Russia has kept its promise to deliver six Mikoyan MiG-29 fighters to Serbia, which was timed to coincide with the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of Belgrade from Nazi Germany, Russian Defense Minister Army General Sergei Shoigu said.
The Russian defense minister made this statement at a meeting with his Serbian counterpart Aleksandar Vulin.
“In August, when you were in Moscow, I promised that by the time of this celebration the planes will arrive in Belgrade. The planes are now in Belgrade. I am sure that they will serve as a reliable shield and a guarantor of Serbia’s independence and security,” Shoigu said.
The six MiG-29 fighter jets have been delivered to Serbia by decision of Russian President Vladimir Putin. It was reported earlier that the six MiG-29 fighters had flown from Russia to Serbia in early October.
Serbia is grateful to Russia for the transfer of six MiG-29 fighters, the Serbian defense minister said, stressing the importance of the agreement between the presidents of Russia and Serbia.
“Thanks to this, we can say that today we have a possibility to defend our sky,” Vulin told his Russian counterpart.
“I want to thank you personally, dear minister because I know how many efforts and much labor were needed to do all this. Thank you that today you are participating in this celebration together with us,” the Serbian defense minister said.
The six MiG-29 fighter jets arrived in Serbia in a group of two planes a day on October 2-4. Now they will undergo modernization that will be carried out in three stages and will cost Serbia 180-230 million euros.
In addition to the MiG-29 planes, Serbia will also receive 30 T-72 tanks and 30 BRDM-2 combat reconnaissance and patrol vehicles from Russia for free. The sides are also holding negotiations on Buk-M1 and Buk-M2 air defense missile systems and the Tunguska antiaircraft missile/gun complex.
The Russian defense minister also noted that Russia and Serbia had big plans for military and military-technical cooperation.
“In accordance with the decisions by the presidents of Russia and Serbia, we have a large-scale program for both military and military-technical cooperation,” Shoigu said and suggested that he and Vulin should discuss further cooperation plans.
Telecommunication highway along the north coast of Siberia will link Finland with Asia via Kirkenes on Norway’s Barents Sea coast.
It is Finland’s Minister of Transport and Communications, Anne Berner, who brought up the possible Arctic data link when visiting Moscow on Tuesday.
Meeting Russia’s Minister of Communication, Nikolai Nikiforov, the Finnish Minister discussed how both countries could benefit from such fiber-optic data cable across the top of the world, the Finnish Government reports.
“Our aim in Finland is to provide the best possible operating environment for the development of digital services and business opportunities and to actively engage in international cooperation. One example of this is cooperation between Finland and Russia in intelligent transport systems and services,” says Minister Anne Berner.
The discussion is a follow up of data cable talks between the two prime ministers, Dmitri Medvedev and Juha Sipilä in Oulu, northern Finland, last December.
A report (pdf.) written by Finland’s former President Paavo Lipponen says key countries in the project is Finland, Norway, Russia, Japan and China.
“The submarine section of the cable would be a connection of around 10,500 km from Japan and China to Kirkenes in Norway and the Kola Peninsula in Russia,” the report reads. From Kirkenes, the fiber cable will cross into Finnish Lapland and further south to central Europe.
Experts said the latest voyage could pave the way for commercial development in the resource-rich northernmost region of the world.
“Polar regions, together with the oceans, the internet and space exploration, have become new but strategic areas where China is seeking to develop in the future,” Wang Chuanxing, a polar researcher at Tongji University in Shanghai, said.
“This voyage is just one of [China’s] practical moves in the Arctic though it remains at a very early stage in terms of commercial development.
”The State Oceanic Administration, which oversees China’s polar programmes, said the expedition helped it “acquire navigation techniques and experience in the complicated and frozen environment of the Arctic … and obtain first-hand information on its shipping routes”.
It was China’s eighth scientific expedition to the Arctic and came after President Xi Jinping reiterated in Moscow in July that China wanted to work with Russia to develop an “Ice Silk Road” along the Northern Sea Route to be a “new growth driver” of cooperation between the countries.
China has stepped up its engagement in the mineral-rich Arctic in recent years, becoming one of only six nations with observer status on the Arctic Council in 2013 – which gives Beijing input on governance of the region.
The Arctic Circle is also part of Beijing’s ambitious belt and road trade and infrastructure initiative spanning Asia, Africa and Europe.
