Viejšnoryja: the Belarusian Defence Ministry plays with fire
On 29 August in the Palace of the Republic, the Chief of the General Staff of the Belarusian Armed Forces and the First Deputy Minister of Defence, Major-General Alieh Bielakonieŭ, held a briefing on the Belarusian-Russian military exercises West-2017. The briefing and the official press-release caused an unexpected reaction in society.
More than 50 media representatives and 14 members of the military-diplomatic corps accredited by the Belarusian Defence Ministry attended the event. The media drew special attention to the plan and scenario of the exercises, which led to many questions.
According to the scenario, extremists, supported by two neighbouring states, invade a part of Belarus, which they then occupy, setting up a different state. It is the role of Belarus and Russia to fight them. Interestingly, according to the scenario, extremists take over in the western part of Belarus. The map of the exercise shows the precise territory of the alleged enemy. The new state is called Viejšnoryja and is propped up by its two western neighbours: Viesbaryja and Lubienija.
First of all, it should be noted that all these names sound Baltic. It is thus likely that the Russian and Belarusian authorities are trolling the Baltic states, which frequently voice alarmist sentiments about West-2017 being the beginning of a Russian invasion of Europe.
Historically, Viejšnoryja itself is the Belarusian part of Lithuania Propria – a historical region and the cradle of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. This cannot be a simple coincidence. What’s more, Viejšnoryja coincides suspiciously with the majority-Catholic part of Belarus.
Meanwhile, the tone of the briefing and the following press-release were unusual and somewhat unclear. At first, Mr. Bielakonieŭ mentioned the NATO military exercises in Eastern Europe which recently took place, claiming they were designed to prepare for an assault on neighbouring states.
He then spoke about the Rapid Trident exercises in 2017 in Ukraine and the intention of the Ukrainian Right Sector group to deploy temporary militias near the Ukrainian-Belarusian border in case of an invasion from the north. Such rhetoric is especially odd as Belarus had promised not to strongly criticise NATO and Ukraine for their military exercises in the region.
This presentation of West-2017 was thus an epic fail for the Belarusian Defence Ministry, as its effect was the complete opposite of the intended one. Originally, the ministry intended to show society that West-2017 was not a threat to the independence of Belarus or its international image. Instead, the Ministry of Defence aggressively accused NATO of belligerence and openly trolled the Baltic states. The media focused not on the number of Russian troops and comparisons between West-2017 and similar NATO exercises in Eastern Europe, as planned, but on the division of Belarus into parts, declaring one of them an ‘enemy’.
The rise of Viejšnoryja
The reaction in society was immediate. Right after the press release, all independent media sources posted a map of the exercises showing the imaginary states. Some experts considered this an attempt to split the Belarusian population along religious lines: the Catholic West against the Orthodox ‘Russian world.’ The fact that two neighbouring states were supporting ‘Viejšnorian extremists’ was also taken to symbolise NATO destabilising the situation in Belarus in order to ‘break it apart from its union with Russia’.
At the same time, the exercises’ scenario became the butt of jokes on the internet: the country has taken on a life of its own as a meme. Viejšnoryja already has an official website, which also issues Viejšnorian ID cards and passports. At the time of writing, almost 7,000 people had applied for Viejšnorian passports.
Some enthusiasts decided to take the ‘statehood’ of Viejšnoryja even further, creating a coat of arms, flag, currency, and even a Twitter account for the Viejšnoryja MFA. It is now possible to buy a number of products with Viejšnoryja’s name and logo, including passport covers, t-shirts, magnets, and more.
At Lidbeer festival in the western city of Lida, people were seen waiving the Viejšnorian flag. Jokes about the imaginary state are quickly becoming popular on the Belarusian internet, with some claiming that ‘The Belarusian authorities have already asked Viejšnoryja to provide them with a loan.’
More soberingly, however, the exercises’ scenario was one presented by the Belarusian Defence Ministry itself. Had Russia unveiled the scenario, the Belarusian military could have managed to save face, as the low level of trust between the two states is a well-known fact.
