“West-2021”: what’s behind the scenes of the exercises?

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The joint (or already not?) Belarusian-Russian exercise “West-2021” has ended. Although the event is traditional, this year it has a number of significant differences from previous ones. Moreover, these differences are so fundamental that one can speak with a high degree of confidence about the qualitative transformation of the “West”. First of all, in the political dimension.

First, if the events of “West-2017” in Belarus were held throughout the country, then this year they were localized almost completely in the south-west of the country. Ukraine has traditionally seen this as an element of Russian hybrid aggression. But here we can rather speak of a demarche of the Belarusian regime specifically against Poland.

The statements of the Belarusian authorities voiced before the exercises that Ukraine could use “West-2021” to organize provocations in order to substantiate its Euro-Atlantic aspirations were not realized in practice. According to unofficial information, the issue of holding “West-2021” in a calm atmosphere without incidents was raised by Vladimir Putin during his meeting with Aliaksandr Lukashenka in the Kremlin on September 9 — almost on the eve of the active phase of the exercises.

Second, it was announced in advance that Lukashenka and Putin would not jointly observe the active phase of the exercises, each ruler would visit the training ground on his territory. Previously, the exercise was used as an excuse to meet and demonstrate the unity of Moscow and Minsk. And at the same time to solve some political and economic issues. But in 2017, the Kremlin did not respond to the invitation to visit “West” in Belarus, and Lukashenka was not invited to Russia at all. Then it was seen as a demarche by the Kremlin because of the position of the Belarusian regime on the “Ukrainian issue”.

Obviously, this time the Kremlin also decided to refrain from demonstrating unity with its formal ally on the battlefield. The reason seems to be political: Russia does not want to take steps (even symbolic ones), which could be viewed as support for the hysterical and bellicose statements from Minsk. Russian foreign policy has its own goals in the western direction (different from the Belarusian one) and the tools for achieving them.

Third, there was an official inclusion of the joint Belarusian-Russian “West” in the Russian exercises with the same name. The Russian Ministry of Defence has officially announced that about 200 thousand servicemen will take part in “West-2021”. Of these, less than 13 thousand were involved in the territory of Belarus. And in total, less than 11 thousand military personnel from Belarus participated in the exercises. With such a ratio of the “contributions” of the parties, it is possible to call the exercises bilateral only because of political correctness.

Moscow traditionally, together with the bilateral exercise, conducted its own manoeuvres, also called “West”. They were longer in time and more ambitious. Belarus has traditionally tried to distinguish between the two events. They didn’t succeed in that, in the West both exercises were considered as one event. Moreover, it was perceived that in these exercises the Belarusian army acts as an integral part of the Russian military machine, and the Belarusian-Russian “West” exercises were perceived as an episode of the Russian exercises. So, from the point of view of external observers, there are no fundamental changes. But for Belarusian-Russian relations, this is a serious demarche by Moscow, which aims to lower Belarus’ status as a full-fledged military ally of Russia.

The lack of a public reaction on the part of the Belarusian authorities testifies to the understanding of the goals pursued by Russia, “joining” the joint “West” exercises to Russian ones. But Minsk cannot do anything about it.

Fourth, Moscow has internationalized the exercises, turning them into a multilateral event with the participation of a number of states in addition to Belarus and Russia. The first statement on this score was made by the Russians at the SCO platform, where Belarus has observer status (only thanks to the position of China). Russia has invited other SCO member states to participate in “West-2021”. The views of the Belarusian authorities were not asked on this matter.

Thus, Minsk’s status as an exclusive military ally of the Kremlin is being eroded. Now Belarus is just one of a number of important Russian allies. At the same time, the level of importance is determined by the specific situation in the region and the interests of Moscow.

For Minsk, this is not only a painful blow to self-esteem, but also the loss of the most important instrument of influencing the Kremlin. Earlier, the status of Belarus as Russia’s exclusive military partner helped to resolve many issues of bilateral relations not related to the military sphere. It was also very well monetized by Lukashenka regime.

Fifth, the lack of a unified command of the exercises (a representative of each of the parties headed the events on the national territory) is a consequence of Russia’s unilateral actions to “take over” and internationalize “West-2021”. Which was unexpected for the Belarusian authorities. It is obvious that even after the relevant statements, the parties could not or did not want to agree to the united command of the exercises. Which in the new format of the event could only be Russian.

Sixth, there is a discrepancy between the declared amount of equipment and the number of troops involved. Russia claims that up to 200 thousand personnel, about 80 aircraft and helicopters, up to 760 units of military equipment, including 290 tanks, 240 guns, multiple launch rocket systems and mortars, and also up to 15 ships were involved. Here there is a question about the methodology for calculating the number of personnel involved in the exercise. It is quite possible that this is an automatic summation of the size of all formations, the representatives of which participated in “West-2021”.

Seventh, although formally it has nothing to do with “West” — the creation and start of combat duty of a joint Belarusian-Russian training and combat centre (hereinafter referred to as TCC) for air defence in the west of Belarus. At the same time, nothing is reported about the beginning of the functioning of two other joint TCC, which are to be created on Russian territory. The TCC created in Belarus is part of the “Unified Regional Air Defence System” and therefore, in theory, should be subordinate to the Belarusian command. But the problem is that the agreement between the Ministry of Defence of Belarus and Russia on the creation of the TCC has not yet been made public. Therefore, the order of TCC functioning is unknown.

At the same time, Minsk and Moscow perceive the TCC in Belarus in different ways. For the Belarusian regime, this is an attempt to demonstrate loyalty to the Kremlin in the military sphere in order to resolve more important issues on the bilateral agenda. And to put pressure on the West in the old format “if you don’t want to talk to Lukashenka in Belarus, then you will talk to Putin in Belarus”. For the Kremlin, this is the first step towards the transformation of Belarusian-Russian cooperation in the defence sphere to the creation of a full-fledged joint military organization of the “union state” as a maximum task. Or the re-subordination of the Regional Group of Belarus and Russia to the Russian command on an ongoing basis with the creation of a Russian military base in Belarus in the format of 2015 (minimum task). So the TCC has the potential to become a point of conflict in Belarusian-Russian relations.

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