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On the way to Lubenia

With an impeccable timing, The Daily Chrenk will arrive in Warsaw only hours before one of the largest joint Russian-Belorussian military exercises directed against Poland and Lithuania is about to start:

A battle is about to be waged in Eastern Europe. In it, the forces of “The Northern Ones” will defend against the aggression of the “Western Ones”.

“Belarus and the Kaliningrad region have been infiltrated by extremist groups with the intention of committing terrorist attacks,” Moscow’s summary of the exercise reads. “The illegal militias are backed from abroad, providing them with armaments and naval and air capabilities. In order to neutralise 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 defence forces, and the navy.”

The combined forces of Russia and its closest European ally Belarus (The Northern Ones) will seek to reinforce the Baltic Sea enclave Kaliningrad against the hypothetical nations of “Vesbaria” and “Lubenia” as the internationally-backed terrorists of “Veishnoria” seek to overthrow Belarus.

As Poland and Lithuania straddle and control the approaches to Kaliningrad, there is little doubt who Lubenia and Vesbaria are. The area inside Belarus designated as Veishnoria is centred on the historic city of Grodno, which still contains a large Polish minority.

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“Infiltration by extremist groups” and “illegal militias backed from abroad” all sound too familiar. But in case of Russia it is very much an example of what psychologists call a projection. These are pretty much the tactics that Russian herself uses against its neighbours, from Georgia to Ukraine, to destabilise them, drag them into civil strife, and provide an excuse for a more or less overt Russian intervention to protect the ethnic Russian minority or other groups more friendly to Russia than to their own central government. That Russia feels a need to prepare for an eventuality when Poland and the tiny Lithuania engage in a proxy war with Russia on the Belorussian territory shows a guilty conscience rather than any firm grasp of regional geo-political realities.

But as Edward Lucas writes, it’s not really about the reality anyway:

Russia likes using Zapad to jangle nerves. Whatever the West does in response risks either being too complacent, or seen as an overreaction. The Kremlin sets the agenda, with whatever mixture of military bluff (or power), cyber-warfare, propaganda, economic pressure or other means it chooses to employ.

It should be the other way round. Vladimir Putin should be scratching his head nervously about what the West will do to him—undermining his autocratic rule at home, hunting down his dirty money abroad, breaking up his corrupt and exploitative energy export industries, putting the brakes on his roaming death squads, or foiling his attempts to bully his neighbors.

In theory, the West holds almost all the cards, and Russia very few. In practice, it is the other way around—as Zapad illustrates all too clearly.

As always, the West is far too preoccupied on numerous fronts, while Russia is quite single-minded in its objectives. And up to its old evasive tricks:

Under Article 47.4 of the OSCE’s 2011 Vienna Document, signatories – including Russia – are obliged to invite foreign observers to monitor their military drills if more than 13,000 troops are involved.

To avoid foreign monitoring of its exercises, Russia and Belarus announced that just 12,700 troops will be participating in the exercise, below the Vienna Document threshold.

That figure has been vigorously contested by other European states, with the Polish General  Staff estimating that around 100,000 Russian troops have been mobilised. Lithuania and Ukraine have put the figure considerably higher, with the former claiming 140,000 troops and the latter 240,000.

So a few hours after I arrive in Poland, I mean Lubenia, somewhere between 12,700 and 240,000 Russian and Belorussian troops will stage exercises, which Phillip Petersen, military analyst at the Potomac Foundation, told the Polish media are “preparations for the invasion of Poland and the Baltic states”. Petersen, however, adds that “just because they are exercising, doesn’t mean they will”, which is a relief (not least to me). But could Zapad, wonders the retired Brigadier General Peter Zwack, be instead an excuse to permanently entrench Russian military forces in Belarus, perhaps to stave off any future regime collapse on unreliability. Zwack Adds:

West—both NATO and the European Union—must prepare for the type of worst case, all-guns-blazing scenario that Zapad showcases every four years, but we must not stop there. It is Russia’s deceptive, stealthy and highly imaginative array of corroding, subverting, non-attributed operations that is every bit as dangerous as old-fashioned battlefield weaponry. When combined with Russia’s resurgent conventional capability, the full bag of tricks at Putin’s disposal shows a country preparing for potential conflict in ways difficult for our western societies to fathom.

Whatever happens, I will be reporting live from central and southern Lubenia, as Russian tanks roll only a few hundred kilometres to the east. Zapad, after all, is pretty close to a Polish word “napad”, which means assault or aggression.

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