In December 2021 and early January the international community witnessed an escalation of the internal conflict in Myanmar. The UN Rights Office recently warned that the Human Rights situation is worsening on an unprecedented scale, and fresh prison sentences against the former leader Aung San Suu Kyi only add fuel to internal divisions. News broke when 30 civilians were killed and burned on Christmas eve in Moso, in the state of Kayah. Other incidents, including the killing of eleven civilians in Salingyi Township, Sagaing region, or the death of a journalist in prison have been only some of the news coming from the country in the last weeks.
The Min Aung Hlaing Administration is far from achieving a complete control of the country. The Myanmar armed forces, or Tatmadaw, have been increasing their fighting against local armed resistance groups across the country, especially in Karen and Kayah states. In Karen, a region bordering Thailand, the rebel group Karen National Union has been stepping up the fight against the military junta. Around midnight on 23 December, the Tatmadaw launched at least two air strikes against the guerrillas. Thai Foreign spokesperson Tanee Sangrat reported that the two air strikes also affected Thais residing on the border between the two countries.
In Sagaing region and Shan state clashes between the military and local resistance groups are being waged on a daily basis. While some ethnic armed groups have offered their support to the local civilian resistance groups, some remain ambivalent. It is unclear the extent to which civilian resistance groups could inflict significant damages to the military. It is expected that the fighting will continue until its main objective of toppling the military regime is achieved. Ethnic guerrillas, around two dozen in the country, could take advantage of the political turmoil to attain greater political leverage and eventually achieve autonomy. According to the Association for Political Prisoners of Myanmar, more than 1,300 people have been killed by the military and almost 8,300 have been arrested or convicted since the coup in February 2021.
Moreover, it is estimated that since December 15, more than 10,000 people have fled Karen, including more than 4,200 who, according to the Thai Foreign Ministry, have already crossed the border. Several non-governmental organizations are asking Bangkok not to close its borders due to the massive arrival of refugees. Apart from violence, civilians are fleeing to neighbouring countries due to the lack of humanitarian aid. The junta is deliberately blocking the provision of humanitarian aid in conflict-ridden states as a form of punishment for the support of the civilian population to resistance groups. The situation is so critical that Myanmar has reached a level of impoverishment not seen since 2005. The strategy of blocking the provision of humanitarian aid is part of the wider strategy that the Tatmadaw has been using for decades: the ‘four cuts’. Even if the Tatmadaw does not use that term anymore, the strategy is definitely the same as that of the four cuts they have used against the ethnic population for more than 70 years, which consists of preventing the guerrillas from accessing food, financing, intelligence information and the possibility of recruitment. To make things worse, aid efforts have faced a number of significant operational challenges including travel and COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. Overall, this situation will further intensify the existing economic, social, and humanitarian crisis in Myanmar.
Apart from the more commonly conflict-ridden areas of the country where ethnic minorities are present, the conflict has spread to urban areas as well. The deterioration of the socioeconomic conditions has cropped up resistance in cities and regions where the ethnic Bamar are a majority. On 5 December five protesters were killed and several dozens were injured during anti-government protests in Yangon after a car initially drove into a group of demonstrators at high speed. Besides, and coinciding with International Human Rights Day on 10 December, thousands of citizens joined the calls of activist groups to stage an unprecedented “silent protest” against the regime. Businesses were closed and people isolated themselves at home across the country to show their rejection of junta violence.
The internal turmoil has been escalated with new prison sentences for the leader of the National League for Democracy party and Myanmar’s former state councillor (head of government) Aung San Suu Kyi. On 6 December she was sentenced to two years in prison for inciting violence and failure to comply with COVID-19 measures. The sentence was initially of four years in prison, but shortly after the ruling was known, the military junta made official a partial pardon that reduced the sentence to 2 years. In addition, on 10 January Suu Kyi was sentenced, in other two processes, to a total of four more years in prison for violating the laws against the pandemic and for the illegal importation and possession of various telecommunications devices. There has been a widespread international rejection for these judicial processes, which have been considered politicized and lacking of judicial guarantees. Suu Kyi could still face nine other charges with accumulated penalties that exceed 100 years in prison.
Given the new escalation of violence by the Tatmadaw the international community has announced a new set of sanctions against the junta. As a response to human rights abuses, the US and other governments such as those of Canada and the United Kingdom have imposed a fresh set of sanctions on dozens of people and entities linked to Myanmar. Moreover, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, urged the imposition of an international arms embargo on the country. The international community is also keeping an eye on ASEAN moves. Cambodia’s Prime Minister, Hun Sen, started in early January an official visit to Myanmar that has been widely criticized by fellow members of ASEAN, especially by Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, as being a move to legitimate the junta’s actions. Cambodia will chair the presidency of ASEAN in 2022, and the situation in Myanmar is set to increase internal divisions within the organization. The leaders of ASEAN already agreed on a Five-Point consensus plan in April 2021 to tackle the internal crisis in Myanmar, which resulted in an evident fiasco.
