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Russia rolls out new disinformation on Zapad

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Russia’s Zapad-2017 military excercises, set to take place in Belarus on 14-20 September 2017, will be much smaller than many foreign observers have predicted, Belarusian Defense Minister Andrei Ravkov stated 20 March. Up to 13,000 troops will participate, he said, adding that Russia also plans to contribute 3,000 soldiers and 280 pieces of equipment. These numbers suggest exercises on a significantly smaller scale than expected by many observers in recent weeks. Speculation of much larger maneuvers have raised concerns in the West and among Russia’s neighbors that Moscow would use Zapad-2017 as a pretext to invade Belarus or widen its military involvement in Ukraine. 

Claiming to rely on official information, Belarusian independent media in November 2016 cited preparations that contradict Ravkov’s more recent claim the exercises would be small. Those reports suggest Russia’s Defense Ministry will use 4,162 railcars to transport soldiers and military equipment to Belarus during the exercises. They cited a huge contract between the army and the rail company as evidence of this. Denis Melianov, a respected analyst at the Belarussian Institute for Strategic Research, pointed out that this amount of equipment is way more than needed to transport the 1st Guards Tank Army—already publicly scheduled to take part in the maneuvers—from Russia’s Western Military District to the staging area. That army alone is enough to take control of all of Belarus, Melianov said; its main military asset is the powerful 4th Guards Kantemirovskaya Tank Division, consisting of about 310 T80U tanks, 300 BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicles, 130 self-propelled artillery units and 12 multiple rocket launchers.

Russia, meanwhile, claims the West has organized a disinformation campaign to falsely show that Moscow wants to occupy Belarus.

  • On 25 February, Sputnik cited Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, who described the drills as “preparations for war with the West. She said: 'We’re seeing different threats, and they are rising. In particular, we are concerned about the Zapad-2017 drills, which will concentrate various aggressive forces. Demonstrated preparations for war with the West are underway.'”
  • Sputnik quoted Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko as saying that “the Kremlin is mounting pressure on Belarus.”
  • According to RT military expert Vadim Soloviev, “We will see many articles with unfounded conclusions about preparation for the occupation of Belarus, Ukraine and other countries. It is possible that journalists will draw inspiration, also from statements by [Western] officials.” In his opinion, the purpose of this “informational embezzlement and speculation” is to spark a quarrel between Moscow and Minsk. “Of course, the West does not benefit from the close military alliance that has developed between our countries. Our ill-wishers cannot oppose it and therefore opened a front in the information field.”

The changed Kremlin message about the size of the exercises appears calculated to lessen Western concern and put pressure on Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who has sought to pursue a more Western-oriented foreign policy in recent months. Indications at the end of 2016 that Zapad-2017 would take place on a large scale provoked alarm both in Belarus and in neighboring countries that the maneuvers might be a pretext for an invasion. Now, the Kremlin appears to have shifted course and to have begun spreading the narrative that the maneuvers will not be as big as expected, in order to show—both at home and in Belarus—that NATO, not Moscow, is the aggressor, and that Russia is only defending itself.  This would weaken Lukashenko’s rationale for flirting with the West.

Indeed, the pressure on Lukashenko seems to have had some effect. In the past several days, he has toughened his rhetorical line and claimed the current social unrest in Belarus is being provoked by “agents of the West.” This could mean the end of the thaw in Minsk’s relations with the West and a possible turn back to Russia without Moscow having to resort to military force, which in any case remains unlikely.

Photo: Sputnik/ Vladimir Chuchadeev