When the Russian military conducted exercises in Belarus known as Zapad–2017 on September 14–20, NATO members, particularly the Baltic States, worried that the drills were a precursor to a potential land invasion of their territories. Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, the commander of the U.S. Army in Europe, maintained that Russia could use the exercises as an opportunity to leave behind some troops or hardware in Belarus. In fact, the West’s concerns were misplaced. The primary target of the military message from Zapad–2017 was Belarus itself. The large, week-long war-games exercises may have taken place on Belarusian soil with the participation of Belarusian troops, but they came amidst heightened diplomatic tensions between Moscow and Minsk, which has historically been a close Russian partner.
Disputes over natural gas, diplomatic spats, and Belarus’ refusal to host a Russian military base have all seriously damaged the bilateral relationship in recent years. These exercises offered Russia a chance to project its military prowess onto its uncooperative neighbor. Moscow undeniably had a political point to make to the West with Zapad—to counter what it perceives as an aggressive NATO build-up of military personnel and hardware on its western borders. The key purpose of the exercises, however, was for Russia to remind Minsk who the senior partner in the bilateral relationship is.
The Zapad exercises were unexceptional in and of themselves. The number of troops involved was large, but Russia has been conducting large-scale military exercises of this kind since the Soviet period. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu claimed that roughly 13,000 troops participated, while NATO estimated the number to be closer to 40,000. The discrepancy is likely due to different ways of calculating the numbers—the Russian military counts only troops directly involved in the exercises, whereas NATO’s calculations include civilians providing logistical support during the simulation.
Much has been made of the exercises’ name. Zapad is the Russian word for “West,” and many NATO members, including Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite (a vocal critic of Russia), have suggested that the purpose of the exercises is aimed in that direction. Yet there is little of significance in the name itself. Zapad is part of a cycle of routine military exercises conducted every four years and is named for one of Russia’s four main strategic commands—Caucasus, Central, East, and West. These exercises have been held jointly with Belarus since 2009.
HOW RELATIONS BECAME STRAINED
Belarus is Russia’s main security ally in Europe; the two countries’ militaries routinely train together and share intelligence. Belarus is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russia-led military alliance, and is also part of the semi-formal Union State, a union designed to increase Belarus’ political and economic integration with Russia, but which is more of a political statement than a legally binding entity. But despite appearances, there is no love lost between Belorussian President Alexander Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two leaders did not even schedule a formal meeting during Zapad, which would have been standard in a military operation of this size; during the 2013 Zapad exercises, they visited military training sites together.
Their relationship became markedly strained following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. At the time Belarus’s Lukashenko, fearing regional instability, gently criticized the annexation and Russia’s subsequent military intervention in eastern Ukraine, maintaining that it had set a “bad precedent.” Doing so broke with Belarus’s traditional foreign policy, which had long strictly followed Moscow’s lead. Since then, the country has positioned itself as a broker in the Ukraine conflict, mediating between the Russian and Ukrainian governments. The only diplomatic solution to the conflict currently on the table is the Minsk peace agreement, which was reached in Belarus in February 2015.
Some months after Belarus’ brokering of the Minsk negotiations, Russia in January 2016 announced that Belarus owed a long-standing debt of roughly $300 million to Gazprom, a state-controlled Russian conglomerate. Belarus refused to recognize the debt, pushing Russia to lower its gas prices instead. In response, Russia reduced its oil exports to Belarus—a key resource for the latter’s economy—throughout 2016, until Minsk finally agreed to repay the debt in April 2017, by which point it had accumulated to more than $720 million. During this time, Lukashenko periodically threatened to leave the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU)—an integrated free market—and, as the row about gas prices escalated in December 2016, he pointedly refused to attend an EEU summit.
It is worth noting, however, that all of these disagreements have not had a significant effect on the business or regulatory environment in either country. Although Russia occasionally slaps sanctions on Belarus’s agricultural products for perceived or real health-and-safety violations, trade between the two will probably remain strong. Neither country is likely to penalize foreign companies for working with businesses of the other. Belarus remains an important trading partner for Russia; it is well known that many sanctioned Western products are unofficially shipped to Belarus, repackaged, and exported into Russia from there. Since the Western sanctions persist unabated and are unlikely to be eased in the coming years, Russia will be cautious of alienating one of its main economic allies.
MINSK'S MILITARY NEUTRALITY
All of this is quite apart from Belarus’s most pointed diplomatic snub—its refusal for the past two years to host a new Russian military airbase on its territory. Russia has two military sites in Belarus: one provides communications services for the Russian navy, while the other is a radar station. These bases, however, fall under an inter-government agreement that specifically states that they do not have the status of military bases (although they do provide some services to the Russian military). It is for this reason that Russia did not leave behind some personnel or military equipment during Zapad; Belarus will not tolerate a permanent Russian military presence there, which would violate the aforementioned agreement. The Belarusian Defense Ministry stated that all Russian personnel and weapons were withdrawn from its territory by September 30.
Belarus’s stance stems from its effort to project an image as a militarily neutral country to the West. It gained some diplomatic credit by brokering the Minsk agreement, and still has hopes of securing badly needed loans from the IMF to prop up its inefficient state-controlled economy. The oil price crash in 2014 caused a recession in Russia, with significant secondary effects for Belarus, which remains highly reliant on Moscow as its main trading partner. Economic pressures have prompted Belarus to curry to favor with the EU, and it is currently seeking membership in the WTO.
As part of its rapprochement with the West, Belarus revised its military doctrine in July 2016.
As part of its rapprochement with the West, Belarus revised its military doctrine in July 2016. It was the first revision since 2002 and one almost certainly prompted by the Ukraine conflict. Disconcertingly for Russia, the current doctrine affirms Belarus’s commitment to military neutrality, forbids the Belarusian armed forces from engaging in conflicts abroad, and permits Belarus’ political and military cooperation with other countries, directly contravening the country’s obligations under the CSTO. Moreover, Lukashenko has described the Zapad exercises as “defensive,” the same language used to describe Belarus’s military doctrine; linking Zapad and the doctrine sends a message to the West that the war games will not cause Belarus to compromise on its military neutrality. Hosting a Russian military base or any Russian military personnel in the long term would be a strategic disaster for Belarus at such a delicate negotiating stage with the West.
Big military exercises always carry political symbolism. In 1981, at the height of the Cold War arms race, Soviet exercises simulated an invasion of Germany and nuclear strikes against the West. If previous Zapad exercises are any indication, then the focus of the exercises reflects Russia’s foreign policy preoccupations. It is telling that one of this year’s simulations involved a fictional state called “Veishnoria” attempting to invade Belarus in order to undermine its relations with Russia.
On September 15, just as Zapad began, Russia transferred a loan to Belarus worth $700 million to refinance part of the $1 billion in external debt that Minsk must pay off this year. The loan had been in the pipeline since April, when Putin and Lukashenko last met in St. Petersburg. Its timely disbursal was likely a pointed reminder to Belarus of its financial dependence on Russia. With the West distracted by Russia’s projection of military might, Moscow is free to engage in a political battle of wills with Belarus. And despite Minsk’s attempts to court the West, Belarus’s strong historical and cultural ties with Russia will ultimately endure beyond diplomatic spats.