Upcoming Russian Military Exercise In Belarus Sparks Concern….As Usual

Next month, Russia will conduct its quadrennial military exercise centered on the readiness and combat capabilities of its Western Military District. Zapad 2021 will take place in Belarus and include forces from Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. As is generally the case when a Zapad exercise rolls around, there is growing concern and angst among Russia’s neighbors right now. In light of Russia’s mobilization of troops and equipment along the Ukrainian border back in March and April, the concern is reasonable. The troops eventually departed from the staging areas near the border, but the equipment remained. Under prime conditions it will be easy for the officers and troops from those units to redeploy from their installations around Russia, marry-up with their equipment and move to the border. In the eyes of many Western military analysts (professional and otherwise) a major exercise like Zapad could provide Russia with the cover needed to undertake such a move.

In all candor though, alarm and dire predictions over the exercise spring up like weeds every four years when Zapad exercises approach. This goes back to the late 70s and early 80s at the height of the Cold War when NATO warily monitored the movement of so many troops, tanks and aircraft into Poland and East Germany. Back then, what appeared to be an exercise could of very well been the prelude to a Soviet/Warsaw Pact invasion of Western Europe. Those fears were never realized. If they had, we probably would not be here right now, truthfully. Now in 2021, outside concerns are more varied and contingent on the respective vantage points of nation-states and supranational organizations.

As we move closer to September, this will be touched on regularly.

EU Lays Sanctions On Belarus After The Ryanair Incident

The European Union wasted no time in reacting to the forced landing of a Ryanair flight in Minsk after an alleged bomb threat. Dissident journalist Roman Protasevich, a passenger on the flight, was removed by Belarusian authorities and taken into custody. Since the incident there have been waves of fiery condemnation and calls of further sanctions coming from Brussels and the capital cities of many EU nation-states. European leaders are calling for a ban on Belarusian airlines flying over EU territory and are urging EU-based airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace. This would have a consequential effect on the economy of Belarus, however it is not likely to act as an instrument to bring about the desired political change in that country. For the moment, the EU has agreed to lay targeted economic sanctions on Belarus. This type of sanction will be applied selectively against specific Belarusian business entities and individuals.

On the diplomatic front, aside from rhetoric there has been minimal activity. The exception is Latvia, which expelled its diplomats from Belarus on Monday following a similar act by Minsk earlier in the day. The Ryanair incident prompted Latvian officials to replace the Belarusian state flag with the traditional red and white flag, now a symbol of the opposition movement, at an ice hockey tournament.

It is improbable that the expected EU economic sanctions will help bring about the end of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime or change the domestic situation there. The EU’s action will simply push Lukashenko and his country closer to Russia, perhaps inextricably placing it back in the Russian sphere of influence. Lukashenko has been leaning heavily on Russian President Vladimir Putin since the Belarusian presidential election in August, 2020. It is mainly an alliance of necessity at this point. Putin and Russia need a stable and compliant neighbor now, especially with Ukraine remaining as defiant and pro-West as ever.

RyanAir Flight Forced Down In Belarus, Dissident Journalist Arrested

In normal times this would never have taken place. The potential backlash, both diplomatic and economic, would be so decisive and painful that no nation-state in the First World could even contemplate taking action similar to that undertaken by Belarus on Sunday. Unfortunately, in contemporary times, international rules and regulations are flaunted by certain governments, and a growing reluctance to punish governments that openly challenge international norms.

As for the Sunday’s action in Belarus, it falls into a gray area between state-sponsored terrorism and modern day impressment. A RyanAir flight from Athens to Vilnius was diverted to Belarus because of a potential security threat on board,” according to Belarussian authorities. A Belarusian MiG-29 was launched to intercept the airliner and then escort it to Minsk. On the ground, the aircraft was inspected for explosives and none were found. Before being cleared to depart, however, Belarusian authorities boarded the plane and took Roman Protasevich into custody. Protasevich is a high-profile dissident journalist and active member of the opposition. He was placed on a terrorist watch list by the Belarusian KGB while living in exile. It is believed Belarussian President Aleksandr Lukashenko personally gave the order for the airliner to be turned around. Belarusian officials have wanted him in custody for some time. Their wish has been granted.