Meanwhile, in its first white paper on Antarctica, released in May, it pledged to further expand its presence in the largely uninhabited continent, including building its fifth research station there.
It vowed to “elevate Antarctic infrastructure and comprehensive support capabilities” and boost “scientific investigation and research capability”.
But it has yet to release a clear policy on its plans for the Arctic region, which has some nations worried.
“China is now seeking resources from all around the world – and Chinese investment is almost everywhere – but we are still waiting to see a detailed policy from China … then we [will] be more clear about what China wants to do in the Arctic,” a diplomat from an Arctic nation told the South China Morning Post on condition of anonymity.
Speculation about China’s ambitions in the Arctic region is mounting. The world’s second largest economy has been on the hunt to secure enough energy resources to meet its growing demand – and the Arctic has 30 per cent of the world’s undiscovered natural gas and 13 per cent of its undiscovered oil reserves.
And as rising temperatures result in sea ice melting across the Arctic, there are also new opportunities for ships to travel through previously inaccessible, resource-rich areas.
An Arctic trade route would also be more convenient for China. The shortest and most common shipping route from Asia to Europe goes through the Strait of Malacca and the Suez Canal and takes 35 days, while a route through the Arctic would take just 22 days.
Russia remains China’s biggest partner in the Arctic. China’s state-owned Silk Road Fund and China National Petroleum both hold stakes in Arctic gas project Yamal LNG – in partnership with Russia’s Novatek and France’s Total – while a proposed deep-water port near Arkhangelsk, on Russia’s White Sea, has been on Beijing and Moscow’s agenda.
“China is very aware that Russia holds the keys to much of Beijing’s Arctic interests, including in regards to current and future shipping, so there is great interest between the two governments in cooperating further in Arctic economic development,” said Marc Lanteigne, an expert in China, East Asia and polar regions at Massey University in New Zealand.
“China is interested in helping the Putin government develop various projects, including port and transport infrastructure, in both Siberia and the Russian Far East.”
Cheng Baozhi, an associate researcher at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, said the Arctic was an area of untapped potential for China.
“Russia is the largest Arctic nation in the world and there’s no way to bypass it in any Arctic-related activity,” Cheng said. “The two nations realise there is huge potential for them to cooperate, so why not exploit that potential?”
But China’s path through the Arctic will not be easy – aside from the technical and environmental challenges, it will also face political uncertainties and potential cultural conflicts in its commercial development plans.
“Chinese companies need to carefully study the possible risks before they set foot in the Arctic – otherwise they could end up involved in disputes,” Wang from Tongji University said.
There was the possibility of conflict with cultural and environmental agencies, local governments and even the region’s aboriginal peoples, he said.
In the meantime, China has started building its second icebreaker, the Xue Long II, which is expected to set sail in 2019. Also, state-owned cargo shipping giant Cosco is planning to send six vessels along the Northern Sea Route to transport items including equipment, steel and pulp, Xinhua reported.
Outgoing EU envoy to Moscow says Brussels should help Ukraine by offering it a path to membership.
Relations between Russia and the EU are stuck in a “deep and acute” crisis and are unlikely to improve until President Vladimir Putin leaves office and the conflict in Ukraine is resolved – events that could be many years away, the outgoing EU ambassador to Moscow has said.
Vygaudas Ušackas, who has been in the post since 2013, said the EU must offer Ukraine a path to membership of the bloc if it wants to resist Russian attempts to bring the former Soviet state more firmly back under Moscow’s control.
“As I leave my post, I am pessimistic that we will be able to return to a normal partnership in the near future,” Ušackas wrote in a letter published in the Observer on Sunday. “The differences between us are vast and hinge on principles of European security.”
He detailed growing attacks on “core European values” of democracy, free speech and the rule of law and said the apparatus of the Kremlin is focused on returning Putin to power in 2018 elections that it can present as “smooth and credible”.
“Over the course of a six-year presidential term that will follow, it seems probable that the current clash of world views between Moscow and the west will continue,” he said, adding that Russia will attempt to exploit divisions inside Europe to undermine it.
Efforts to influence elections and politics through propaganda are well-documented, but Moscow is also using business deals to try to splinter the bloc by rewarding countries that challenge sanctions and the broader EU position on Russia, he said.
