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Russia begins major military drills with Belarus after moves toward closer integration

Russian troops parade ahead of the opening of the Zapad 2021 joint Russian-Belarusian drills on the Mulino training ground in the Nizhny Novgorod region, Russia, on Sept. 9, 2021. (Russian Defense Ministry/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

MOSCOW — Russia and Belarus began a massive, week-long military exercise on NATO's borders Friday after President Vladimir Putin and Belarus's leader agreed on a new effort toward integrating the nations, including creating a "single defense space."

The Zapad 2021 exercise, involving 200,000 troops, has NATO members and other neighboring countries on edge, echoing worries this spring over an unannounced Russian military buildup near Ukraine.

The Zapad (meaning West) exercise is held regularly, but this iteration comes as Russian relations with NATO are increasingly fraught. Belarus under President Alexander Lukashenko faces Western sanctions because of harsh crackdowns on the protests that followed last year’s presidential election, which was widely viewed in the West as rigged.

Putin called Russia and Belarus “the Union State,” a reference that fits with Moscow’s long-held ambitions for a federation between the two countries.

“Today, we discussed matters relating to building a single defense space and ensuring the security of the Union State along its borders,” Putin told journalists late Thursday after meeting with Lukashenko in Moscow.

He said Zapad 2021 was “not targeting anyone.”

“However, conducting these exercises is logical, given that other alliances, for example NATO, are moving fast to build their military presence close to the borders of the Union State and the Collective Security Treaty Organization countries,” he said, referring to Russia’s defense treaty with a group of former Soviet republics.

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The twinning of Zapad 2021 with moves toward a “Union State” suggests a greater Russian military posture in Belarus in the future, with Lukashenko dependent on Putin as growing internal opposition threatens the Belarusian leader’s 27-year grip on power.

Sandwiched between Russia and NATO, Belarus, like Ukraine, is seen by Moscow as a buffer zone and vital to its security interests. Putin stepped in as Lukashenko’s only major ally last year when Lukashenko faced massive post-election protests.

Western countries imposed tough sanctions on Belarus over the violent crackdown on protesters, the jailing of opposition figures and journalists, and the forced landing of a Ryanair passenger jet in May with an anti-Lukashenko journalist aboard. The journalist was arrested.

Lukashenko responded with fiery rhetoric against Western threats and declined to guard Belarus’s common borders with European Union states, allowing thousands of migrants, including Iraqis and Afghans, to cross into Lithuania and other neighboring countries.

In Thursday’s talks, Putin and Lukashenko agreed to take steps to unify or harmonize 28 areas of activity, including customs, agriculture policy, energy markets and monetary policy. They ruled out a single currency or parliament for now.

It was the latest in Russia’s efforts, dating to 1997, to fold Belarus into its financial, political and trade systems. By the beginning of last year, the effort seemed all but dead. But Moscow has renewed its efforts, with Lukashenko isolated from the West, politically weakened and reliant on Russian loans and political support.

No details were offered on Thursday’s proposals, including whether a “single defense space” would allow Russia to place military equipment in Belarus on NATO’s border.

“Should we need a closer integration still — be it military, political, economic — we will do that instantly, as soon as we feel the demand from our people, in Belarus and in Russia,” Lukashenko said.

Earlier this year, Ukraine complained that after spring exercises, Russia left in place near its border with Ukraine most the troops and equipment used in the drills. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Friday that all-out war with Russia was possible.

“If there is a powerful escalation from Russia, this is the worst thing that can be. Regretfully, there is such possibility,” he said. Zelensky lamented the fact that Ukraine has not made progress in its aspirations to join NATO. Moscow has made clear that it will not tolerate Ukraine’s joining the Western defense alliance.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he regretted Zelensky’s comment about a possible war. “We would not like to indulge in any apocalyptic expectations,” he said.

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Lithuanian officials are concerned that deepening integration between Moscow and Minsk could result in a permanent, joint military presence in Belarus, which would “create a security deficit in the region” for NATO, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said in an interview

“Every time, it is very worrying to have a nontransparent military presence on the borders of Lithuania, the Baltic states and Poland,” Landsbergis said. “We don’t know which areas will be used, what kind of equipment will be used and what kind of troops there will be in definite numbers. This is the most worrying thing.”

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Friday that NATO would be vigilant because previous Zapad military exercises had significantly exceeded Russian declarations on troop numbers.

“I don’t see any imminent threat against any NATO ally, but Zapad fits into a broader pattern: a more assertive Russia, significantly increasing its military capabilities and its military presence near our borders,” he said.

Russia’s deputy defense minister, Nikolai Pankov, said the exercise was “purely defensive.” But Western analysts have warned that Russia could use it to permanently station more equipment and forces in Belarus, where it has no military bases.

Under the Vienna Document of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a protocol designed to ensure transparency and confidence regarding military exercises, nations must invite foreign military observers when more than 13,000 troops participate in drills. Russia declared that 12,800 troops would take part in Belarus, just under the limit, but gave the overall participation figure as 200,000.

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The military exercise follows Lukashenko’s announcement last week that Russia would soon supply Belarus a large amount of military equipment, possibly including S-400 surface-to-air missiles.

“In the near future, Russia will supply us — I won’t say how much money or what — with dozens of planes, dozens of helicopters and the most important air defense weapons. Maybe even S-400s. We need them very much as I’ve said in the past,” Lukashenko said last week, according to Belta, a state news agency. “In a word, the most modern equipment. We will equip ourselves.”

Putin’s promise to Lukashenko last August that Russia would send in military support if protests got “out of control” helped the Belarusian leader to cling on through last year’s political crisis.

Lukashenko has ruled Belarus, a nation of 10 million, since 1994 by crushing dissent, jailing opponents and running successive flawed elections, while relying on Russia for loans and cheap oil, which it sells to Europe at higher prices.

Moscow’s claims about troop numbers are in “a clear violation of the Vienna Document,” said Kristjan Mae, head of the NATO and E.U. Department at Estonia’s Ministry of Defense. “There is not a whole lot that the allies can do. It will be pointed out to Russia, but it has essentially become normalized.”

He said Zapad was neither transparent or predictable and highlighted “a conventional military imbalance” in the region, which he called the “soft underbelly of NATO.” Mae said NATO should be conducting its own “reinforcement exercises to signal our military readiness and capabilities.”

Piotr Zochowski, a senior fellow at the Center for Eastern Studies, a Polish think tank, said Lukashenko was using Zapad 2021 to tighten his military grip on his country and further stifle dissent.

But the suppression of dissent in Belarus also serves Putin’s interests in Russia, Zochowski said, because instability in Belarus could prompt anti-Putin sentiment at home.

“Moscow is interested in making Belarus increasingly isolated on the international arena, because this leads to deepening of Minsk’s dependence on Russia,” Zochowski said.

Thebault reported from Brussels.

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