This incident, along with being bold and reckless, has the power to bring about far-reaching consequences. Belarus is already contending with deteriorating relations between itself and most of its neighbors. There’s increasing suspicion about Russian strongman Vladimir Putin’s growing influence in Belarusian affairs, as well as Russia’s long-range plans for Belarus.

Baltic States And Poland Cast A Wary Eye To The East

Lithuania’s president took advantage of the anniversary date for the May 3 Constitution of 1791 to lob a shot across Russia’s bow. While in Warsaw addressing an online session of both Poland’s and Lithuania’s parliaments, President Gitanas Nauseda affirmed that Lithuania will never recognize the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, its military pressure on eastern Ukraine or Russian moves to influence Belarus. “Lithuania will never recognize the illegal annexation of Crimea and will be taking steps toward ending the actual occupation of part of eastern Ukraine,” the Lithuanian president said. “Whatever happens, we cannot allow Ukraine to slide back into the past.”

Poland’s president Andrzej Duda also said today that Russia’s actions in Ukraine “must never be accepted.”

The two leaders were joined in Warsaw by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the leaders of Latvia and Estonia to celebrate the 230th anniversary of the joint Poland-Lithuanian constitution. Symbolically, the setting and event were tailor-made to demonstrate the Eastern European unity against Russia’s expansionist actions and desires in recent years. The consensus from Riga to Warsaw is that once Russia is finished with Ukraine, it will set its sights on the Baltics and eventually Poland. Perhaps even before the Ukrainian adventure is brought to a favorable end for Moscow.

Belarus has been a cause for concern recently. From the large-scale unrest and protests following the presidential election last year to Alexander Lukashenko gravitating nearer to the Russian sphere of influence, the nations bordering Belarus suspect that Russia’s ambitions include developing that country into a springboard for future operations against the Baltic states and Poland.

Belarus Update: 8 September, 2020

Massive protests continue in Belarus and show essentially no indications of diminishing. This weekend in Minsk 100,000 Belarussians turned out to demonstrate against the regime of Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko. Demonstrators marched on Lukashenko’s residence in the capital city calling for the embattled leader to step down. The results of the presidential election in August proved to be the spark that ignited the current wave of protests in Minsk and across Belarus. The election is seen as rigged by many Belarussians. In it, Lukashenko was the victor by a considerable margin even though anti-Lukashenko sentiment in Belarus has been high.

Security forces cracked down on the protests this weekend. Hundreds of peoples were detained and arrested. Riot police used heavy-handed tactics to disperse and isolate groups of protesters. Barbed wire, and military vehicles armed with water cannons were deployed. Maria Kolesnikova, a senior opposition figure, was apparently apprehended by masked men, and thrown into a minibus that left the scene seconds later. Police deny bringing her into custody, leaving her fate unclear. The concern among other opposition members is that Kolesnikova is now in the custody of Belarussian State Security Committee.

Russia continues to monitor events in Belarus closely. Although Russian President Vladimir Putin indicated last week that Russia might be compelled to intervene militarily in Belarus at some point, there are no indications of that occurring in the near future. Moscow is content right now with the situation as it stands. Lukashenko remains in control, however, that control could very well be slipping away at this time. Memories of Euromaidan have unquestionably formed in the mind of Putin, and other senior Russian officials. The uprising in Belarus bears some similarities to the 2013-14 Ukrainian revolution. This time around, Russia cannot afford to be slow off the starting blocks. If at some point the survival of Lukashenko and his regime becomes questionable, Putin will not waste any time moving to ensure Belarus does not fall into the West’s sphere of influence.