The escalation of violence in Myanmar against civilians, as well as the continued persecution of political opponents and journalists has led to new sanctions against the junta. Furthermore, the internal situation in Myanmar has increased tensions in neighbouring countries, since Thailand has seen a significant increase in refugees from Myanmar, and the Cambodian Prime Minister’s state visit has generated tensions among ASEAN members. The following months will be filled with internal uncertainty and external criticisms.
In 1992, war broke out in Bosnia. Muslim Bosniaks fought against Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats. The fall of Yugoslavia left the region in turmoil with each party vying for power and their own plot of land, but Bosnia had a pretty even balance of Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats. In February 1992 the Serb majority in the country decided to boycott a referendum and reject its outcome and instead created their own constitution of the Serbian Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Following Bosnia’s declaration of independence that year, the Bosnian Serbs led by Radovan Karadžić and supported by the Serbian government of Slobodan Milošević mobilised their forces inside Bosnia in order to secure their ethnic territory. In doing so they kicked off a war that would take hundreds of thousands of lives and be characterised by bitter fighting, indiscriminate shelling of towns and cities, war crimes and ethnic cleansing.
The scars of the war 30 years ago still run deep in the region today, but yet again teeters on the edge of a cliff that could see the Bosnia return to war. Milorad Dodik in the Serb Bosnian dominated Republika Srpska has been vying for more autonomy for his people for years. He wants to abandon Bosnia’s institutions, the security forces, the judiciary system and the tax system, in doing so he would be leaving the region on high alert. At the start of December he led a vote at the parliament for the Republika Srpska in which 48 out of a possible 83 seats in parliament voted to withdrawe from the institutions.
Dodik said that the vote was “the moment of conquering the freedom for Republika Srpska” and that “Bosnia is an experiment… I don’t believe it can survive because it does not have the internal capacity to survive.” Now the vote has been passed the regional government should now draft new laws on the military, judiciary system and tax system to replace state laws. Dodik also wants to roll back on all reforms made after the war and return to the 1995 constitution under which the state was represented by basic institutions only while all powers had belonged to the regions.
In a joint statement, the embassies of the US, UK, France, Germany, Italy as well as an EU delegation said that the parliamentary motion was a “Further escalation”. More recently the US has imposed sanctions on Dodik for corruption and threatening the stability and integrity of Bosnia.
However, the motion continues to threaten the region’s delicate peace. In the days around the Orthodox Christmas, nationalists, encouraged by their leader’s rhetoric, provoked Muslim neighbourhoods, shot guns near mosques during prayers and sang nationalist songs glorifying convicted war criminals during street parades. Some days later, Bosnian Serbs celebrated the day in 1992 when they declared their independence, triggering the Bosnian War, with a parade of armed police forces in direct defiance of a court ban and the US sanctions. Dodik has been using racial slurs against Muslim Bosniaks, degrading them to a religious group without ethnic identity and ascribing them the “colonial mentality”. All of which only adds fuel to an already deteriorating situation in the country as ethnic lines grow further apart once again.
Dodik has dismissed the threat of the EU and US sanctions claiming that he has spoken with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin who offers his help. With the EU sanctions, Dodik has suggested they only push him closer to China and its investments claiming that, like Putin, China’s President Xi Jinping is all but happy to help. Dodik claims he was not elected “to be a coward” and with the backing of Russia and China, we could see him further stretch his secessionist motions. Along with close ties to Serbia itself, Dodik feels he has some powerful allies behind whom he can shelter against these sanctions and further his movements towards an independent Serb state in Bosnia.
If secession does happen, Dodik will have both Russia and Serbia to call in for immediate help. Serbia itself has very close ties with Russia and they continue to do arms deals with the most recent being a shipment of 9M133 Kornet anti-tank missiles with more to come later in the year. Last year in November Serbia procured 30 T-72MS tanks and 30 BRDM-2MS armoured personnel carriers. From 2018 to 2020, Russia donated four Mi-35M helicopters, six MiG-29 fighter jets, 10 BRDM-2 amphibious armoured scout cars, three Mi-17V-5 transport helicopters, and Pantsir-S1 air-defence missile-gun system to Serbia as military technical assistance.
Serbia has also been accused, on various occasions, of attempting to destabilise the region, especially with attempts towards neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina. Should war break out in Bosnia, Serbia, with the backing of Russia, would be perfectly placed to aid Dodik in securing Serb lands. The last thing the EU or the US wants is for there to be another blood-filled war in Europe, and so Dodik currently has a choice; continue with his secession attempts with the threat of war increasingly likely and intervention from the EU and US in which, like the first time, thousands might die, or attempt to work with the EU and the Bosnian government to find a peaceful resolution to the situation. Either way, Dodik has expressed his desire to show his strength, and with many remembering the violence of the first Bosnian War, tensions are as high as they have ever been.
