The Washington Post

Russia, Belarus begin military drills as talk of integratio­n unsettles NATO

- BY ROBYN DIXON AND REIS THEBAULT robyn.dixon@washpost.com reis.thebault@washpost.com Thebault reported from Brussels.

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.

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 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 and vital to its security. Putin stepped in as Lukashenko’s only major ally last year when Lukashenko faced massive post-election protests.

Western countries imposed 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- lukas henko 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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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