So far from god, so close to Russia: Belarus and the Zapad military exercise

Press release

Russia-Belarus military drill Zapad 2017 is more smoke than fire

Renewed Minsk-Moscow cooperation in the ‘Zapad’ war games should not see the door to Belarus closed

As Russia gears up for its ‘Zapad 2017’ war games this week, Europeans continue to worry the exercises may turn Belarus into a permanent outpost for the Russian military. And it is not just Europeans that are concerned. The commander of the US army in Europe has warned that the games could be a “Trojan Horse” for such a territorial advance.

Such fears are, in fact, overblown, argue Fredrik Wesslau and Andrew Wilson in a new report by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), So far from God, So close to Russia: Belarus and the Zapad military exercises.

Despite the close relationship between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the European Union should look past any latent threat contained within the exercises and step up its engagement with Belarus. The report argues that recent restraint – by Belarusian standards – in response to nationwide protests is a sign that Minsk is anxious to keep the door to Europe open.

Despite its economic dependence on Russia, Belarus has recently reorientated itself in a clear effort to loosen this relationship. With falling oil revenues and a struggling economy, the regime is seeking to diversify its options abroad while maintaining the ‘social contract’ at home that keeps Lukashenka’s support among the population relatively high. Turmoil in Ukraine, and Belarus’s role as a broker in the ‘Minsk process’, have also helped the country to project an image of itself as an island of stability in a fragile neighbourhood.

In playing this long game, European countries should:

  1. Accept Belarus’s invitation to send military observers to the Zapad 2017 war games
  2. Support Minsk’s efforts to maintain relative neutrality vis-à-vis Russia’s recent military interventions in the region
  3. Hold open the possibility of a new contractual agreement with Belarus if it takes positive steps on human rights, allowing the EU greater leverage over the country.

Fredrik Wesslau commented:

It may be counterintuitive, but the right response to the authorities’ crackdown is more, rather than less, engagement with Belarus. Any decision by Europe to revert to an isolationist policy or impose new sanctions would be counterproductive, as it would give Minsk less reason to listen to Europe and only push Belarus further into the Russian camp.”

Andrew Wilson said:

“Even with major military exercises in the offing, there is no need to panic. Zapad will bring Russian troops to Belarus, but they will leave. Russia’s (and the West’s) Belarus dilemma, however, will continue.”

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