By Paul Goble
Moscow has advertised Zapad-2017 as a joint Russian-Belarusian military exercise, but it is anything but as it includes features which Russian doctrine requires Moscow maintain exclusive control over and is intended to send a message to the West Moscow but not necessarily Minsk wants sent, Arseniy Sinitsky says.
The director of the Minsk Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Research says that the current exercise, as few have noted, has a nuclear component in that Russian doctrine calls for Russian forces to use tactical nuclear weapons if they cannot stop an opponent by any other means (belaruspartisan.org/politic/394964/).
That in turn means that Russian forces are in complete control of the exercise because under Russian law and doctrine only the Russian president can authorize the use of such weapons. Therefore, if these exercises are to be as close as possible to reality, they would have to function under a Russian chain of command, not some joint one.
A second aspect of these exercises that shows they are not joint in any real sense is that the Belarusian portion is only a small part of a much larger exercise involving Russian forces in the Russian Federation and in international waters. Minsk wasn’t involved in planning these and so would have had minimal input into even the part on its territory.
Indeed, Sinitsky says, Russian defense planning would never be willing to offer Minsk a voice in this not only because that would undermine the shape of the total exercise but also because Moscow inevitably views Belarus as the site of potential clashes with the enemy and thus would not want Minsk to limit what Russian forces might do.
And third, the Belarusian analyst argues, this exercise is about sending the West a message concerning Moscow’s willingness to escalate its military operations in the event of a further deterioration of relations between the Russian Federation, on the one hand, and NATO and the US in particular, on the other.
Such a message, Sinitsky says, is clearly Moscow’s message. It is hardly one that Minsk would have been a co-participant in defining. Thus, it is important not to call Zapad 2017 a joint exercise because in reality it is a Russian one that is making use of some Belarusian units but not allowing them the kind of voice the term “joint exercise” suggests.