“In unity lies our strength. It is precisely our internal problems that Moscow is exploiting to undermine the credibility of the EU model,” he said.
Member states are not doing enough to protect themselves, he said, noting the new North Stream II gas pipeline, a project which, he said, hands Moscow more control over Europe’s energy, in direct opposition to Europe’s goals of diversifying suppliers.
Europe must focus on managing Brexit and the refugee crisis, both of which have been exploited by Russia, improve transparency to build the trust of citizens around Europe, and focus on remaining united.
European leaders must also stand up for rights which are under attack in Russia. “As Soviet dissident and leading human rights champion Lyudmila Alexeyeva reminded me recently: ‘Please tell Brussels not to give up on the Russian people,’” he said.
Ušackas expects Moscow to push for greater control over Ukraine and Georgia. “Russia respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its neighbours only as long as their geopolitical choices align with Moscow’s interests,” he said.
The EU needs to step up efforts to negotiate peace in Ukraine, he said, calling on Brussels to name a special envoy to the country, a position the US has already created, and questioned why the EU was not part of current multilateral efforts to broker an agreement.
“We need a greater focus on ending the Ukrainian conflict, because it will be difficult to normalise relations while it continues,” he said.
That should include offering Ukraine a path to EU membership. The prospect of EU membership would send Russia a clear message about commitment to Ukrainian and Georgian democracy, and give the governments motivation to make important reforms.
“It must be made very clear: the road to Europe goes via Kiev, with respect of Ukraine’s European choice, and adherence to the European security order. It cannot go through ‘managed’ democracy in Russia itself.”
When it comes to Russian politics, it seems that what’s old is new again, and again, and again, and again.
Vladimir Putin has already spent almost 14 years as president — and boasts two other stints as the country’s prime minister.
But when Russians cast their votes in the presidential election six months from Monday, polls suggest Putin will almost certainly be re-elected to a fourth term running the world’s largest nation in terms of landmass.
And while the subsequent election in 2024 may seem far away, analysts say some of his opponents are under no illusions about their prospects at the ballot box this March.
“The scenarios for Putin running and losing are hard to spin. People will run against him, but nobody honestly thinks they can beat Putin,” said Olga Oliker, the director of Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They know they can’t win the election, but they can demonstrate their presence and plan for a future when winning elections becomes possible.”
While several candidates are expected to throw their hat into the ring, the one who has unnerved the Kremlin the most appears to be Alexei Navalny, a 41-year-old Russian lawyer, activist and anti-corruption blogger.
Navalny has been found guilty of embezzlement — charges he says were fabricated to deny him a slot on the ballot.
Navalny announced his candidacy in December but the Russian Election Commission later effectively barred him from participating in the election, concluding that he committed a “serious crime” and was therefore not eligible to run for president.
While not being allowed much time on state television, Navalny uses his blog, with 1.5 million subscribers on YouTube and more than 2 million followers on Twitter, to get his message out.
Mark Galeotti, a research fellow at the Institute of International Relations Prague, says the Kremlin may have initially contemplated the possibility of allowing Navalny to run before deciding he was “too dangerous.”
“Giving him the kind of national platform that would allow him to become a registered candidate would be considered too risky,” Galeotti said.
In 2013, after Navalny was charged with embezzlement, the White House said it was “deeply disappointed and concerned” by the “politically motivated” ruling.
“Navalny’s harsh prison sentence is the latest example of a disturbing trend aimed at suppressing dissent in civil society in Russia,” then-White House spokesman Jay Carney told a news briefing.
According to Galeotti, Navalny is looking beyond 2018 and is trying to grow his personal brand.
The opposition politician is also ramping up his anti-corruption efforts.
“Corruption is the absolute Achilles heel of [Putin’s] government,” Galeotti said. “Everyone knows about it and everyone resents it. It’s one of the few issues that can unite people across the board. But up to now, it has been regarded much like the Russian weather — something that’s to be endured rather than changed.”
He said Navalny would aim to convince Russians that “it is conceivable that something can be done about it.”
Galeotti added: “He is playing the long game.”
‘This Is Not a Real Election’
Putin remains very popular. One poll conducted by a Russian non-governmental research organization found that 66 percent of respondents wanted Putin to remain president after the 2018 election.
