Belarus fears permanent occupation
A Nato commander says fears over Russia’s giant Zapad 2017 military exercises are justified because they could be seen as “a serious preparation for big war”, while Belarusian activists fear a permanent occupation.
General Petr Pavel, head of the Nato Military Committee, said the alliance was boosting efforts to re-establish a military hotline with Russia to avoid any “unintended consequences of potential incidents during the exercise”.
And Belarusian opposition activists fear Zapad (meaning “west”) could be used as a cover for the Russian military to remain in Belarus after the exercise is due to finish on September 20 to deter the country from slipping out of Moscow’s grip.
Belarus has irritated the Kremlin in recent years with efforts to establish an independent foreign policy, especially in its refusal to support Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and its support of separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko won election in 1994 and changed the constitution, cracked down on the media, imprisoned his opponents and has since ruled unchallenged over the country of 9.5 million and its largely state-owned economy.
He banned the red-and-white flag Belarus adopted in 1991 and restored the Soviet-era one, just removing the hammer and sickle.
Zapad could point to Moscow’s fear that the west might attract Belarus away from its alliance with Russia by waging a campaign of influence. This is how Moscow sees the rebellion that brought a pro-western government to power in Ukraine in 2014, with Russia apparently determined to avoid a repeat in Minsk.
Meanwhile, Nato watches the war games nervously. “All together, what we see is a serious preparation for big war,” Pavel told Associated Press. “When we only look at the exercise that is presented by Russia there should be no worry. But when we look it in the big picture, we have to be worried, because Russia was not transparent.”
Pavel met the chief of the Russian general staff, General Valery Gerasimov, at the beginning of September.
He said Nato was “mainly focused on transparency and risk reduction and avoidance of unintended consequences of potential incidents”.
The Nato general said: “We have high concentration of troops in the Baltics. We have a high concentration of troops in the Black Sea and potential for an incident may be quite high because of a human mistake, because of a technology failure. We have to be sure that such an unintended incident will not escalate into conflict.”
Pavel added there was no plan to reduce troops in Kosovo or set a time length for their presence.
Around 4,500 troops from 31 countries have been deployed in Kosovo since June 1999. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, but Belgrade has not recognised it.
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin during Zapad-2013. Picture credit: Kremlin