Belarus and Russia have been holding joint military exercises every other year for the last eight years, taking turns to play host. This year, the Zapad (West) drills are taking place in Belarus. Additional maneuvers usually involve Russian soldiers on Russian territory.

If in the past, only neighboring Lithuania and Poland have expressed concern about aspects of the exercise scenarios, the level of alarm in the announcements leading up to Zapad 2017 is unprecedented.

Almost all of the country leaders and heads of foreign and defense ministries of the Baltic states, Poland, and Ukraine, along with several U.S. and NATO generals in Europe, have voiced concern in the last year that Russia will bring more than the planned 3,000 troops into Belarus, that the two countries are perfecting strategies for attacks on neighbors, that Moscow is using the exercises as cover for military provocations or aggression against neighbors, and that the Russian forces won’t leave or will leave military equipment in Belarus for future aggressive actions. Minsk and Moscow refute all such suspicions.

Distrust of post-Crimea Russia has turned even the most routine of exercises into grounds for suspicions that in a different era would have seemed paranoid. Last year, for example, NATO’s Anaconda exercises were held in Poland with the participation of more than twice as many forces as are taking part in Zapad 2017, and nobody kicked up much of a fuss about that.

It’s hard to object, however, when Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics points out that the Russian army held exercises in the summer of 2008 by the Georgian border on the eve of the Russo-Georgian war, and in the spring of 2014 in the Rostov region that borders Ukraine, just as the conflict broke out in that country.

Yet even for Russian President Vladimir Putin, using the Zapad exercises as military provocations would be a very strange move. What goal could Russia hope to achieve: getting its forces closer to NATO’s borders? And then what? An attack on Poland or Lithuania from the east, or on Ukraine from the north? What is the threat to Russia’s positions in this region that has to be counteracted at such a risk? There are no answers to these questions.

Any military provocations at the exercises or immediately following them cannot be justified by Russia or blamed on any local dynamics, such as infringements of the rights of the Russian population in eastern Poland or northern Ukraine. There are simply no such points of social conflict in the regions bordering on Belarus in neighboring countries.

The version that the target of any aggression could be Belarus itself is also problematic. There is no political conflict in relations between Minsk and Moscow that needs to be resolved through military means. Even if there were, in view of Belarus’s complete dependence on Russia in the energy sphere, oil and gas levers could be applied far more successfully by Russia, and would entail far less risk.

Finally, one of the least odious hypotheses is that Russia will “forget” its reserves of soldiers and equipment in Belarus. The motives for such a move are not entirely clear, but let’s assume that Moscow has them. It’s obvious that this couldn’t be done in secret from the Belarusian authorities, or concealed from Western observers and intelligence agencies without their active cooperation.

The chances that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko would agree to this concession are almost zero. In doing so, he would lose the West’s trust in Minsk, which is only now being reestablished.

The hard-won status of a peacemaker in the conflict in Ukraine and the labored thaw in relations with the EU and the United States are the consequence of a distancing from Russia and a more neutral position in Moscow’s conflicts with the rest of the world than that world expected of Belarus. That is why Lukashenko refused to formally recognize Crimea as a part of Russia or to allow a Russian air base to be located in Belarus.

During the last three years, Minsk has got used to the fact that the bad relations between Russia and the West provide Belarus with a comfortable field for maneuvering between the two. The Zapad 2017 exercises are a reminder that an ally’s bad image can ricochet.

The first painful moment for Belarus in the series of alarmed announcements by neighbors was that Minsk was being denied its status as a subject. For three years, the Belarusian authorities have been trying to prove that they are no longer a Russian satellite. But it has now become clear that in the European phobias being aired, Belarus doesn’t exist as an independent party. Its territory in these scenarios is simply used without permission as a bridgehead for aggression to which forces of any size can be transported, and a place where military ordinance can be left.

For a sovereign state, this is insulting. After the first few months of criticism, Lukashenko declared emotionally: “The military forces that will be brought in will be brought out in exactly the same way… Everything is under control.”

