Is Russia preparing for war?
Russia is currently conducting massive military exercises in the Baltic country of Belarus, which, significantly, sits on the border of the Baltic states and Poland – countries Russia has overtly threatened in recent months. The imagined scenario is to defend against foreign-backed extremists from invading.
But some experts claim we've seen this before.
Russian exercises have a habit of becoming real. The Kavkaz (“Caucasus”) maneuvers in 2008 were basically a dry run for the invasion of Georgia. The last version of Zapad in 2013 preceded Russian action against Ukraine. The most notorious exercise of all was in 1981, when massive maneuvers were used to intimidate Communist Poland into suppressing the Solidarity movement. The fear this time is that Russian troops might manufacture an excuse to stay behind. In which case, the same scenario of nationalist extremists could be used as an excuse to “save” Lukashenko or even depose him. The official figure of only 12,700 soldiers involved would not be enough to occupy Belarus, but other estimates are 10 times as high.
Other neighbors are equally alarmed. NATO now has revolving forward deployments in Poland and the Baltic states. The U.K. has 800 troops in Estonia, the United States up to 1,000 in Poland. Ukraine’s official statement declares that “such exercises have been used repeatedly to achieve hidden military-political goals.… Transition of the state border and military invasion into the territory of Ukraine is not excluded.”
But Belarus bears the closest scrutiny. Tensions between Belarus and Russia have been growing acutely since 2014 – if not yet by enough for Belarus to dare to pull out of Zapad completely (though it has invited in neutral observers). In observing the exercises, the West would be wise not to treat Belarus as a potential belligerent but rather as an increasingly reluctant ally of Russia.
It should be noted that Russia has carried out dozens of military exercises in the past that didn't threaten anyone. And there is a penchant for the Western press to beat war drums with Russia on a regular basis.
But two things stick out in the current situation:
1. It is undeniable that Vladimir Putin is becoming more aggressive in his words and actions toward the Baltic nations and former Warsaw Pact countries in eastern Europe.
2. While a fragile peace is holding in Ukraine, some NATO military experts see signs that Russia is about to conduct a massive intervention to carve out a pro-Russian enclave in the east.
A military move in Belarus will probably not trigger a NATO response, especially if it's handled the way Putin has managed the Ukraine situation. Russian "volunteers" assisting the Belarus army in fighting "foreign extremists" give NATO enough of an excuse not to intervene. Similar scenarios in Lithuania and Latvia would be harder to pull off, but we shouldn't underestimate either Putin's aggressiveness or NATO's hesitancy.
Poland is an entirely different story. NATO would have no choice but to go to war. Is that what Putin really wants? There are some analysts who believe that Putin knows that his military is inadequate to the task of defeating NATO at this time. But his military modernization program is on track, and there may be a point of time in the near future when the correlation of forces are in his favor. In the meantime, he will seek to hollow out NATO from within, using the various crises in the region to separate the U.S. from the rest of the alliance.
If successful, he won't have to go to war. NATO – already in deep trouble – will collapse into irrelevancy. In that case, it would be a Russian walkover in the Baltics.
China, North Korea, Iran – these are all vital issues facing the U.S. But relations with Russia may be the most difficult matter facing the president and State Department. Managing that relationship peacefully will occupy the attention of the U.S. government for years to come.