Russia used the recent Zapad 2017 military exercises to test how well the Belarusian army would come under its direct control in case war breaks out with the West, according to a Jamestown Foundation report.
“Russian military top brass was using the joint drills to check the readiness of the Belarusian army to act under the command of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces,” Igor Fedyk wrote in the report, adding that “the same compatibility and chain-of-command checks were carried out during the joint Russian-Belarusian operational exercise Union Shield 2015.”
“It highlights the thinking in Moscow that, in the event of an offensive operation in the western strategic direction, the Russian General Staff would need to be certain that all its orders will be carried without question by Belarusian soldiers,” Fedyk wrote.
Belarus is part of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation, and therefore its army is “fairly well coordinated and integrated” with the Russian army, Michael Kofman, a senior research scientist at CNA, told Business Insider.
While Kofman said the Jamestown Foundation article appeared rather cynical, Russia would look to integrate Belarusian forces with its military command-and-control apparatus in the case of a confrontation with the West, he added.
In such an event, Belarus would basically have two options: “Cooperate with Russia” or “be forcibly taken over,” Kofman said, adding that if Belarus tried to move toward the West, then Moscow would look to overthrow the regime or occupy parts of the country — as it did in Ukraine.
Belarus, therefore, has to walk a very fine line, since it “wants to have options beyond Russia” and “to look palatable with the West,” Kofman said.
Minsk made it clear before Zapad that it would not welcome Russian troops staying in Belarus after the exercises and even invited foreign observers to watch the games, much to the chagrin of Moscow.
Longtime Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko also turned down Russia’s earlier plans to build an air base in the former Soviet state and even
refused to join Russian President Vladimir Putin during one phase of the Zapad exercises.
Lukashenko’s moves appear to have irked Moscow. Putin didn’t visit Belarus during the drills and Russian military commanders didn’t even “stay for a ceremonial meal right after the event,” Grigory Ioffe wrote in a Jamestown Foundation article.
“Belarus is led by one of the savviest politicians in the former Soviet space,” Kofman said. “He doesn’t want to look like Putin’s ally so he can go to the West.”
Belarus is “playing both sides,” Kofman said, and the Kremlin knows it.
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