His 83 percent approval rating would be the envy of any Western leader. The number has been hovering above 80 percent since spring 2014, when Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula and endorsed a bloody pro-Russian uprising in eastern Ukraine.
However, analysts have long questioned Russian approval polls.
Studies show that in authoritarian states, polls can overstate the popularity of incumbent leaders by between 5 and 20 percent because many respondents give the answers that they think are expected of them.
Pollsters have also long complained that many people refuse to speak to them — which means no one, not even the Kremlin, knows what many Russians really think about the government.
The 64-year-old Putin has not officially declared his candidacy yet, but experts suggest little should be read into that.
“This is not a real election,” Galeotti said, adding that few doubted that Putin would run and emerge victorious on March 18.
Mathieu Boulegue, a research fellow with the Russia and Eurasia program at the London-based Chatham House think tank, said Navalny and other liberal opposition leaders know Putin voters are a “lost cause.”
But Boulegue said that they “can appeal to the younger voters — those who don’t feel they recognize themselves politically in Putin’s Russia.
It’s all about the appeal and mobilizing the forces towards winning at some point when the moment will be right, but right now, the moment is not right for them.”
Galleotti says the list of candidates running against Putin is likely to include “usual suspects” like ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Sergey Mironov of the “A Just Russia” faction and Gennady Zyuganov of the Communists.
The latter finished second in the 2012 election and captured 17.2 per cent of the vote — compared to around 64 percent for Putin.
Galeotti said there is a strong youth-driven youth movement within the Communist Party made up of people who don’t align with the traditional Marxist-Leninist ideology and want to see real change.
“They are unhappy with this sort of dinosaurian Communist party elite and the way that they have allowed themselves to become house-trained,” he said.
Galeotti also predicted that several potential successors to Putin will get “road-tested” to see if they are a good fit at some point.
“Right now though, there is no one around whom Putin sees as a potential successor,” he said.
Boulegue said he expects Putin to remain in the picture of Russian politics for a very long time.
“Whether it is as a kingmaker for someone else, by controlling Russian politics from the shadows, or actually staying in the spotlight by becoming a prime minister and changing the constitution to give the prime minister all the power,” he said.
Experts see little chance of a dark-horse candidate who can give Putin a run for his money emerging between now and March.
“Absent something cataclysmic, this will be a very managed election,” Oliker said. “So no one will run who isn’t allowed to run.”
Exercise aimed at showing two countries are drawing closer, experts say.
Naval experts said the exercises were aimed at showing that China and Russia were drawing closer amid simmering tensions over the Korean peninsula, with Beijing calling on the United States, Japan and South Korea to scale back their military drills in the region.
A Chinese missile destroyer, missile frigate, supply ship and submarine rescue vessel along with shipborne helicopters and submersible rescue vehicles set sail from Qingdao on Wednesday, according to a statement on the PLA Navy website.
The drills will be held in the Sea of Japan and the Sea of Okhotsk from Monday to September 26, official news agency Xinhua reported.
The first part of the joint naval exercise was held in July, with the Chinese navy sailing over 10,000 nautical miles to reach the Baltic Sea. It was the first time the two countries had held a joint drill there.
Next week will be the first time the Chinese navy has conducted a drill in unfamiliar waters – the Sea of Okhotsk, off the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido.
It will also involve complicated submarine rescues and anti-submarine drills that have not been included in previous joint exercises between the two countries.
They will begin with coastal drills in Vladivostok from Monday to Thursday, and sea exercises from September 22 to 26, the Russian defence ministry said.
Beijing-based military expert Li Jie said China wanted to demonstrate its global fighting prowess with the drills.
“If the Chinese navy wants to be a real blue-water navy, it needs to be able to operate in all weather conditions and in unfamiliar waters. Only Russia can give China this type of training location,” Li said.
He also noted that the drills were happening at a time when the US was putting pressure on China to rein in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions while it continued to hold exercises of its own with Japan and South Korea in waters off the Korean peninsula.
“There’s a need for the PLA Navy to show off its fighting capabilities in case there is a military conflict in the area,” he said.
Shanghai-based naval expert Ni Lexiong said Japan would be displeased by the drills because they will be held in waters close to the disputed Kuril islands that are claimed by Japan and controlled by Russia.
