Event: Zapad 2021: Threats of the War Games

Online Discussion with Alexander Lanoszka, Nerijus Maliukevičius and Marcin Zaborowski

7 September 2021

Recording of the discussion on the upcoming Zapad 2021 military exercise near the borders of Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland.

Tensions are rising near the NATO border where on 10-16 September large-scale Russian military exercise will be taking place. Around 200 000 troops will be participating in drills envisaging, according to Belarus, potential aggression against the Russia-Belarus union state. The exercise comes at an already tense time for the region where Poland, Lithuania and Latvia are tackling a hybrid attack from Belarus in the form of illegal migration.

Our speakers:

  • Alexander Lanoszka – Assistant Professor at the University of Waterloo, Associate Fellow at the Council on Geostrategy, Author
  • Nerijus Maliukevičius – Lecturer and Researcher at Vilnius University focused on information warfare and strategic communication, Author

Moderated by: Marcin Zaborowski – Editor-in-Chief at Res Publica Nowa, Senior Associate at Visegrad Insight and Policy Director at Future of Security Programme at GLOBSEC.

You can find the recording of the first half of the discussion below:

The Q&A session started off with a question on whether enhanced NATO presence in the Baltics and Poland would escalate the tensions with Russia or deter escalation during the military exercises. The speakers were reluctant to give a firm answer on what would be the outcome if NATO increased its presence on the borders of Belarus and Russia for the period of the exercise because it is difficult to say whether there would be no escalation due to the increase of troops or there would have been no escalation either way. At the moment, the scale of NATO presence was deemed adequate by one of the speakers. However, in a scenario where a continuous Russian military presence in Belarus would occur, then that would mean serious implications for European security which NATO strategists would have to take into account. One of the speakers also noted that what makes the Russian regime opportunistic is not the strength of our defence but the weaknesses which create those opportunities for the Kremlin.

The speakers were then asked what will be the impact of Zapad 2021 on the domestic situation in Belarus. One of the speakers commented that it will only strengthen the regime’s stance and from their perspective finalise the whole post-election scuffle. But at the same time, it is a sad story not only for the Belarusian people but also for the Belarusian regime. In 2017, Lukashenka still had room for manoeuvre and was trying to balance between Russia and the West. There is no more room for balance now. Our second speaker added that a lot depends on what will happen in the aftermath of the exercises. If the Russian military presence in Belarus will be very large and visible, it will be another source of alienation on a large part of the Belarusian population which prior to August 2020 was not anti-Russian but has since become wearier. From the Russian perspective, according to the speaker, they should not impose themselves in Belarus but rather adopt more subtle and covert tactics of control.

One of the speakers argued that the likelihood of Russian military equipment or troops being left behind is certain. There are already joint training centres in Belarus and although Zapad 2021 more or else has been happening since July, there have been military exercises undertaken by the two countries for the entire year now. According to the speaker, these exercises would continue until 2022 in one shape or another which gives Russia an opportunity to maintain a continuous if not permanent military presence. There will be some residual forces left behind, there are already official statements on it.

When asked what constraints is Lukashenka under if any, one of the speakers reiterated that Lukashenka looks quite desperate. Specifically, it looks like the migrant crisis caused on the border with his EU neighbours is his individual gameplay. However, according to the speaker, Lukashenka is trying to lure Russia and Putin more into this game to have more Russian participation in Belarus but not necessarily in aggressive forms.

One of the questions touched upon Russia’s view of its sphere of influence to which one of the speakers answered that since Putin’s rise to power, Russia has been trying to fight the unipolar American world. The idea of a multipolar world where Russia has its sphere of influence is an idea Putin struggles and fights for. Therefore, everything that is going on starting with Georgia, Ukraine and now Russia taking this posture in Belarus can be related to this geopolitical narrative. However, the speaker noted that he does not want to end up with this very pessimistic vision where the West is done with nation-building in CEE and are unwilling to fight for the human rights and freedoms of EU neighbours.

Reflecting on the last month’s developments in Afghanistan and whether Russia could use Zapad 2021 to make Ukraine feel endangered and abandoned by the US, one of the speakers commented that what is happening in Afghanistan does not relate much to the situation in Ukraine. The American commitment to Ukraine was already fairly limited and one can argue that even Britain has a stronger commitment to Ukraine. Therefore, according to the speaker, Russia will be looking for those sorts of patterns rather than what has transpired in the last month in Afghanistan. There is already enough to be read into America’s policy towards Ukraine, and the speaker argues it is not a positive one.

The last remark of the Q&A session raised the question of whether Zapad 2021 has any influence on the upcoming Russian Duma elections and Russian domestic politics. The speaker argues that it is a factor in the equation but only as a subject matter for media and propaganda showing off the strength and force. The pictures of the exercises will be constantly circulating in the media now and before the elections. According to the speaker, this is Putin’s image project before the elections specifically for the benefit of his party.


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