Staunton, July 31 – Fearful that Moscow might use the Zapad 2017 exercises to stage one or another kind of “provocation,” the Belarusian government is seeking to forestall that by promoting transparency through the invitation of as many international observers as possible, according to two Minsk analysts.
Moscow has already dispatched to Belarus equipment and personnel to take part in the September military exercises known as Zapad 2017. Last Thursday, Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka again stressed the defensive character of the exercise and Minsk began issuing invitations to observers from neighboring states.
Today, Petr Kukhta of the EuroBelarus portal, published his interviews with two of Minsk’s leading foreign policy specialists about the upcoming event and why having international observers attend is so important for Belarus and possibly for its neighbors too (eurobelarus.info/news/policy/2017/07/31/zapad-2017-minsk-v-obostrenii-situatsii-v-regione-ne.html).
Andrey Porotnikov of the Belarus Security Blog says that he doesn’t believe that the exercise threatens Belarus with occupation or annexation as a result of Zapad 2017 “but here the problem is more that we may encounter provocations from Russia which will complicate or in general make impossible the normalization of relations with Belarus and the West and create very great problems with relations with Ukraine.”
That Russia might take some provocative action can’t be excluded, he continues, not only because of its anger about the new US sanctions regime but also because it is simultaneousy carrying out “large-scale exercises in … the North Caucasus and the Southern Federal Military District, which I think will have a clearly expressed aggressive character.”
“In principle,” Porotnikov says, “we cannot completely exclude provocations on the territory of Belarus which the Ukrainians are very concerned about. For example, a Russian plane from the territory of Belarus could fly over the territory of Ukraine and Ukrainian anti-aircraft forces could be given the order to destroy it.”
To ward off such possibilities or to ensure that they do not get out of hand if they occur, the analyst argues, is possible “only by a policy of maximum openness of the exercises, the exchange of information, the inclusion of all possible observers and tight control of the activity of Russian units on the territory of Belarus.”
The second Minsk expert Kukhta interviewed was Arseny Sivitskky, the director of the Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Research who stressed that “now it is extraordinarily important” that Belarus “not lose the status of a donor of regional security.” That it has restricted the number of Russian troops slated to come to 3,000 is an indication of its desire to avoid that.
Belarus, he says, “all the same is playing a leading role in the planning and organization” of Zapad 2017. It intends to have the exercise take place in the most open way possible, “without excesses or any surprises. Therefore, it has informed in advance not only [its] neighbors but also international organizations, including the OSCE.”
According to Sivitsky, “Belarus really intends that these exercises take place without any breakdown in regional stability and security. But this is the position of the Belarusians site and may not coincide with that of Moscow which will be carrying out portions of Zapad on its own territory, about which up to now nothing is known.
He says he “does not exclude” either that Moscow may again raise the issue of establishing an airbase in Belarus, given that this “strategic intention” on the part of Russia remains. “Belarus has great significance for Russia from a military-political point of view in order to put pressure on the Baltic countries, Poland and Ukraine.”
“To exclude provocations, for example, on the Belarusian-Ukrainian border is impossible,” Sivitsky says. “Our partner [Russia] conducts itself in an unpredictable way not only with the countries of the West but even with Belarus, its chief military-political ally.”
“But the Belarusian authorities are insuring themselves” in the following way, he says: “Any departure from the plan will not remain without a reaction from the side of the Belarusian leadership. About that there can be no doubts.”