“Moscow wouldn’t need Chinese help in the event of a maritime conflict with Japan, yet it is willing to make these important waters available for joint exercises. This shows Russia’s support for Beijing both politically and diplomatically,” Ni said.
The drills will be the eighth joint exercises between the two navies in the past six years. In 2015, China and Russia held two sets of drills – in the Mediterranean and the Sea of Japan.
US troops are currently taking part in a multinational military exercise in Ukraine, an exercise that comes just days before Russia is scheduled to launch their own massive military maneuvers that have put the region on edge.
Approximately 1,650 service members from 15 different countries are participating in Exercise Rapid Trident 2017 which began Monday and will last until September 23, Pentagon spokesman Johnny Michael told CNN.
The US involvement will include approximately 250 soldiers from the Oklahoma Army National Guard, 80 soldiers from the California Army National Guard, 45 airmen from the California Air National Guard, and some additional Army and Air Force personnel in support and control roles.
The annual exercise focuses on peacekeeping and stability operations and helps promote interoperability among the partner militaries of Ukraine and the United States as well as its NATO allies, according to US Army Europe. It also serves to validate aspects of the Ukraine’s military training program.
The exercise in Ukraine comes as Russia is gearing up for its major military exercise, Zapad 2017, which is expected to involve tens of thousands of troops operating along NATO’s borders in Western Russia, the Russian European enclave of Kaliningrad and Belarus.
Military analysts see such war games as a possible rehearsal for a Russia-NATO armed conflict as it is taking place very close to an area that analysts consider to be the most likely target of a Russian offensive.
ZAPAD 2017 has also sparked concerns among NATO’s easternmost members that Russian forces may stay in the area following the conclusion of the exercise.
Russian officials have said that only 13,000 troops will participate but western observers have said that as many as 100,000 Russian and Belorussian forces could be involved.
NATO has been critical about how transparent Moscow has been about Zapad 2017, saying it has failed to adhere to international treaties by not allowing observers to monitor the exercise to ensure that it is not a cover for an aggressive military operation.
NATO’s easternmost members have been wary of an increasingly aggressive Russia, particularly following Russia’s 2014 military invasion and annexation of Crimea and Moscow’s support of separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine.
“We urge Russia to share information regarding its exercises and operations in NATO’s vicinity to clearly convey its intentions and minimize any misunderstandings,” Pentagon spokesman US Army Lt. Col. Michelle Baldanza told CNN.
“In response to this uncertainty, the US has built a joint, persistent rotational presence of air, land, and sea presence in the region to support our Allies,” she added.
It is being billed as a military exercise, but when Russian and Belarusian forces start Zapad-2017 this week, many neighbouring countries will be looking on nervously.
Zapad-2017 (“West-2017”) is a joint strategic-level exercise involving Russian and Belarusian military forces, expected to begin on 14 September in Russia’s western military district Kaliningrad, and across Belarus.
It is scheduled to last about a week, but may well go on for longer. The exercise is part of a four-year rolling cycle of manoeuvres that focus each year on one broad region or “front” (“West”, “Eastern”, “Central” or “Caucasus”). This year’s Zapad exercise though is drawing much greater attention than did its predecessor in 2013.
The context has changed significantly. Russia has seized and annexed Crimea; it has supported a separatist war in eastern Ukraine with weaponry, training and, for periods, its own combat units. Russia is thus seen by several Nato countries as much more threatening.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has described Russia’s build-up for the exercise as “preparations for an offensive war on a continental scale”. Ukrainian border defences, he said, are being bolstered.
He also pointed to the fact that in his view, Russia has form here, using the pretext of an exercise to mobilise and position forces to conduct offensive operations. President Poroshenko said he could not rule out the possibility that the drill “may be used as a smokescreen to create new Russian army assault groups to invade Ukrainian territory”.
Units on the move
Nato watchers and insiders do not necessarily share this concern about an all-out invasion of Ukraine.
Russia expert Keir Giles, a fellow at Chatham House think tank, acknowledges that “previous Russian exercises on this scale have prepositioned troops for undertaking military operations, against Georgia in 2008 and against Ukraine in 2014”.
However, he says, “both of those moves were precipitated by an immediate political crisis – currently absent in Europe.
“And there have been plenty of other major Russian exercises in between,” he says, “which did not end up with somebody getting invaded”.