Iraq and Iran have had a dynamic relationship over the past few decades. The Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s was a period of conflict, but in recent times since the fall of the Saddam regime in 2000, the regional neighbours have shared closer ties. 2020 onwards however has been an interesting time in the history of their relations – “interesting” meaning their relations have been somewhat of a ‘mixed bag.’ This article explores whether at present Iraq is veering closer to its neighbour, or pulling apart from it.
On the one hand it seems to be courting Iran (or perhaps Iran is courting it). This can be seen in its actions in strengthening bilateral coordination with Iran – namely in the areas of defence, diplomacy, economics and politics. Notably in November 2020, the defence apparatus of the two countries explored the prospect of strengthening defence and military cooperation – also in the area of counter-terrorism. The latter issue is especially poignant in Iraq – which faces threats from a resurgent Islamic State. On the issue of diplomacy, their leaders and senior officials meet regularly. Further, they also attend each other’s state events. Notably last month, Iraq’s President Barham Saleh attended the inauguration of Iran’s new president. Iran reciprocated through its Foreign Minister being in attendance at Iraq’s special Baghdad Conference in the same month. Iraq has also been a mediatory bridge between Iran and its major regional rival, Saudi Arabia.
The latter could be a seen as Iraq taking interest in its neighbour’s diplomatic relations. However, it seems much more likely Iraq would seek to involve itself as a mediator to bolster its own international or regional reputation. In other words, using such high-profile talks to make itself look good. This is certainly not an action that would endear Iraq to Iran. Further, being that Iraq has relations with both countries, its mediator role more than likely looks to be a cover for trying to get the most out of its relations with both countries. This seems plausible, considering in November 2020 Iraq reopened its border crossing with Saudi Arabia – which had been closed since 1990. As mentioned previously, in the same month Iraq sought to strengthen its ties with Iran militarily. Further, on 4 September 2021 Iraq and Saudi Arabia met to discuss security cooperation. Together, such moves suggest Iraq is playing a game – seeking to keep both sides close, so that it can benefit from both. Being mediator is of course another step towards securing closeness and extensive diplomatic dialogue with both.
Further, diplomatically and culturally-speaking, the peoples of both Iraq and Iran share extensive ties. This is evident in the fact thousands of Iranian Arbaeen pilgrims flock each year to Iraq’s holy Shi’a sites. The latter is something the two governments have this month capitalised on, when they reached a no-visa deal for their peoples entering the other’s country. In the same religious and cultural remit, Iraqi society is very much influenced by Iran. This is evident in the Iraqi state-sanctioned Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF). The latter group is home to a number of Iraqi militias who either possess sectarian ties to, or are backed by Iran. Examples of such militias are the Khataib Hezbollah; Asaib Ahl al-Haq, and the Badr Organisation. Such groups have vast sway in the Iraqi state, whilst also acting as proxies in the region. This suggests that agents of the Iraqi state are moving towards Iran.
However, as much as the two countries have ties, there also exist times when they do not see eye-to-eye. This is evident in the way many in Iraqi civil society have blamed Iran for the ills of their country – namely its role in the violent targeting of anti-corruption activists and journalists in Iraqi society. For example, last month an Iraqi Shi’a cleric publically called out PMF militias with links to Iran for being ‘disloyal’ to Iraq. One has to wonder whether such a voice is in the minority or in the majority. I suspect such a voice is in the minority in the PMF, but in the majority amongst Average Joe Iraqi citizen. Further, in May 2021 in the city of Karbala, demonstrators who blamed Iran for its role in the death of a prominent anti-corruption and anti-sectarian journalist, set fire to the gates, entrances and trailers of the Iranian consulate in the city. Iran of course voiced strong condemnation of the attack on its consulate, and also urged neighbouring Arab countries to pursue the case under international conventions. Iran not choosing to overlook the actions of Iraqi citizens suggests the relationship between Iran is not as special as one might think. Further, the strong-willed actions of the Iraqis who attacked the consulate suggests Iraqis at least are not as mesmerised with Iran as the Iraqi state might be.
But aside from the people, at the previously mentioned Baghdad Conference, Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi made cryptic remarks whereby he said Iraq refuses to be used as a middle ground for conflicts – both regional and international. Further, he said his country “reject[s] Iraq being used as a springboard for any threat to any party.” It is unclear which party or parties he was referring to, but in context he could very well have been referring to Iran’s role in the country. This can be deduced from the fact Iran has a number of ongoing conflicts both regionally and internationally – with Israel, the US, and the Arab Gulf states. Additionally, it can be deduced from Iran’s Foreign Policy being predicated on influencing foreign affairs via its proxies and enablers in the region. Again, Iran already has proxies in Iraq. Assuming Iran is the subject being referred to, this would suggest Iraq by the very least is trying to distance itself somewhat from Iran.
