Is Russia Practicing a Dry Run for an Invasion of Belarus?

Russia does military exercises regularly, but this year’s version, underway right now, deserves especially close attention. It’s called Zapad (“West”) and involves thousands of troops doing maneuvers on the borders of the Baltic states and Poland. The motivating scenario is to defend against an imagined invasion of Belarus by foreign-backed extremists. One of the fictional enemy states, “Vesbaria,” seems to be a thinly disguised Lithuania; the other, “Lubenia,” looks a bit like Poland. There will no doubt be the usual low-level provocations, with Russian planes buzzing borders, that will make the whole passive-aggressive show of strength look more like an invasion of the West than the other way around.

One extra element this time, however, is that these are joint exercises with Belarus, and not everyone in Belarus is happy to play host. The exercises are being staged in the northwest of the country, given the name of another fictional state, “Veyshnoria.” This is the historical heartland of real Belarusian nationalism, where Belarusian activists in the early 20th century competed with Poles, Lithuanians, and Jews to claim the old Tsarist administrative region of Vilna. Unfortunately for the Belarusians, much of this became Vilnius, the capital of modern-day Lithuania. But the rest remains in the northwest of modern Belarus, with the division testament to the long-standing love-hate relationship between Baltic peoples and Belarusians. Hence the Baltic-style spelling of Veyshnoria.

But the region also voted for President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s main opponent, the nationalist Zianon Pazniak, the last time Belarus had a real competitive election, back in 1994. So Zapad is directed as much against an “internal enemy” as against NATO powers, namely nationalists backed by the West. And that, worryingly, is the same scenario that Russia claimed to detect in Ukraine in 2014.

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