Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka is the latest official to give assurances about upcoming military exercises this September in western Russia and Belarus. Speaking at a meeting of his Security Council in Minsk on July 27, Lukashenka said the Zapad 17, or West, military drills would be open and transparent.
"Much has been said about it," Lukashenko said. "This is an open exercise and we invite or have already invited a huge number of observers. Please come and watch it," Lukashenka was quoted as saying.
So, is the Belarus leader, renowned for his repressive way of governing, telling the truth? Will the exercises, held every four years and a chance for the Kremlin to show off some of its military might as nervous neighbors and NATO watch, be transparent and open?
“The statement from Lukashenka about Zapad being open to observers came as a surprise to NATO officials. It is especially curious since Moscow have remained reluctant to invite observers to watch Zapad 17 up close, something that NATO leaders have called for in the interest of transparency," said Magnus Nordenman, director of the Transatlantic Security Initiative at the Washington-based Atlantic Council.
"Previous Russian exercises, with or without Belarus included, have tended to be rather murky affairs for outside observers, so it is hard to take Lukashenka at his word on this,” Nordenman explained in comments to Polygraph.info.
As mentioned, Minsk and Moscow say they have invited 80 observers from NATO, the United Nations, and nearby countries including Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltics to watch the drills.
But this is seen by many in the West as a token gesture. Speculation centers on how many soldiers and military hardware will participate in the drills. Moscow and Minisk put the figures as follows: as many as 12,700 military personel plus 680 combat vehicles and other military hardware.
That number of soldiers is crucial, and according to NATO and others, questionable. And here’s why. Were Russia or Belarus to announce that more than 13,000 troops were participating, then Moscow and Minsk would be obligated to invite all OSCE states to observe them. That rule is stipulated under the OSCE’s Vienna Document.
Not surprising, NATO points out that Russia has declared every military exercise since 1991 to have included less than 13,000 troops. In other words, below the threshold triggering invites to outside observers. And without them, verifying the numbers of troops and hardware actually on the ground during the drills is difficult at best.
The Center for European Policy Analysis notes this year’s exercise “might be among the largest since 1991.”
As a possible indicator of Zapad’s size, Russia has ordered more than 4,000 railcars to transport its troops. Based on this, up to two Russian armored/mechanized divisions (around 30,000 military personnel) could be deployed to Belarusian territory.
In 2013, the Zapad military exercises were officially to have involved approximately 12,000 troops, but the real figure may have been upwards of 90,000, according to the Atlantic Council.
And with no outsiders watching, Moscow has used military drills to redeploy forces to prepare for actual combat operations.
In 2008, Russia carried out drills before invading neighbor Georgia. Russia’s 58th Army had just finished its Kavkaz-2008 military exercise, just ahead of the invasion (15-31 July) and located just north of the Georgian border.
In 2014, the Russian government staged exercises involving 150,000 troops near the Russian-Ukrainian border. After the exercise many of the units stayed in the area to participate in the subsequent war with Ukraine.
Not surprisingly, leaders of nearby countries, especially the Baltics, are nervous ahead of the upcoming military maneuvers.
Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said in a radio interview that she had been assured that the United States would increase the number of its troops in the Baltics during the exercises.
The United States has been rotating units into the Baltics and Poland since 2014, when the region was shaken by Russia's incursion into Ukraine and its subsequent annexation of Crimea.
Given the information vacuum, the Atlantic Council has launched "Zapad Watch" to monitor as best it can what is happening on the ground.
“We plan to keep a close eye on Zapad 17 from now and until it concludes using our analysts and our digital forensics tools that we also leveraged to shed light on Russia’s presence and operations in Syria and Ukraine, " explained Nordenman.
The U.S. Army’s top commander in Europe, Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, has said Russia is well within its rights to hold the Zapad military exercises. Speaking to DW, Hodges, however stressed the problem was a lack of transparency.
"So if Russia were serious about wanting stability and security along their western border, they would invite journalists out there to demonstrate, 'hey, we're just defensive.'"
That contradicts the message being pedaled by Lukashenka and other Belarus and Russian officials. Buth whether such assurances turn out to be true is unclear at best.