The West-2017 Belarus-Russian military exercise: smaller than anticipated
During a meeting with defence minister Andrei Raukou on 20 March, president Alexander Lukashenka demanded 'absolute transparency' at the forthcoming West-2017 Belarusian-Russian military exercise. The Belarusian government is working to counter the negative repercussions of such a massive show of military force in the region.
These repercussions have certainly been felt. On 9 February, Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaitė stated that during the West-2017 exercises 'aggressive forces are concentrating in very large numbers, this is a demonstrative preparation for a war with the West.'
Moscow would apparently like to increase the fog of uncertainty surrounding its military moves. The Russian military previously published the numbers of railway wagons needed for troop movement. In the absence of proper explanations, this created a threatening impression. Yet it is now clear that the exercises on Belarusian territory will be smaller than in 2009.
Minsk avoids confrontation with the West
As Lukashenka elaborated, 'I demand that this event [West-2017] on the territory of our country [sic!] be transparent and all its components be accessible not only to our friends in the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, the Eurasian Economic Union, the Commonwealth of Independent States, but also to NATO members.'
However, the Belarusian and Russian media framed Lukashenka's words in remarkably different ways. The Belarusian media, such as TUT.by, simply mentioned the quote as part of more general reports. Meanwhile, the Russian media, such as Lenta.ru, used the quote as a headline and expressly underlined Lukashenka's 'demand' to admit NATO observers to the exercise, thus creating an impression that he was openly defying Moscow.
Moscow is prone to militant statements and ambiguous threats. Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu, commenting on West-2017, said that his government had been forced to take preparatory defensive measures: 'The US and other NATO members are actively building up their offensive potential at the western borders of the Union State [of Belarus and Russia].'
Needless to say, his Belarusian counterpart Andrei Raukou describes West-2017 only in general terms, highlighting the necessity to practise defensive measures and continue cooperation with Russia. He also emphasised that Belarus would invite Western observers and that 'the requirements of Western partners would be met.'
West-2017 smaller than West-2009
Belarus and Russia have been holding 'West' (Zakhad, Zapad) joint strategic exercises every four years since 2009: on Belarusian and Russian territory in turn. As part of the West-2017 military exercise, on 14-20 September Belarusian and Russian troops will exercise on a territory spanning from the extreme North of Russia to Belarus. In Belarus, a 'Regional Group' of Russian and Belarusian troops will train on seven different sites. The Regional Group includes Belarusian armed forces and the First Tank Army of Russia.
Moscow means for these exercises to seem impressive. Nevertheless, Belarusian defence minister Raukou revealed that the activities of the exercise on Belarusian territory would be of a rather limited nature. Around 3,000 Russian personnel and 280 items of equipment will arrive in Belarus to participate in the drills. In comparison, in 2009 more than 6,000 Russian troops participated in the drills on Belarusian territory.
Raukou's revelations put an end to lively discussions regarding the scale of the forthcoming West-2017 exercise which began last November. At that point, Ukrainian websites such as Inform Napalm and Apostrophe had discovered that the Russian defence ministry had announced an official tender for 4,162 railway wagons for shipments to and from Belarus in 2017.
The Russian military did not explain its need for so many wagons, and no data for similar purchases during previous West exercises were available at the time. Thus, all kinds of hypotheses attempting to explain the number of wagons were set forth, including a forthcoming annexation of Belarus by Russian forces, which would come to the country under the guise of military exercises.
It took the Russian military two months to finally comment on the tender for more than 4,000 wagons. Upon the request of the Moscow-based liberal daily Novaya Gazeta, the Russian military explained itself in just four sentences.
First, it clarified that the declared amount of wagons were meant for transportation to and from Belarus, i.e., 2,000 wagons in each direction. Second, the Russian military disclosed never-before-published information on military shipments to and from Belarusian territory from previous joint exercises. During West-2009, these shipments required over 6,000 wagons, and during West-2013, almost 2,500 wagons.
