Belarus-Russian military exercises: the story still not over?
On 28 September, the last train filled with Russian troops that had participated in the West-2017 military exercises reportedly left Belarus. Some hours later, however, Commander–in–Chief of Ukraine’s Armed Forces Viktor Muzhenko disputed the news. He claimed only a few Russian military units had returned to their garrisons in Russia, and the rest of Russian troops had, in fact, stayed in Belarus.
Muzhenko’s claims follow a string of other accusations and speculations over possible covert aspects to the Belarus-Russian military drills that made up West-2017. Minsk and Moscow have held the “West” military drills regularly since 2009. Each time the exercises are held, they cause observers to speculate about the hidden, aggressive intentions behind the war games.
This year Minsk tried its best to open up the drills to counter negative publicity. Yet, it found this task immensely difficult.
Moscow presents an exaggerated picture, and opponents are eager to accept it
IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, a review that covers security issues, published contrasting statistics on the number of Russian troops involved in the West-2017 military exercises. On 28 September, the review wrote that “estimates ranged from Russia’s official number of 13,000 to more than 100,000.” Huge differences in troop-number estimates among analysts—even after the drills finished—point to a lack of evidence–based expertise on the matter.
To escape that problem, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly announced the main issue was not to ascertain the exact number of Russian troops involved. The weekly cited a NATO source as saying “it was the force posture and the quality of the troops that matter.”
Of course, confusion about the West-2017 exercises also stems from the Kremlin’s behaviour. Moscow lost no opportunity to exaggerate the scale of the exercises and to make matters ambiguous.
While Minsk firmly insisted the exercises are limited to a separatist conflict scenario—meant to resemble conflicts in Kosovo and Ukraine’s Donbas region—on Belarusian territory, Russian military officials have been ambiguously promising to hold military exercises “from sea to sea.” That is, Moscow tried to link the West-2017 exercises with its other military training activities, some as far away as the Arctic.
Minsk attempted to dispel Moscow’s hints and ambiguities. All the same, many foreign media outlets, politicians and pundits seemed eager to accept Russia’s more threatening portrayal of the exercises. The Kremlin appears to have succeeded in representing West-2017 as an effective, Russian show of force.
The Russian military tasked its psychological warfare division with making the drills appear large-scale. The following two cases discussed below illustrate Russian efforts at sowing confusion over Russian troop numbers.
The first case dates to the end of last year. In an unprecedented move, Russia’s defence ministry published information on the 4,162 train cars it allegedly ordered for transporting Russian troops to Belarus and back. Writing in Defense One, a defence analysis website, Finnish military expert Jyri Raitasalo pointed out, “With one Excel spreadsheet made public in late 2016, the West has been made to guess [at the number of troops to be on-board] for eight months.”
The second case relates to a 14 February news publication on the arrival of Russian First Tank Army units to Belarus. The news caught Minsk by surprise. In a matter of hours, Belarusian military officials dismissed that information. No additional tank units had arrived. Moscow, however, chose to keep the news published on official military websites. The aim appears again to be to spread uncertainty.
Nowhere to hide
Meanwhile, Minsk and Moscow can hardly conceal their massive military preparations from Western eyes. First, Western satellites can observe any location in Eastern Europe. Indeed, last year the Belling Cat website authors used satellite imagery to reveal the withdrawal of Russian aircraft which had been temporally based in Belarus.
Second, regional and Western countries—both members and non-members of NATO—conduct surveillance flights over Belarusian and Russian territory according to quotas determined by the 1992 Treaty on Open Skies. In exchange, Belarus and Russia—the two countries form one single group under that Treaty—conduct flights over these countries’ territories.
Information collected in these flights is fed into a unified data-bank. About three dozen NATO member countries and states aspiring to join the alliance can together conduct more flights and collect more information on the military capacities of Belarus and Russia than vice versa. Indeed, before the beginning of the West-2017 military exercises, on 4–8 September, the US and Ukraine conducted a surveillance flight over Belarus and Russia.
That is, Western and regional countries may have doubts about some minor details of the joint Belarus-Russian exercises, but not about their main features. It is logical to assume that intelligence agencies know exactly whether 13,000 or 100,000 participated in the drills, as such things cannot remain concealed under these circumstances.
Fog of verbal war
The many opportunities that regional and Western countries had to study the exercises make many statements about the drills by foreign politicians and media look odd. Though Belarus and Russia regularly conduct “West” military exercises causing some negative reactions, this year Minsk faced an unprecedented flurry of negative media coverage, both at regional and global levels.
Lithuanian president Grybauskaite even used an opportunity to address the UN General Assembly on 19 September to lash out at this year’s “West” exercise as a threat to international security. In addition, she also cited the Belarusian-built Astraviets nuclear power plant as a weapon from the “Kremlin’s arsenal.”
Bloomberg, a business news agency, went as far as to warn on 15 September, “If war breaks out with the West, it’s most likely to start in ‘Veyshnoria’ [the fictitious name Belarus’s General Staff gave the enemy zone in the West-2017 exercises].”
Often, foreign media, politicians and analysts denied any active role for Belarus in the exercises. A case in point is provided by the BBC’s media coverage. At least, on the first day of West-2017, the BBC World Service described the drills in its news summary as “Russian” exercises conducted in Belarus.
Even in the cases where Western media mentions Belarus, Russia is discussed first. Never mind the greatest number of troops involved were Belarusian—according to Minsk, more than 7,000 Belarusians trained together with less than 3,000 Russians. Moreover, the drills were concentrated on Belarusian territory and planning corresponded to standard training scenarios designed and used by the Belarusian military for several years.
Minsk has responded to all the negative coverage and statements in a restrained manner. For instance, reacting to Ukrainian accusations of Russian troops staying in Belarus after the exercise, Moscow mocked Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief as ‘professionally incompetent’ and elaborated on ‘degradation’ of Ukrainian General Staff. On the contrary, Minsk merely repeated that Russian troops had left.
In sum, the West-2017 exercises illustrate two key points. First, Minsk reluctantly joins in any show of power staged by Moscow. For the most part, Minsk can hold its ground when the Kremlin pushes for more aggressive displays of military strength. Indeed, none of this is new. Minsk has defended its position on other major joint defence projects with Russia, such as over the establishment of the Single Air Defence System or the Russian airbase in Belarus.
The second point demonstrated by the West-2017 exercises is that it’s really a moot point whether Western or regional states understand Minsk’s policy. Foreign media coverage of the exercises show that Moscow’s opponents feel somewhat comfortable both with Russia’s exaggerated claims and with the illusions Russia paints of controlling Belarus. The statements of top officials from Ukraine, Poland, and Lithuania in particular demonstrate this attitude.