As massive military drill gets underway, Russia continues to seek deeper foothold in Belarus

Russia and Belarus are talking about further integrating their economies, but experts are watching what is going on with their military as Russia seeks an expanded presence for its armed forces in Belarus.

Putin and Lukashenko meet in Moscow on eve of large joint exercise

Russian troops march in the opening ceremony of the Zapad military drill on Thursday at the Pravda test site in the Kaliningrad region, a Russian enclave sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania. (Russian Defence Ministry)

When Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko emerged from a dinner meeting in Moscow Thursday night, they talked about further integrating their industries and economies, focusing on sectors like oil and gas, while saying little about their militaries and Russia's efforts to create a deeper foothold next door. 

Analysts say the broad conversations around tax harmonization and fuel prices are much less interesting than the strategic moves being made by Russia's armed forces. 

"This is way more important and more consequential for the neighbours and for Russia's ability to control Minsk,'' said Arytom Shraibman, a political analyst with the Moscow-based Carnegie Center. 

"Basically it is all happening in the shadows."

The meeting between the two leaders comes as both countries find themselves increasingly isolated from the West. Repression at home and hostility directed at them from abroad has resulted in a mix of mounting sanctions and toxic relations. 

Their joint media conference happened just hours before a massive military drill, dubbed Zapad-2021, kicked off in more than a dozen locations in Russia, Belarus and the Baltic Sea. 

The Russian Defence Ministry says the quadrennial exercise, which involves drills running from Sept. 10 to 16, will involve 200,000 people, 80 aircraft and nearly 300 tanks. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko shake hands during a news conference following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on Thursday. (Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters)

Putin insisted the exercise is "peaceful" in nature, but officials in Poland and with NATO promise to monitor it closely, and have called on Russia to be transparent and allow outside monitors to observe.

Shraibman said these joint exercises have become larger in scale and are happening as Russia tries to expand its military presence in Belarus, a country which the Kremlin sees as strategically important because it can act as a buffer against NATO and Western Europe. 

While Russia has long been keen to set up a new permanent base there, like the one it has in northwest Armenia that hosts a few thousand troops, it sees a strategic window now.

Political uprising

Belarus is increasingly reliant on Russia because, Shraibman said, it has essentially torched its relationships with all Western democracies after an election that was widely seen as fraudulent and an ensuing violent crackdown.

The 67-year-old authoritarian leader of Belarus has ruled the country for 27 years. When Lukashenko was re-elected in August 2020, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in protest. 

The response from the authorities was swift and brutal. Thousands were detained. 

Belarusian opposition politician Maria Kolesnikova, charged with extremism and trying to seize power illegally, forms a heart shape in handcuffs inside a defendants' cage as she attends a court hearing in Minsk, Belarus, on Monday. (Ramil Nasibulin/Reuters)

In the past year, several members of the opposition have been jailed, including Maria Kolesnikova and Maxim Znak, prominent foes of Lukashenko who helped lead last year's uprising. 

This week, they were sentenced to prison, 11 years for Kolesnikova and 10 for Znak.

Many others targeted by the government have fled the country, including journalists and academics. 

Shraibman, who lived in Minsk before fleeing to Kiev, Ukraine, in June, said he had to leave after there appeared to be a direct threat against him. 

Last May, his name was mentioned in an interview given by Roman Protasevich, a journalist and outspoken critic of Lukashenko who was arrested after Belarus commandeered a Ryanair plane, forcing it to land in Minsk so it could arrest him and his girlfriend, who was also on board. 

After he was detained, Protasevich gave interviews, which most believe were made under duress, as bruises were visible on his face and wrists. 

In one appearance with a Belarusian channel, Protasevich claimed that Shraibman was one of the main architects of the revolution. 

It was untrue, Shraibman said, but he packed his bags right away. 

Belarusian exiles

Poland has also become a key destination for Belarusian exiles who are trying to continue to organize their opposition from there. 