Nonetheless, the fear of a resurgent and more aggressive Russia is real enough. That is why, over the past year, Nato has sent small multi-national units to Poland and to each of the three Baltic republics to underline its deterrent message. And that is why this year’s war games will be watched so closely.
Just how closely is a contentious issue. Russia, unlike Belarus, has been far more reluctant to invite Western observers in any number. This despite the fact that, as a member of the OSCE international security body, it is obliged to send out broad invitations if an exercise numbers more than 13,000 troops.
Mr Giles notes that, while Russia may be “content to see Europe alarmed at the prospect of Moscow throwing its military weight around”, Belarus seeks instead to calm the situation. The siting of the exercise in ranges across the middle of the country – not near the Polish and Lithuanian borders – was a deliberate policy decision intended to reduce the chances of misinterpretation, or incidents when Russian troops and aircraft come close to Nato borders.
Belarus has been much more open towards international observers. Clearly satellites, airborne radars and other national intelligence collection measures will be used by Nato countries.
In addition, efforts are under way to mobilise concerned citizens in Belarus to observe military movements in their area and post them online for the benefit of non-government, open-source analysts and experts.
How many troops?
So just how big is this exercise and what will Western analysts and observers be watching for? Here assessments differ widely.
The Russians say some 12,700 troops will be involved in total, including a significant contingent from Belarus. (Notice this takes it below the 13,000 OSCE threshold.)
Western experts watching the preparations, especially the marshalling of railway flat-cars – the main way of moving heavy armoured formations to the exercise areas – say it will be considerably more.
Some estimates suggest that up to 100,000 troops could be involved, but since there are a range of drills, exercises and spot mobilisations it is hard to be precise about numbers.
Russia will be testing its capacity to contain and respond to some form of outside aggression and will be deploying units from different services: heavy armour; airborne troops; “spetsnaz” elite reconnaissance teams; and electronic warfare specialists.
The Baltic Fleet will be involved, as will units from the 14th Corps based in Kaliningrad. One point of interest may be the part played at the tactical and strategic levels of “information operations troops” – a relatively new formation in the Russian order of battle.
Indeed, while there may be much to learn about Russia’s use of artillery, its capability in electronic warfare (already manifest in the fighting in Ukraine) and the growing importance of precision-guided munitions in Russia’s thinking, it may be this information aspect that is most important. For beyond the troop movements, Zapad-2017 is part of a wider propaganda effort to influence and shape opinion in the West.
Atmosphere of suspicion
The US analyst Michael Kofman in a fascinating piece on the War on the Rocks website, describes Zapad as “a good window into the Russian mindset.
“For all the modernisation and transformation of the Russian armed forces,” he writes, “in reality the Russian leadership is probably still afraid: afraid the United States will try to make a bid for Belarus, afraid of American technological and economic superiority, afraid the US seeks regime change in Moscow, and afraid Washington desires the complete fragmentation of Russian influence in its near abroad, or even worse, Russia itself.”
“Zapad,” he argues, “is the most coherent manifestation of these fears, and a threat from Moscow to the United States about what it might do if the worst should come to pass.”
And what of those lingering fears in some quarters that this could be much more than just an exercise? Mr Giles remains unconvinced by much of the media hyperbole surrounding Zapad.
But he has this caution: “The time to watch troop deployments most closely,” he says, “is likely to be after the exercise proper has ended.”
The final day of Zapad is 20 September but, he notes, “Russian troops are only scheduled to leave Belarus by 30 September – after the observers have departed, and when the media interest will have died down. That will be the time to decide whether Zapad this year has in fact passed off peacefully.”
The large “Zapad-2017” war games will pit the troops of Russia and Belarus against terrorist infiltrators from three “hypothetical” Eastern European countries. DW gives you an overview of the upcoming drill.
Moscow and Minsk are finalizing their preparations for the week-long “Zapad-2017” drill, which is set to start next Thursday. In it, the two countries will deploy their troops, designated as “the Northern ones” to stand up to the aggression from “the Western ones” – armed attackers from the made-up countries of Vesbaria, Lubenia, and Veishnoria.
According to the scenario released by Russian and Belarusian defense officials, Vesbaria and Lubenia are located in the Baltic region and control the corridor which links the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad with Belarus. In the real world, the corridor roughly corresponds to the border between Lithuania and Poland, both of them NATO members.
