The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Vladimir Putin, agent of chaos, is using a huge military exercise to keep the West on edge

Service members from India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Armenia and Russia pose during joint Russian-Belarusian drills on the Mulino training ground in the Nizhny Novgorod region, Russia, on Sept. 9, in a photo made available by the Russian Defense Ministry. (EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

TALLINN, Estonia — Vladimir Putin knows how to keep his enemies guessing. Will Western leaders ever catch on?

Russia is about to launch a huge military exercise within spitting distance of Europe. How many troops will be taking part exactly? What will they be doing? No one seems to know for sure — except the Russians themselves, and they’re sending conflicting signals.

The West has good reason to be concerned. This year’s version of the quadrennial Russian military exercise, known as Zapad 2021, takes place against an ominous background. In the spring, the Kremlin deployed large numbers of soldiers to areas close to Ukraine. Some 80,000 troops and their gear are said to remain in the area.

Meanwhile, Belarus — whose military is an integral part of the Zapad drill — has its own reasons to make mischief. Its authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, has been cracking down hard on the opposition after a year of protests brought citizens into the streets in unprecedented numbers.

On Monday, a court in Minsk sentenced one of the main protest leaders to 11 years in jail. Lukashenko’s desperation has driven him into a closer embrace with his old allies in Moscow — and aggravated relations with Europe, which has responded to his attacks on dissent with sanctions.

In recent weeks, the Belarusian strongman has deployed a novel tactic: sending thousands of undocumented migrants from Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere over his border into European Union neighbors Lithuania and Latvia, which are ill-equipped to deal with the influx. Sources in the region told me that the Belarusian KGB — yes, it’s still called that — has even been handing out free plane tickets to asylum seekers in Iraq; when the migrants arrive in Minsk, they are ferried to the border and sent across. Lukashenko knows that uncontrolled migration has a history of destabilizing European democracies by empowering xenophobic populists and polarizing societies.

So far E.U. officials have responded relatively effectively to this weaponization of migration, sending support to the Baltic countries and even referring to Lukashenko’s actions as a “direct attack.” Yet the Belarusian brand of hybrid warfare — undoubtedly approved by Lukashenko’s patrons in Moscow — has deepened concerns that the Russians could use Zapad 2021 to spring other surprises on the West. Poland has declared a state of emergency on its border with Belarus.

Amid the murk, one thing is clear: Putin is fine with the ambiguity. He could easily calm nerves by notifying Western governments of the details of his forthcoming troop movements. There is a procedure for this in the Vienna Document, an agreement on confidence-building measures established by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (which includes Russia) back in 1990. (It was updated in 2011.)

NATO still uses this mechanism to notify the Russians when it holds military maneuvers. But Moscow prefers to keep its partners in the dark. “The Russian lack of interest in actual transparency is part of their hybrid tool box,” Ben Hodges, former commanding general of the United States Army Europe, told me. “It gives them leverage, puts pressure on Eastern European nations along the border, and also eventually numbs many to what they’re doing.”

The chief of the Belarusian General Staff has stated that some 12,800 troops will be taking part in the Zapad drill (of which a mere 2,500 will be Russian). That figure is right under the threshold set by the Vienna Document. Yet a Russian general has coyly suggested that the actual number of participants will be closer to 200,000. The ambiguity is heightened by the Kremlin’s propensity for fudging which maneuvers will actually fall within the Zapad 2021 framework; Russia has already been exercising some of its troops in the same area for some time. (And some exercises will no doubt be uncomfortably close to the E.U. A source in Estonia’s Defense Ministry told me that one Zapad venue is only 16 miles from that country’s border.)

For Putin, sowing fear and unpredictability is a force multiplier. Recall that the Russians have used past exercises as cover for actual military operations in Georgia (2008), Ukraine (2014) and Syria (2015) — all actions that continue to reverberate. Russian troops currently occupy 20 percent of Georgia’s territory. Russia annexed Crimea and launched a war in its eastern Donbas region that is still causing casualties. And Russia has maintained its military presence in Syria even as the West has effectively abdicated any role there.

Do policymakers in Washington know this history? Apparently not. Some in the Washington foreign policy establishment would like to see President Biden seek an accommodation with Russia as a way of containing China. The Biden administration has so far notably neglected to call out the Russians on their military mind games in Eastern Europe — games whose calculated opacity create the possibility of deadly miscalculation.

I can imagine circumstances in which Russia could one day be a partner for the West. But partnership only works if both sides show that they can stick to the rules. Putin, that confirmed agent of chaos, is a long way from qualifying.