Monday, August 21, 2017

Is Opportunity Knocking One Last Time?

Russian forces are entering Belarus for the major Zapad 2017 military exercises. Most articles minimize the risk of Russia using the operation as a cover to invade the Baltics or to take over Belarus. Are we whistling past the graveyard?

I tend to agree that Russia wouldn't risk invading the Baltics and starting a war with NATO, especially while Russian troops are bogged down in Ukraine and in Syria to a lesser extent.

But no Russian anschluss?

A post-operation occupation of Belarus is unlikely, Alessin said, because "occupying [Russia's] only ally would undermine faith in the Kremlin, including with its potential partners." It would also undermine Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko's credibility - at home and abroad, which is in neither side's interest. Alessin cited Belarus' denial of Russia's 2013 request to maintain airbases there.

Belarus is Russia's only ally? Really? That's nonsense. What rogue friend of Russia will do anything but applaud Putin?

What Russian partner would, after Georgia, Crimea, and the Donbas, suddenly think that adding Belarus to the list of aggression is a deal breaker? For many potential partners that might seem like a feature rather than a bug.

And who cares if Lukashenko is undermined? That would be the bloody point of taking over Belarus, no?

Seriously, isn't the denial of a Russian air base a motivation for Russia to just take the whole country over?

Maybe Putin has concluded that 20 years of carrot to persuade Belarus to more closely integrate with Russia has been a failure. Now he'll try the stick that got him prestige and bases in Syria and bases in Crimea.

Lukashenko would just disappear, his departure covered by the AstroTurfed pro-Russian militias and political parties who will welcome Russia's "fraternal assistance" to "liberate" Belarus from the dictator (and he is) Lukashenko.

Is it just me, or are those reasons why Putin won't take over Belarus while he has troops there actually reasons that Putin just might take over Belarus?

And let's add to the reasons.

Wouldn't Putin love to extend the Russian threat to Ukraine across that country's Belarus-Ukraine border to finally pressure those stubborn Ukrainians to concede the loss of Crimea and the Donbas to Russia?

Wouldn't Russia love to have forces able to hit Poland, link up with Kaliningrad, and cut off the Baltic NATO states?

Heck, wouldn't Putin love to add some Slavs to his empire to make up for Russia's declining population?

Perhaps Putin thinks that gathering resistance to his aggression and a belated NATO effort to bolster defenses in the east mean that the window for Russia to cheaply grab Belarus is closing.

Perhaps Putin thinks that the next major Zapad exercise in four years will be too late to cover an invasion.

Remember, Belarus may very well be the most important territory in Europe today.

My pucker factor is going to be high during September.

UPDATE: This article addresses Polish worries about Russia, and highlights Zapad 1981 that was intended to threaten Poland then witnessing unrest against Soviet control.

I don't know when I read this--certainly not in 1981 or the remainder of the decade--but the Zapad 1981 exercise was apparently a shock to the Soviets who discovered that they could not mobilize an invasion of Poland from the western Soviet Union. All their best Red Army eggs were in East Germany facing west.

UPDATED: Thoughts on Zapad 2017.