‘West 2013’ military exercise: nuclear threat myth plays into hands of few
The joint strategic military exercise ‘West 2013’ was held in Belarus and Russia on September 20th – 26th, 2013. According to media reports, during a training exercise near the Polish border, Belarus and Russia worked on the scenario of a preventive nuclear attack on Warsaw.
Rumours about ‘a pre-emptive nuclear attack on Warsaw’ training, are advantageous for those who are interested in strengthening NATO presence in Central and Eastern Europe and the Baltic. For Belarus, increased NATO presence in the region might mean that Lukashenko’s importance grows in the eyes of Russia.
Initially, information about Russo-Belarusian military exercises and ‘a pre-emptive nuclear strike on Warsaw’ training was published in Polska, a Polish newspaper, in April 2013 with reference to unofficial sources. Later on, it was reprinted by other Western media. The Belarusian government sources refuted the message immediately.
In February 2013 The Washington Times published an article about nuclear military exercises in Russia, citing officials from the Pentagon and the European Command of U.S. forces. The sources said Russia held large-scale exercises on the transportation of strategic and tactical nuclear weapons closer to Europe.
Simultaneously, in February 2013, President Lukashenko approved a plan for the Russo-Belarusian military exercise ‘West 2013’. He emphasized the need to include territorial defence forces in the training. The incumbent president has a priority to maintain domestic political stability in the country, rather than to strengthen its defence potential. Belarus does not regard the threat of military conflict with NATO countries as likely.
Polish media have raised the issue of a nuclear attack on Warsaw by Russia several times. In 2009, Wprost, a Polish weekly, reported about the joint Russo-Belarusian military exercises ‘West 2009’ and training on the attack on Poland and training on the use of nuclear weapons. In 2009 Russian strategic bombers Tu -160 and Tu- 95MS took part in the military exercises, which led to such conclusions.
In 2008 Poland and USA signed a military cooperation agreement on anti-missile defence systems. Back then, Russian military official Nogovitsyn said ‘the USA cares for its own anti-missile defence, not Poland’s. Poland, by placing anti-missile defence systems, jeopardizes herself. Such targets are always a priority for destruction’,
Simultaneously, the increasing (apparent or real) threat from the East helps to attract the attention of the NATO leadership to Eastern Europe and Baltic states. In November 2013 Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia will carry out Steadfast Jazz 2013 NATO military exercise in the Baltic Sea – for the first time since 1993. NATO started planning the exercise in 2009.
Thus, the joint Russo-Belarusian military exercises and, more importantly, the rumours about ‘a nuclear attack on Warsaw’ training have become the basis for stronger presence of NATO in the region. It is a good chance for the Belarusian president to strengthen his position in the Kremlin by using anti-Western rhetoric.
Over the past year, military-political relations between Minsk and Kyiv have become complicated. Due to their high inertia and peculiarities, this downward trend would be extremely difficult to overcome.
The root cause of the crisis is the absence of a common political agenda in the Belarusian-Ukrainian relations. Minsk is looking for a market for Belarusian exports in Ukraine and offers its services as a negotiation platform for the settlement of the Russo-Ukrainian war, thereby hoping to avoid political issues in the dialogue with Kiev. Meanwhile, Ukraine is hoping for political support from Minsk in the confrontation with Moscow. In addition, Ukraine’s integration with NATO presupposes her common position with the Alliance in relation to Belarus. The NATO leadership regards the Belarusian Armed Forces as an integral part of the Russian military machine in the western strategic front (the Baltic states and Poland). In addition, the ongoing military reform in Ukraine envisages a reduction in the number of generals and the domestic political struggle makes some Ukrainian top military leaders targets in politically motivated attacks.
Hence, the criticism of Belarus coming from Ukrainian military leadership is dictated primarily by internal and external political considerations, as well as by the need to protect the interests of generals, and only then by facts.
For instance, initially, the Ukrainian military leadership made statements about 100,000 Russian servicemen allegedly taking part in the Russo-Belarusian military drill West-2017. Then the exercises were labelled quazi-open and military observers from Ukraine refused to provide their assessment, which caused a negative reaction in Minsk. Further, without citing specific facts, it was stated that Russia was building up its military presence in Belarus.
Apparently, the Belarusian and Ukrainian Defence Ministries have entangled in a confrontational spiral (on the level of rhetoric). Moreover, only a small part of the overly hidden process has been disclosed. That said, third states are very likely to take advantage of the situation (or have already done so). This is not only about Russia.
The Belarusian Defence Ministry officials are restrained in assessing their Ukrainian counterparts. However, such a restraint is not enough. Current military-political relations between Belarus and Ukraine are unlikely to stabilise without the intervention of both presidents.