At the same time, impassioned attacks such as the declaration that “the very presence of Belarus and Russia in this region is a threat to the Baltic states” (as Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite put it) have provoked Minsk to summon ambassadors to the Foreign Ministry and issue sharp declarations in response. This ruins the neutral image, even if it is only at the level of rhetoric, and pushes Belarus back into the Russian trenches that it has been trying to clamber out of for the past three years.

Lukashenko cannot abandon the long-planned exercises with Russia the way that he rejected the Russian air base a couple of years ago. Firstly, it cannot be said that Minsk regards the exercises merely as a burden on its image. For the Belarusian army, they are a rare chance to train a fifth of its personnel. Secondly, an attempt to cancel the exercises would look like obvious caving in to maintain the balancing act, to the detriment of the interests of its alliance with Russia.

In order to minimize the reputational risks, Lukashenko invited NATO observers to the drills immediately after the first statements about the threat posed by them. It’s entirely probable that the Belarusian authorities or certain groups within those authorities also want to see as many Western military observers as possible in their country because it makes the situation a little calmer than if they weren’t there. It’s not that in Minsk many seriously believe that provocations are probable, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. The crisis of trust in Moscow has also had an impact on its allies.

In recent months, the rhetoric coming from at least two of Belarus’s neighbors has changed: a distinction is being made between Belarus and Russia in order to prevent Minsk from being excessively alienated by disquieting generalizations. The Ukrainian ambassador to Minsk, Igor Kizim, has repeated several times that with regard to Zapad 2017, he “trusts Belarus, but doesn’t trust Russia.” Rinkevics, Latvia’s foreign minister, said following a recent meeting with his Belarusian counterpart Vladimir Makei that Riga had no further questions for Minsk about the exercises. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said recently that although Zapad 2017 is a threat to Ukraine, he has no grounds not to trust the guarantees provided by Lukashenko.

Are Kiev and Riga really convinced by Minsk’s promises? If they view the permanent risk of Russian aggression as a given and live with that worldview, then it is unlikely. Their statements are more likely to be diplomacy, the deliberate setting of a high bar for expectations that should operate as a stimulus for Belarus.

If other Western governments want to reduce the risk of provocations on Belarusian territory during the exercises, they should take up a similar position. Otherwise, if Minsk is constantly marked down as a weak-willed bridgehead of Moscow’s, when push comes to shove, Lukashenko won’t even have anyone to let down. Why try to be a responsible partner if, whatever you do, you’re lumped back behind Russian lines?

And if, following exercises that take place without unexpected incidents, Minsk is rewarded with certain bonuses (even symbolic ones, such as a visit by high-level Western bureaucrats), then that motivational effect will merely be enhanced in the future.

Despite all the reputational risks, Minsk will try to get a maximum of diplomatic benefits out of the exercises if they go according to plan.

The Belarusian military will be able to demonstrate to Western observers that Minsk’s guarantees can be trusted. If Moscow is less open to international observation for the drills that take place on Russian territory, then the Belarusian hospitality will look all the better. According to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Belarus has invited the alliance’s observers to all five days of the exercises, while Russia has only invited them to one, and only for the demonstration section of the maneuvers, rather than for full-fledged observation of the exercises.

But for Lukashenko today, the message that Minsk is sending east is of no less importance. The Belarusian president periodically needs strong arguments to calm the voices in Russia that in recent years have begun to talk of Minsk turning toward the European Union. It’s hard to come up with a stronger argument than that a country “going down the Ukrainian route” does not hold major military drills with Russia that disturb the EU in this way. This way, however, the exercises will be held, the Russians will be left with a good impression, and while this new sedative dose is in effect, Minsk can continue to pursue in a leisurely fashion the foreign policy that it has enjoyed for the last few years.

This material is a part of “Minimizing the Risk of an East-West Collision: Practical Ideas on European Security” project, supported by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

  • Artyom Shraibman