You’ll want to cue up an old vinyl LP of the Red Army Chorus for this one. Russia, as CONTENTIONS regulars know, held its largest military exercise since the collapse of the Soviet Union this August and September. The maneuvers spanned Russia from the Barents Sea to the Far East, but the most politically significant aspect of this exercise by the combined forces was its intimidating footprint in Eastern Europe.
The European maneuvers, held on the shores of the Baltic Sea (“Ladoga-2009”) and in Belarus (“Zapad-2009”), have been summarized in the last week by independent media observers. For the peoples of the NATO alliance, the view these reports provide of the Russians’ concept and intentions is the opposite of reassuring. Indeed, public opinion might well conclude that Russia’s big exercises in Eastern Europe had something to do with Obama’s decision to scrap the ground-based interceptor site in Poland. It would at least deem Obama’s announcement to be ill-timed, from the standpoint of NATO integrity in the face of Russian challenges.
The first Russian troops arrived in Belarus for Zapad-2009 on September 9, sparking protests from nationalists who favor better ties with the West. Russia moved just under 26,000 total troops into Belarus and Western Russia, avoiding the threshold at which the Conventional Forces Europe treaty would oblige Moscow to invite NATO observers. The number was persuasive to Belarus, however. Minsk had, as recently as June, been resisting inclusion in Moscow’s regional collectives, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). But a month of fraternal amity from the Russian army has put them in a better frame of mind in Minsk, and on October 2 President Lukashenko declared a positive passion for joining the CSTO, a consummation realized today. We can only speculate as to the effect of Obama’s September 17 shift regarding missile-defense policy on Lukashenko’s calculations during that crucial period.
Russian activity on the border of Poland, meanwhile, sent a trenchant political message. Ladoga-2009’s notional pretext for the use of armed forces was an uprising of ethnic Poles in Belarus who, in conjunction with Lithuanian terrorists, were attacking Kaliningrad. The absurd improbability of this was matched by the operational overkill, reflected in Russian media releases, of incorporating air-delivered nuclear weapons and the strategic rocket forces in the fight to retake Russian territory. The battle for Kaliningrad also entailed an amphibious reinforcement operation and the repulsion of a NATO-like force by the 76th air-assault division.
Of course, Dmitry Medvedev says these exercises were “defensive.” Such exercises, as the Wehrmacht of the 1930s would have told us, always are. But it would have been hard for Obama to time his missile-defense announcement any worse. Belarus’s feeble resistance to Russian domination looks to be all but extinguished. Next time, Russia may well take a leaf out of Germany’s 1936 playbook: deploy as many troops as possible for these maneuvers and simply ignore any CFE obligations.