Russia

The Zapad Military Exercise Reveals Putin's Fear

If war breaks out with the West, it's most likely to start in "Veyshnoria."

Show and tell.

Photographer: Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images

The large-scale Russian military exercise known as Zapad, which started in Belarus on Thursday, is already a propaganda success: It has alarmed Russia's North Atlantic Treaty Organization neighbors and garnered so much Western media coverage that one might think it was an actual combat operation. But it has also provided an important insight into the fears of the Russian and Belarusian rulers, fears that are not necessarily groundless.

QuickTake Vladimir Putin

To Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, the exercise is meant to "frighten" her country. To Finnish Defense Minister Jussi Niinisto, it's about "information warfare" ("Western countries have taken the bait completely, they’ve plugged the exercises so much," he said recently). To military experts, the quadrennial exercise is a chance to see how much the Russian army has progressed since 2013, when the last Zapad was held. To me, the most intriguing part of the exercise is its storyline. 

It places a small, hostile, and most importantly, imaginary nation called Veyshnoria in the western part of Belarus -- the part of the country that has the biggest Catholic population, the highest prevalence of the Belarusian language, and the part that voted nationalist in the country's last free election in 1994, as Belarusian economist Sergei Chaly pointed out in a recent Facebook post. That's a clear indication of what, according to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and their generals, could spark a war between Russia and the West.

The scenario they seem to have in mind starts with Western powers destabilizing Belarus the way they, in Putin's view, destabilized Ukraine in 2014. Within Putin's worldview, Ukraine is now split into a U.S.-controlled part and the bit held by pro-Russian rebels in the east. That's the idea behind Veyshnoria, too -- and it's not entirely fictional. Pro-Western and nationalist activists in Belarus have welcomed "Veyshnoria" gleefully, creating a website and social network feeds for it. It's all facetious, of course, but behind it is a dream of a Belarus -- or even a part of Belarus -- that belongs to the Western world and is moving toward NATO and European Union membership. The Belarusians who post about Veyshnorian history, politics and even economy, are doing it just a tiny bit wistfully, imagining how their country could have been if not for Lukashenko. 

To the Belarusian dictator, and to the Kremlin, these are symptoms of covert Western influence operations, the kind that led to the Ukrainian revolution. Only if the same happens in Belarus, Russia intends to interfere more forcefully. And if it does, it expects a military response from the U.S., given Belarus's proximity to the Baltic states, which the U.S. has vowed to defend. As Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military and fellow at the Kennan Institute, told me:

Belarus is 100 percent the most likely cause of a fight between Russia and the U.S. When you look at the spread of conflict scenarios, Belarus is Russia's red line and the Baltics are the U.S. red line. The U.S. line is easy not to cross; Belarus on the other hand can fall victim to all sorts of crises and the Russian fear is that neighboring countries will play games that ultimately result in war.

To Kofman, the current Zapad exercise continues a line of Russian signaling to the West that began with NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, during the Kosovo war. "It was the seismic event from which Russian threat perceptions have never recovered," he says. During that air campaign, Russia saw the U.S. technological superiority. The U.S. military, it found, could act anywhere with almost total impunity. So ever since, Russia has been trying to come up with a response, should the U.S. intervene in what it sees as its sphere of influence -- in response to Russian attempts to secure that sphere. 

The storyline of the Zapad exercise means the Kremlin considered a more forceful U.S. response to Russian interference in Ukraine a possibility, though perhaps a remote one. In the same way, it's a possibility to Putin with regard to Belarus.

With Zapad, the Kremlin is trying to show the U.S. and NATO how Russia would deal with such a U.S. response. In Kofman's words:

The point of Zapad has always been to establish coercive credibility with the U.S., that were the U.S. to intervene either in Russia or on Russia's borders in a country like Belarus, Moscow would use force all the way up to nuclear weapons. We're at a transition point right where Russia is increasingly less reliant on nuclear weapons, though they still form an important component of how Russia intends to control escalation, and establish escalation dominance. Zapad has gone from 1999 -- "If you intervene we will nuke you" -- to 2017: "If you intervene we have the forces to take you on, and then if we're losing we will probably still nuke you."

The good thing about that message is that it is essentially defensive, in line with official statements from Russia and Belarus. But the troubling part is that if people in Belarus, or in Russia itself, get fed up with those countries' oppressive regimes, as Ukrainians did with President Viktor Yanukovych's corrupt rule, the authoritarian rulers' reaction may not be aimed merely at suppressing the rebellion. It may be a military move against the West, which will be automatically blamed for the domestic troubles of the regime.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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