Staunton, September 23 – The Zapad-2017 exercise has ended “without the annexation of Belarus, a new round of aggression against Ukraine, or the triggering of World War III” that many had predicted or feared, Igor Ilyash point out in a new commentary. And those are all good things.
But the Belarusian analyst argues that those pleased that these things did not happen should nonetheless not look away from what happened and instead consider how the FSB or the GRU in Moscow may be evaluating this enormous military exercise because it will be their judgments about that which will shape the future.
And in a new Belsat commentary, Ilyash offers five conclusions that he believes the Russian authorities are most likely to have drawn about “the Belarusian aspect of the Zapad-2017 exercise” (belsat.eu/ru/news/analiticheskaya-zapiska-fsb-gru-ili-kak-belarus-perezhila-ucheniya-zapad-2017/).
First of all, he says, the Russian security services are completely correct to assume that “the attitude toward the Russian military among the main part of the population of Belarus is either quite loyal or absolutely indifferent.” Few Belarusians criticized the Russian forces and most accepted their appearance as something quite normal.
Second, Ilyash continues, Moscow is likely to conclude that “civil society is very weak [in Belarus] and is not capable of mobilizing anti-Russian protests even in those cases when pressure isn’t being applied to it.” Minsk showed that by allowing the opposition to organize a tiny demonstration against the Russian forces.
But all that did, the Belsat journalist says, was to underscore to Moscow that “any accusations of Russophobia in Belarus are baseless” and that “only ‘a handful of marginals’ are prepared to speak out against the Kremlin.”
Third, Moscow is certain to conclude that “public control was lacking and that no monitoring of Russian forces on the territory of Belarus was carried out.” In many cases, that would have been quite easy to do and it would have allowed for precise measurements of the size and movements of troops. But it wasn’t done.
Instead, Belarusians and Belarusian officials continued to act as if nothing was happening, and that in turn lends credence to the Kantemir soldier who said “if we wanted to occupy you, we would have, and you wouldn’t have understood anything. We would simply have come in and your officers would have become [non-ethnic] Russians.”
Fourth, Ilyash suggests, the FSB and the GRU are almost certain to have concluded that “the Belarusian authorities do not have even elementary ideas about the principles of conducting information war. The state media and press services are not capable of reacting in a timely fashion to releases [from the other side] and in general don’t consider that necessary.”
And fifth, and perhaps most important, the Russians will have concluded that “even the politically active part of society does not believe in the Russian threat, does not take it seriously and therefore no one should count on a rapid reaction in the case of a deterioration of the situation.”
Yes, some Belarusians talked about Veyshnoria, the imaginary enemy country, Ilyash says; but far more paid attention on Facebook to Mikhail Saakashvili’s return to Ukraine than to the actions of Russian tanks on their own national territory.
If these are in fact the conclusions that Moscow has reached, then Zapad-2017 is not so much about something that didn’t happen but rather a test for something that may yet happen in the future – especially because so many in the West are celebrating what didn’t happen and concluding that since it didn’t, it won’t.