The hypothetical state of Veishnoria, however, is located in the Grodno area of Belarus, near the country’s western border.
Independent experts see this as a sign that Minsk and Moscow are preparing scenarios for threats originating in NATO countries as well as from within Belarus. The Grodno area seems to have a special significance as the home for a large population of Poles living in the former Soviet state. However, military officials insist that the scenario was developed “against a hypothetical opponent, unrelated to the concrete region.”
What is the goal of the drill?
“Belarus and the Kaliningrad region have been infiltrated by extremist groups with the intention of committing terrorist attacks. The illegal militias are backed from abroad, providing them with armaments and naval and air capabilities. In order to neutralize the opponents, land forces will be deployed to cut off their access to sea and block air corridors in the region, with the support of the air force, air defense forces, and the navy,” the official plan says.
The goal of the Zapad-2017 maneuvers is to coordinate actions between regional military commands “in the interest of ensuring military safety,” Moscow and Minsk said. “The Republic of Belarus strives to prevent armed conflicts, and the Russian federation is providing it with political backing, financial aid, as well as technical and military support,” according to the Belarusian Defense Ministry.
The drill is set to proceed in two stages. Initially, the military will boost their air force and air defense capabilities to protect key military and state objects, and prepare to “isolate regions of activity by the illegal armed groups and their subversive-reconnaissance squads.” The second stage will be “to work out the issues of managing troops while repelling an aggression” against Russia and Belarus.
How many troops will take part?
The two countries say that some 12,700 servicemen will be involved in the upcoming drills. “Zapad-2017” will also involve 70 planes and helicopters, 280 tanks, 200 artillery weapons, ten ships, and various other pieces of military equipment. The drills will also include agents of the Russian intelligence service FSB, as well as people working for the Russian Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Emergency Situations.
However, NATO allies have repeatedly disputed these numbers, with German Defense Minister Ursula Von der Leyen claiming the real number is likely to be upwards of 100,000 troops. International accords mandate that countries provide a larger degree of transparency when holding drills with over 13,000 troops.
On Saturday, Russia’s Defense Ministry said it was “bewildered” by Von der Leyen’s assertion, and repeated its claims that drill would stay below the 13,000 threshold. Previously, the Kremlin has asked foreign defense officials and military-diplomatic corps to visit the final stage of the joint exercise at one of the sites in Russia. Belarus also stated that it had sent out invitations to UN, OSCE, NATO, the post-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States, and military attaches accredited in Belarus.
Where will the drill be staged?
The bases will involve seven locations in Belarus, one location in the heavily militarized Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, and two in western Russia. In order to reduce tensions with neighboring countries, the authors of the drill made an effort to pick the areas “at a significant distance from the border.”
NATO’s eastern members are concerned over the deployment of Russian troops near their territory, as Moscow has been known to stage large drills ahead of conflict in Georgia in 2008 and the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Some have even speculated that Russia might use the troops to occupy Belarus, its closest European ally. Most observers, however, consider this move to be extremely unlikely.
The drill has “strictly defensive character, its execution will not present any threat for the European community as a whole, nor for the neighboring countries,” the Russian defense ministry said. The Belarusian side has ensured that after the drills are over “by September 30 the military personnel, weapons, military equipment and specialized devices of Republic of Belarus will be returned to its permanent deployment locations, and the elements of the Russian military will leave Belarusian territory.”
On 5 September, during a press conference at the BRICS (Russia, China, Brazil, India and South Africa) summit in China, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin announced that Russia would propose a draft resolution to the UN Security Council on the deployment of UN peacekeeping forces in Donbas.
A relevant document was submitted on the same day. Moscow’s initiative, however, does have a few conditions. The peacekeeping forces would offer protection to the OSCE mission in Donbas and be deployed only on the demarcation line between the Ukrainian forces and the forces of the separatists backed by Russia.
Furthermore, their deployment would take place after both parties to the conflict have withdrawn heavy matériel. President Putin also emphasised that the deployment of the UN peacekeeping forces should be agreed during direct negotiations with separatist leaders and must be approved by the UN Security Council.