Defence cooperation as a 'red line' for the Kremlin
Given that the Belarusian government wishes to limit the potentially negative repercussions of the exercise on Minsk's relations with its neighbours and the West, it is exercising caution with regard to military cooperation with Russia. Bilateral relations with Russia are also suffering from several unresolved problems. Nevertheless, on 20 March, Lukashenka had to say that Minsk 'was not going to reduce military cooperation with Russia because of disagreements which had emerged in other areas'.
On one hand, the Belarusian government maintains a critical attitude towards the defence cooperation with Russia. Hence, Lukashenka told Raukou that he wants the Belarusian defence ministry 'to conduct a general assessment of the efficiency of bilateral military cooperation with Russia.' This could be important because of a 'possible' meeting of the Supreme State Council of the Union State of Belarus and Russia, at which time the Belarusian leader would like to raise relevant issues with his Russian counterparts.
On the other hand, the Belarusian leader realises the sensitivity of defence cooperation issues for Moscow given the vital role of Belarus in providing security to Russia's core region around Moscow. Therefore, at the same conference, Lukashenka together with the defence minister announced: 'As far as security issues and defence of our common borders are concerned, they could never under any circumstances be taken lightly.'
In a word, Minsk and Moscow differ in their attitudes towards the West-2017 exercises. Minsk downplays the confrontational aspects of the exercise. Moscow, on the contrary, is working to make the drills non-transparent and thus more threatening than they really are.
The leakage of the previously unrevealed and confusing numbers of Russian military shipments via Belarusian railways, along with the intentionally late explanation, are aspects of Russia's information warfare.
The Belarusian government has tried to neutralise the negative consequences of this 'fog of war' by making the drills more transparent. This divergence with regard to transparency started years ago. A case in point is the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE). Minsk consistently adheres to the CFE, which rests on principles of transparency, while Moscow suspended its cooperation in 2007 and renounced it altogether in 2015.
Minsk continues military cooperation with Russia knowing that this is a 'red line' for Moscow. Yet the Belarusian government shapes the conditions and scale of its cooperation. It does not plan to participate in Putin's intimidation of NATO and its allies.
Influential or influenced: the Belarusian Orthodox Church
While many Belarusians call themselves religious, less than 10% regularly visit church and only 33% believe that religion is important, according to a Gallup study of religiosity.
Despite the fact that Belarus is among the top-15 least religious countries in the world the Orthodox Church remains influential in the public sphere.
The Orthodox Church maintains a special status in Belarus and takes advantage of this to promote pro-Russian and military values. The regime and the Orthodox Church both benefit from cooperating with each other. At the same time, due to its complex structure and Russian links, Lukashenka has been unable to bring the Belarusian Orthodox Church completely under his control.
What is the Belarusian Orthodox Church?
Today, the Belarusian Orthodox Church forms part of the Russian Orthodox Church. This is reflected in its name: the Belarusian Exarchate of the Moscow Patriarchate. The head of the Orthodox Church in Belarus is Metropolitan Pavel, a Russian citizen, who has served in Belarus since 2013. Despite a certain measure of autonomy, the Belarusian Orthodox Church complies directly with the policies of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The Belarusian government often comments on the ‘importance of the Orthodox Church’ in daily life. In 2016, Michail Miasnikovič, chairman of the Council of the Republic, stated: ‘Belarus is a secular state, but when it comes to civil society, the church occupies an important place in our society and it is wonderful that all confessions have a constructive position, especially our main Church – the Orthodox’.
Although it has a long history, the Belarusian Orthodox Church’s independence is still in question. In December 2014 the head of the Belarusian Orthodox Church stated that he will attempt to increase the independence of the church from Russia. Nevertheless, a month later, he said that the idea of an independent Belarusian Orthodox Church is far removed from reality and that independence could harm the church.
Russian language remains dominant in the church's daily life. The head of the Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Pavel, originates from Russia and has served as Metropolitan in Belarus since 2013. He largely ignores the issue of Belarusian language. Most church services are held in Russian with a few notable exceptions, where priests occasionally use Belarusian, such as the Sukharava church. The unregistered Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church uses Belarusian on a daily basis.
