The closer the beginning of the Belarusian-Russian exercise West-2017, the more often one can hear worries that the Kremlin is using the event to provoke another crisis in the region. But everybody has its own reason for these fears. In some cases there is an attempt to play on apocalyptic expectations in order to achieve some political goals.
What NATO is concerned about. Although the leadership of the Alliance publicly declares that it will closely monitor “West-2017” and is ready to react to any provocations, on closer examination it turns out that the relations of NATO member-states towards the Belarusian-Russian exercises are different. From the neighbours of Belarus, Poland and Lithuania publicly express concern. Latvia is quite calm in this situation.
The difference in approaches is connected with the fact that “West-2017” is first of all viewed from political, not military point of view in Warsaw and Vilnius. Otherwise, the Latvians would have reasons to worry, because they are surrounded from three sides: Russian Baltic fleet from the north, the large airborne exercises of Russia in Pskov region in the east and the Belarusian-Russian exercises from the south. At the same time, Latvia has the lowest defence potential of all three Baltic states.
Poland is playing, and Lithuania would like to play, the role of the EU and, partly NATO eastern policy moderator. That is why the factor of “West-2017” is artificially fanned by Polish and Lithuanian politicians with the purpose of solving issues related to internal processes in the European Union and the Alliance. Including the increase of Poland’s and Lithuania’s influence on EU and NATO regional policy.
Unlike its western neighbors, Riga does not claim a significant political role and pursues a pragmatic policy of securing and promoting its interests. The presence of NATO troops in Latvia, even in spite of their small number, is a sufficient guarantee that the collective defence tools within the Alliance will be activated if necessary.
It should be noted that NATO and Russia speak different languages. For example, overflights of the countries of the Alliance by Russian strategic aviation are considered as a demonstration of the flag and PR action in Moscow. In the West this is considered as a threat of use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states.
Alarmist Kyiv. De facto, Ukraine is at war with Russia. Quite a strange one, but nevertheless this is war. Therefore, in Kiev, extremely wary of any Russian military activity near their borders. And from «West-2017» they see two threats.
Firstly, along with the “West-2017”, Russia will conduct a series of various large-scale combat training activities along the Ukrainian border. Ukrainian specialists have been recording a large-scale transfer of Russian troops to their borders for about a month already. The troops are moving even from western Siberia. The bulk of the Russian forces are moving not to the west (to Belarus or to the borders with the EU), but to the borders of Ukraine. There are fears that such a concentration of troops is a sign of planned military provocations against Ukraine, primarily on the front lines in the Lugansk and Donetsk regions. However, it should be noted that the same Ukrainian specialists report a reduction in the number of “armies” of the so-called “people’s republics” in the South-east of Ukraine. Therefore, if an aggravation of the conflict happens, it will, first of all, have a propagandistic, psychological and political effect. It is doubtful that Russia sets some military goals.
Secondly, Kyiv does not exclude Russian provocations from the territory of Belarus during the exercise “West-2017”. It is possible that Russian aircraft participating in the exercise violate the airspace of Ukraine provoking Ukrainian air defence forces to use weapons. After that, the Russian side, denying the fact of violation of the border, accuses Kyiv of aggression against the so-called “Union state of Belarus and Russia” and puts the Belarusian authorities in front of the choice: either a joint military response, or Minsk should finally determine how important for Belarus are relations with Russia. As well as access to the Russian market and obtaining Russian financial and political support. At the same time, we are not talking about the deployment the first tank army or any other Russian offensive troops in our country. It is enough to create a Russian air defence base with the formal task of protecting the southern borders of Belarus in the airspace. 2 or 3 divisions of Russian S-400 SAM systems in the event of a military conflict with Ukraine are able to take control over the airspace over the northern regions of this country including Kyiv.
Naturally, both Ukraine and NATO will have to react in this situation, including in the military sphere. This will require additional efforts from Ukraine to strengthen the security system from the north. Belarus will become a side of the confrontation by placing seemingly defensive weapons in its own territory.
Belarusian roulette. The main problem with the “West-2017” for Minsk is that for the period of the exercises the fate of the Belarusian-European, Belarusian-American and Belarusian-Ukrainian relations depends critically on Moscow’s conscientiousness. Any provocation from the Russian side will immediately cause the reaction of those politicians in neighbouring countries, who for various reasons tend to view our country as an appendage of Russia. Under this pretext, they deny the political subjectness of Belarus.
From a rational point of view, the Kremlin has no reason to organize provocations against neighbouring countries from the territory of Belarus. Firstly, the response will be tough. Moscow is far from being in the best shape and the extra tension is not good for it. Secondly, this will cause the final disintegration of the post-Soviet space, Moscow’s integration plans will fail. Thirdly, it is unclear how the official Minsk will react. Tales about Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s being a Russian vassal have little to do with reality. The Belarusian leader is an extremely difficult partner for everyone, including Moscow. And he is very impulsive. So the reaction can be tough. Again, Moscow has enough enemies without Minsk.
The problem is that the Kremlin has many towers and they look in different directions. Russia’s policy is too often irrational and ideologized. In addition, the presidential campaign began. Up to now it is not clear what Vladimir Putin will propose to the Russian electorate. The US’s extreme sanctions on Russia require a response from Moscow. In the current situation, the creation of additional tension in regions where there are significant US interests (or where Washington has some obligations) may be a variant of such a response.