The Ukrainian side has been probing the possibility of the deployment of UN forces in Donbas as an alternative to the Minsk Accord since 2015. However, it was only on 3 February 2017 that the draft proposal for deployment of an armed UN peacekeeping mission was presented in the speech of Kostiantyn Yeliseyev, deputy head of the administration of President Petro Poroshenko.
Officially, Kyiv announced it during a telephone conversation of the participants of the so-called Normandy Format (France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia) during a summit of its heads of state on 24 July this year.
According to President Poroshenko, the need to deploy UN peacekeeping forces and to vest them with the UN Security Council’s mandate is an effect of “Russia’s categorical unwillingness to achieve peace in Donbas.” On 22 August, the Ukrainian president stated that he intended to present a detailed plan for the deployment of the mission in Donbas during the next session of the UN General Assembly (12–25 September). Before that, Ukraine also suggested that an armed OSCE mission be deployed in the region.
The Russian proposal is above all of a tactical character because Moscow’s primary goal is to torpedo Kyiv’s initiative concerning the deployment of peacekeeping forces in the occupied part of Donbas and at the same time to put the blame on Ukraine and the USA for the expected failure of the Russian proposal.
The Kremlin’s initiative can also be linked with the recently observed hardening of the US stance on the conflict, particularly including with the announcement that arms supplies to Ukraine are possible.
Signs of this include President Putin’s ambiguous statement in which he warned that US weapons supplies to Ukraine might lead to the conflict spilling over onto the territory of Ukraine and to “the separatists sending weapons to other conflict areas critical for those who pose problems to them.” President Putin’s statement, which was in essence blackmail addressed to the USA, may suggest that Russian weapons will be supplied to other areas where US forces are engaged.
Moscow in fact is not interested in the deployment of UN peacekeeping forces in Donbas. Their presence would not be beneficial to the Kremlin as it would potentially restrict Russia’s full freedom of action in the conflict area, which includes periodically escalating the conflict in order to apply pressure on Kyiv. However, Moscow is trying to simulate efforts to end the conflict, thus manifesting its constructive stance on the Ukrainian conflict to the West. This is partly effective, one proof of which is the statement of the German minister of foreign affairs, Sigmar Gabriel, who called the draft resolution “a change in Russia’s previous policy that we cannot waste.”President Putin’s words have met with a negative reaction in Ukraine. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement that Russia, being the aggressor country, cannot be a participant of the peacekeeping mission under the aegis of the UN and that its deployment does not require consent from the self-proclaimed ‘republics’ in Donbas.
Iryna Herashchenko, deputy speaker of the Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian parliament) and Ukraine’s representative in the Trilateral Contact Group in Minsk, rejected Putin’s initiative, viewing it as an attempt to distort the idea of the deployment of the UN peacekeeping forces in the conflict area in Donbas announced in Kyiv.
The conditions of deployment of the peacekeeping forces put forward by the Kremlin are unfavourable to Ukraine, because this would mean recognising the separatists as a subject of international negotiations, while the UN mission would only extend to the contact line that would maintain the situation of the lack of international supervision on the Ukrainian-Russian border in Donbas (currently controlled by Russian services and separatist forces).
Not all the details of the Ukrainian initiative concerning the UN peacekeeping mission are known at present. It envisages the deployment of peacekeeping forces across the entire territory that is outside the central government’s control between the demarcation line and the Ukrainian-Russian border. Peacekeeping forces would monitor the security situation and the demilitarisation process in the region.
In Kyiv’s intention, the deployment of the international mission will contribute to freezing the conflict. The Ukrainian ideas of deploying an armed UN or OSCE armed mission which have appeared since 2015 have never been officially presented in the form of an open concept nor have they been ever presented in the form of a coherent concept or put forward as a resolution on the UN forum.
Most likely, Kyiv was probing these issues via diplomatic channels but they did not receive support from France and Germany and were in fact sabotaged by Russia (despite the suggestions that it might support them which Russia made from time to time).
The Ukrainian proposal of deploying peacekeeping forces fits in with the context of Kyiv’s other actions concerning Donbas. Since spring, the government has been preparing an act under which Russia will be recognised as an aggressor and the territories of Donbas which are currently outside the central government control will be recognised as temporarily occupied territories.
The act is also expected to vest the president with the right to announce martial law and to use armed forces in Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts. The final wording of the act has not been agreed as yet; the government is planning to put the document to a vote in parliament already this year.