Presumably, the scenario was originally a Russian idea, aiming to discredit Belarus once again and cause a harsh reaction from neighbouring states. Either the Belarusian authorities failed to see through this trick or simply had no choice but to agree to it and present it publicly. Seeing as Russia had already started with such provocations before West-2017 even started, they are bound to continue. The way Belarusian authorities react to them could determine the continued independence and further development of the country.
On one hand, the Belarusian authorities are lucky that the release of the exercise scenario resulted only in jokes, rather than official statements from neighbouring states and international organisations. On the other hand, this situation is revealing of the negative image of the Belarusian Defence Ministry and the military as a whole: society does not take them very seriously.
At the same time, Viejšnoryja quickly became an internet symbol of opposition to the Belarusian regime: some people who disapprove of the authorities have started calling themselves Viejšnorians. A tongue-in-cheek awareness campaign calling for ‘the protection of Viejšnoryja from Russian aggression’ and creation of ‘Vejsnorian volunteer forces’ now also exist. People are using the word ‘Viejšnorian’ to mean ‘traditionally Belarusian’ as opposed to Soviet or Russian.
However, although opponents of the Belarusian regime are using the Viejšnoryja meme in jest, supporters of the “Russian world” could use it more seriously, such as for information campaigns against Belarus.
For example, pro-Russian propagandists have started using the names ‘Viejšnoryja’ and ‘Viejšnorians’ to describe Belarusian patriots or opponents of the Belarusian authorities and Russian aggression.
Their long-term goal could be to deprive people with dissenting political views of the very status of Belarusian nationals. Now, the enemies are not Belarusians, but Viejšnorians: traitors of the state and the Russian-Belarusian union.
In the long run, it may turn out that in presenting this West-2017 scenario, the Belarusian Defence Ministry has opened Pandora’s box: a rift in the population on the basis of support for either Russia or the West could really materialise, especially if a corresponding information campaign was held. This is exactly what the Belarusian authorities have been trying to prevent for decades: they rely on preserving stability and maintaining full control of the country to remain in power.
Minsk struggling to reassure its neighbours about the West-2017 military exercises
At a press briefing on 29 August, Aleh Belakoneu, Head of the Belarusian General Staff, promised that by 30 September all Russian troops participating in the West–2017 Belarusian-Russian military exercises would leave the territory of Belarus. He also emphasised that Minsk had chosen sites for the exercises which were as far as possible from the borders of neighbouring countries.
The Belarusian government is struggling to reassure its neighbours, who continue to express their concerns about the drills. Lukashenka himself has repeatedly visited Ukraine to persuade Kyiv of Belarus’s peaceful intentions. In contrast, the Kremlin craves an intimidating military show. Thus, Minsk and Moscow are jointly holding an exercise which both countries see in very different ways. It is unsurprising that their policy regarding West 2017 is vastly different.
Minsk wants a transparent exercise, Moscow prefers discretion
Nothing illustrates the different approaches of Minsk and Moscow to the exercises better than the issue of foreign observers. Belarus and Russia invited observers to the West-2017 separately, and both are offering them different observation programmes. While Minsk invited observers to the forthcoming exercise for five days, Russia invited them for only one. The week-long exercise will last from 14 to 20 September.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka invited NATO observers as early as 20 March, after neighbouring states voiced their concerns over the drills. On 13 July, Belarus issued formal invitations to Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Norway, Sweden, and Poland, as well as the UN, CIS, OSCE, CSTO, ICRC, and military attaches accredited in Minsk.
The Kremlin disregarded the issue of inviting foreign observers as long as possible, issuing invitations to military attaches accredited in Moscow on 15 August without much publicity.