Pavel Latusko was the minister of culture in Lukashenko's government from 2009 to 2012 and had served as an ambassador to France. 

When the uprising swept through Minsk last summer, he was out of office and a director of a national theatre.

WATCH | Russia and Belarus strengthen ties: 

Poland worried as Russia and Belarus strengthen ties

10 months ago
Duration 2:10
Russia and Belarus have discussed further integrating their economies as joint military exercises get underway, all of which worries neighbouring Poland, along with Belarus's expulsion of Iranian and Afghan refugees.

He was promptly fired from the position shortly after voicing support for the protestors and joining the opposition council. 

After being questioned by the authorities, he left for Warsaw last year and remains part of a group organizing through social media channels like Telegram, all in an effort to keep pressure on the Lukashenko regime. 

"We know that most of the democratic countries of the world do not consider him a legitimate leader," Latsushko said through a translator during an interview in Karpacz, Poland, on Sept. 8, where he was participating in an economic conference. 

He added that while the Zapad exercise may be seen as routine, it comes during a period of heightened tensions where he said Belarus is already conducting "hybrid wars" with the neighbouring countries of Lithuania, Latvia and Poland by seeking retribution for recently levied economic sanctions. 

Pavel Latusko, a former Belarusian minister who is now a government opponent, takes part in an economic forum in Poland, where he is in exile. (Marcin Kmiecinski)

All three of those countries have accused Belarus of rounding up migrants from countries including Afghanistan and Iraq and pushing them over its border onto their territories. 

Officials in all three countries say they have seen a dramatic surge in illegal migration, and in response Poland has erected a wire fence, deployed troops to help secure the border. The Polish government has declared a state of emergency in two areas along the border. 

Polish officials say they are keeping the measure in place in part because of the Zapad exercise and the buildup of troops in the Kaliningrad region, a Russian enclave sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania.

Shraibman said the ever-deteriorating foreign relations means that Lukashenko is fully dependent on Russia and Latuskho believes Putin is using the situation to Russia's advantage. 

Russian military bases may appear in the near future in Grodno, Brest, Baranovichi, which are key regional centres of Belarus, he said. 

Military connections

Lukashenko boasted earlier this month that Russia was sending a huge consignment of military hardware. which would include aircraft and defence systems. 

While there has been no acknowledgement of a push for a new permanent presence, the two countries have announced three joint training centres, including one located in Belarus, which Shraibman contends is basically a military base by a different name. 

The training centre, which is dedicated to air forces and aerial defence systems, has brought an influx of Russian troops and equipment to western Belarus, at a location about 20 kilomtres east of the border with Poland and 40 kilometres south of Lithuania

"It seems to be that these training centres are at the moment the maximum Russia could get to put its foot into Belarus and stay there," said Konrad Muzyka, a defence analyst and director of Gdansk-based Rochan Consulting.

"Everything depends on how Lukashenko does internally and how he manages to keep his grip on power."

Konrad Muzyka, a Poland-based defence analyst, says NATO and neighbouring countries are voicing the same kind of concerns about Zapad as they did in 2017, the last time this military exercise was held. (Submitted by Konrad Muzyka)

Muzyka's firm specializes in providing advice and analysis related to the Russian and Belarusian military and Muzyka has been using satellite imagery to track the movement of equipment, particularly leading up to the Zapad exercise.

He believes the massive military drill is even more secretive than it was four years ago when it was last held, and he chalks that up to the fact that relations between Russia and the West are at their lowest point since the Cold War. 

He adds that while he is more concerned about the exercise now than before, he doesn't think Russia is on the verge of attacking any NATO countries. 

A more likely possibility, he contends, is that some of those Russian troops linger in Belarus long after the week-long exercise wraps up.


Briar Stewart is the Moscow correspondent for CBC News. She has been covering Canada and beyond for more than 15 years and can be reached at or on Twitter @briarstewart