A Special Status and Friendship with the Regime
The Belarusian government favours the Orthodox Church not only only on a symbolic, but also on a legislative level. For example, in 2004 Belarusian authorities and the Orthodox Church signed an agreement of cooperation which gave the Church the right to influence education, healthcare, and crime prevention. Later in 2015 the Church and the Ministry of Education signed a document on school trips to holy places. So far, there are no similar agreements between the Belarusian government and Catholics or Protestants.
The Orthodox Church is also is also singled out in the law on ‘Freedom of consciousness and religious organisations’. According to the law, only Belarusian citizens have a right to head religious organisations. However, the head of the Belarusian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Pavel, has retained his Russian citizenship.
Not only is the Orthodox Church highly visible in the public sphere, it often serves as a channel of support for the state. In 2004, Metropolitan Pavel publicly supported Lukashenka’s referendum on extending presidential term limits. The Orthodox Church is also the only religious organisation which is seen to be meeting the president at various events. In a typical display of combining religion and politics, the highest representatives of the Orthodox Church prayed for Lukashenka two days before the presidential election of 2015.
Metropolitan Pavel made use of this occasion to state: ‘Well-regarded Alexander Ryhoravich, We are on the eve of an important choice. On behalf of all Belarusian Orthodox Christians, let me express my support for your policies’.
Pro-Russian and Military Oriented
In addition to participating in politically-oriented occasions, the Belarusian Orthodox Church also organises its own suspicious events. In 2015, the church organised a large Orthodox festival based on the ‘Stalin Line’. The venue and the agenda had an ideological, pro-Russian, and military character. Russian flags and military attributes became an important part of an ostensibly Orthodox festival.
Moreover, since the annexation of Crimea, the Orthodox Church has been organising military-patriotic clubs. In 2016 Nasha Niva revealed at least five such orthodox-military-patriotic clubs in Hrodna region alone (the most Catholic area in Belarus). The daily activities of these clubs include religious classes, patriotic lessons, and martial arts. On their web-pages, two such clubs invited Belarusians ‘to protect Russians in the former territory of Ukraine’.
Russian symbols have become an important part of patriotic clubs and Orthodox events. One Vitsebsk club organised a trip to Russia for youngsters which included training with former military officer Aleksei Milchiakov, who fought in Donbass. At Orthodox festivals and the annual Orthodox ball, Russian flags and people in military clothes are commonplace.
In 2015, the oppositional organisation Malady Front drew up a list of 100 pro-Russian organisations in Belarus. Among them are many pro-Russian Orthodox military clubs with names like ‘Holy Rus’, ‘Russian world’, ‘Russian national unity’. The Russian Public Movement for the Spiritual Development of the People for the State and Spiritual Revival of Holy Rus also promotes clearly pro-Russian ideas. Since 2014, the increasing activity of these organisations and clubs has become more visible and dangerous for Belarusian sovereignty.
Balancing between Russia and Belarus
The Orthodox Church, which enjoys wide civilian support, has turned into a propaganda tool for the regime. As Lukashenka once said: ‘we have chosen the Orthodox Church as the main ideologist for statehood…The state has a right to rely on representatives of the church’. By letting the church into the public and political spheres, the state gives power to the Church but takes advantage of it at the same time.
The Belarusian Orthodox Church seems to balance between Belarus and Russia. On one hand, it serves the main goals of the 'Russian World' by hosting and popularising pro-Russian groups in Belarus. On the other hand, the Orthodox Church tries to support the actions of the Lukashenka regime in public statements. Recently, Metropolitan Pavel criticised two extremist pro-Russian authors who insulted Belarusian language, nationality and statehood.
The Belarusian government is also balancing between sovereignty and Russia. The regime does not want to risk demanding the independence of the Belarusian Orthodox Church. Several of Lukashenka's statements point to the presence of political will to free the Belarusian Orthodox Church from its Russian counterpart. This would provide Belarus with more loyal propaganda and a more reliable ideological partner. At the same time, the government has no desire to worsen relations with Moscow, which is currently in charge of the Belarusian Orthodox Church.