainian-style revolution either, but this is a tougher task. Traditionally, Lukashenko, who has survived in power as a dictator since 1994, has bought political acquiescence with economic growth. For 20 years, Belarus was not booming exactly but avoided the extremes of social dislocation, corruption, and oligarchy seen in Russia and Ukraine. The economy grew fairly solidly until 2008. Its initial wobbles thereafter could initially be blamed on the global economic crisis, but severe systemic problems set in in 2014. GDP fell by 3.9 percent in 2015 and 2.6 percent in 2016.

The secret of Lukashenko’s success was Russian subsidies — namely cheap oil and gas, though the benefit of these schemes was often split with Russian oligarchs. But, reeling under sanctions, Russia could no longer afford to be so generous. Moreover, it didn’t want to be, so long as Belarus was not playing ball over foreign policy. Russia also had to sort its own economy out first, via a sudden and unilateral devaluation in 2014 that hit Belarusian exports hard. Both countries have also struggled with lower oil prices. Lukashenko’s other main lifeline is the two modern oil refineries he inherited from the Soviet Union.

All this has undermined Lukashenko’s social contract with his traditionally passive population. Outside of Minsk, provincial towns depend on big state employers, which now only offer lower wages and part-time work. Migrant work in Russia has collapsed. The new reality is that there are two Belaruses: Minsk has a booming IT industry, but in the regions people struggle by on average wages as low as $150 a month.

This was the background to the unprecedented social unrest the regime faced this spring. Big demonstrations attracted thousands of people — and in small towns like Polatsk and Vitebsk, not just Minsk. The trigger was Lukashenko’s misguided “parasite tax,” a ham-fisted attempt to relieve pressure on the beleaguered state budget by forcing the economically “inactive” to pay a poll tax of about $250. But the definition of “inactive” was extremely broad, including young mothers and those looking after relatives, netting about 450,000 people in a workforce of 4.5 million. The result was a revolt of “his people,” rather than the traditional opposition, which Lukashenko had to allow breathing space. The decree was suspended but not withdrawn — a revised version is due in late September. Hundreds of people were eventually arrested and given administrative fines, but there were no serious sentences, unlike in previous protests. The long-term problem wasn’t solved.

Russia was reluctant to throw Belarus a lifeline. Compounded economic disputes have festered since 2014. The best that Lukashenko could get was a belated deal with Putin at St. Petersburg in April but with all sorts of strings attached. An additional loan of $1 billion was promised. Gas prices were discounted through to the end of 2019. Crude oil supplies to Belarus’s refineries were increased. But the hidden strings were unknown; Lukashenko spent most of the meeting alone with Putin. Belarus admitted that it had to pay arrears of $726 million in gas payments. Putin suggested that Belarusian refined oil should be diverted to Russian rather than Baltic ports. Rumors flew of an unknown security agenda or of unfinished business due to be completed by pressure during Zapad. Putin himself has taken a moderate line, but Russian nationalist critics of Lukashenko are being given a lot of media space.

How should the West respond? There should be contingency planning if Russian troops do outstay their welcome. The West should be better placed than it was over Ukraine in 2014 to detect fake scenarios (attacks on Russian troops, incursions over Baltic or Ukrainian borders) or invented excuses to impose a de facto Russian base in Belarus.

In the longer term, the West should remember that supporting dictators for reasons of realpolitik doesn’t always work out well. Whatever Lukashenko’s desire for a more “balanced” foreign policy, he hasn’t liberalized his country’s domestic politics. (It has even maintained the death penalty, the last country in Europe to do so.) But Belarus has to change. Its economic model is unsustainable, its security strategy extremely fragile. The West should encourage Belarus to take every small step in the direction of reform and proper sovereignty. The West should also encourage Russia not to overreact to such steps while preparing for it to do just that.

Photo credit: ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images

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