The Kremlin-linked Russian media also took advantage of the drills to demonstrate its contempt for the concerns of other countries. On 8 August, the anniversary of the 2008 Russian–Georgian war, the Kremlin-associated media outlet Sputnik published a column on West-2017 which contained explicit threats. Its author, Aleksandr Khrolenko, a political commentator for the Russian government-affiliated Rossiya Segodnya, wrote:
‘Our partners’ [US] efforts are in vain [in bringing reinforcements to Lithuania before West-2017]. In 2008, Georgia also relied on the presence of the US military and NATO-standard weapons. This did not prevent Russia from successfully bringing peace to Georgia… Since that time, the Russian army … has only increased its capacities.’
Needless to say, the Belarusian government-affiliated media has published nothing of the kind.
A purely regional affair?
Moscow’s aspiration to put on an intimidating military display has triggered fierce reactions throughout the region. However, it is up to Minsk to deal with the fallout, which comes in the form of numerous statements by officials and the media of neighbouring countries.
Belarus’s neighbours reiterate that West-2017 could be larger than announced: Russian troops might remain in Belarus, and Moscow might even take advantage of the exercise to occupy Belarus and invade Ukraine. The Ukrainian and Lithuanian defence ministers, the Polish deputy defence minister, the Lithuanian president, a former Georgian president, the secretary of Ukraine’s National Security Council, and other prominent leaders are just a few examples of important political figures to express concerns.
However, outside Belarus’s immediate neighbourhood, few are worrying about the exercises. Speaking on 23 August to the Belarusian-language service of Radio Free Europe, Arkady Moshes of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs dismissed concerns over West-2017. He claimed that these worries were sparked by certain Belarusian commentators and remain mostly limited to speculation rather than evidence-based argument.
On 17 August, Deutsche Welle published a report on the drills, maintaining that they should indeed be cause for concern in the West. However, the only Western expert cited, Margarete Klein of the German think tank SWP, simply suggested waiting to see how the exercise turns out.
No money for big projects
Russia certainly wants to use the forthcoming drills to prove its military might. In all likelihood, however, the Kremlin harbours no plans to put its strength to use.
A research paper published in July by the Valdai Club, a Kremlin-affiliated expert community, illustrates this attitude. The paper stresses that ‘In fact, Belarus is a buffer zone between Russia and NATO.
Changing the existing status would absolutely not suit either Moscow’s or the West’s interests.’ The paper’s author, Prokhor Tebin, cites the deployment of Russian troops in Belarus on one hand, and NATO’s increasing pressure on Minsk on the other, to back up his argument.
The fact that Moscow backed down regarding building an airbase on Belarusian territory lends credence to the argument that Russia accepts the situation as it is. Indeed, on 30 March, the Russian ambassador to Minsk Aleksandr Surikov announced that the issue of the Russian military base ‘had never been there.’ He added that even a legal basis for such a facility was lacking.
The reasons behind this restraint are unsurprising: simply put, there is no money. The issue of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), designed to be a ‘post-Soviet NATO,‘ is a case in point. In May, the CSTO’s Deputy Secretary General, Valery Semerikov, officially admitted that Moscow had recently stopped providing supplies to its allies through CSTO channels because of financial troubles caused by Russia’s economic decline and international sanctions.
In sum, Belarus is doing its best to counterbalance the Kremlin’s provocative moves and assuage its neighbours. Thus, the Belarusian government has made the Belarusian part of the exercise as transparent as possible, despite Moscow’s wishes. Minsk is also de-escalating tension by holding the drills far from its borders and removing the traditional CSTO components.
So far, Minsk has been able to hold its ground. This is because the Belarusian government has one trump card when it comes to dealing with Moscow: Belarus’s key strategic location. This factor makes the country an irreplaceable ally for Russia.
Moreover, Belarus remains too close to Russian civilians for the Kremlin to be able to lash out – as it as it does usually in its relations with post-Soviet nations – without risking widespread indignation domestically. As Russia continues to struggle with economic decline and international isolation, its opportunities to put pressure on Belarus are slowly but surely dwindling.