But with no specifics given to identify who the Prime Minister was speaking of, his speech cannot definitively be used for comment on the nature of Iraq-Iran relations. Moreover, with the presence of Iran’s Foreign Minister at the Conference, it makes it unlikely Iraq would speak of its close neighbour like that. Nevertheless, it is not impossible, and could account for the reason why Iraq’s leader chose to speak cryptically. This is because it seems plausible that Iraq would only be able to speak freely and more explicitly about its concerns at such a conference if the party was not present at the time of delivery. This therefore suggests the subject of the speech was indeed present at the time: Iran’s Foreign Ministry. Again, this suggests Iraq is seeking to move away from Iran – or by the very least away from Iran’s foreign policy.
Whilst unproven, one area that seems to indicate Iraq is repelling Iran is with Iraq’s working relationship with the United States. The US has had large numbers of troops deployed in Iraq. They do so to help Iraqi security forces maintain peace and stability in the country – having spent much of the time liberating the country from Islamic State militants since 2014. Iran is not a fan of the United States, nor of its presence in Iraq and in the wider region. In fact, the United States is an arch rival of Iran, and both are currently in conflict. The United States however contributes much to Iraq’s internal security and stability – with American troops having trained and fought alongside Iraqi security forces in the fight against terrorism.
Over the past few months, Iraq has seen many attacks on its capital Baghdad as well as other areas from militants. The latter have mainly been seeking to attack the United States and its installations in the country. The US has claimed Iran and Iran backed militias are responsible for carrying out such attacks. Assuming Iran is responsible for such attacks, Iraq is clearly being destabilised by Iran’s actions. This would suggest Iraq would seek to do what it can to distance itself from Iran and its perceived actions. This could therefore explain why Iran would make a speech at the Baghdad Conference, warning against being used as a “middle ground” or “springboard” for conflict [with the United States].
One interesting areas of Iraq-Iran relations is in the energy sector. Iraq is a beneficiary of much of Iran’s petroleum and gas. In fact in October 2020, Iran’s secretary of the Iranian Union of Petrochemical, Gas and Oil Exporters revealed that 60 percent of the country’s petrol went to neighbouring Iraq. Further, Iran also sends Iraq mammoth amounts of gas. On the latter issue, Iraq has accrued $5 million in arrears. Iran has been seeking the money back from Iraq. Therefore, it was no coincidence that early this month Iran began turning off the gas. In fact, Iran reduced the amount of gas it supplies its neighbour to 8 million cubic meters per day – down from 49 million. No reason was given as to why it acted to do so, but Iraq’s debts are suspected. This suggests Iraq has somehow fallen out of favour with the Islamic Republic. However, Iran’s actions this month suggest Iraq does indeed share a special relationship with it – or rather that their relationship is still somewhat close. This is evident in Iran’s Oil Ministry’s decision to appoint a special envoy for Iraqi affairs. The latter decision suggests a special interest in Iraq on the Iranian side. It also shows a willingness to resolve the issue by diplomatic means – as opposed to more hostile or impersonal means. This in itself indicates Iraq and Iran, at least on this issue, are not repelling each other. However, one will have to see in the coming months or year if the outcome of this issue will have bearing on Iraq’s perception of and relations with its close neighbour.
In September 2021, after a seven-month trial, a Rwandan court found Paul Rusesabagina guilty of being part of a group involved in terrorist incidents and was given a 25-year prison sentence. Rusesabagina is the former manager of the Hôtel des Mille Collines in Kigali, Rwanda, and was depicted by Don Cheadle as a hero in the 2004 film ‘Hotel Rwanda’ about the country’s 1994 genocide. During the genocide, he was praised for saving over 1,200 lives. Since his arrest in August 2020, which he described as a kidnapping from Dubai by Rwandan authorities, the subject has gotten a lot of attention.
Paul Rusesabagina became well-known across the globe after ‘Hotel Rwanda’ illustrated him risking his life as the manager of a luxurious hotel in Rwanda’s capital, during the 100 days in which the Rwandan genocide occurred where over 800,000 people were killed – the majority being members of the Tutsi minority. Rusesabagina was a moderate Hutu who had a Hutu father and a Tutsi mother. He emigrated to Belgium and the United States in 1996 after becoming disenchanted with President Paul Kagame’s new Tutsi-dominated government. After the exposure as a result of the Hollywood film, Rusesabagina, who was now a Belgian citizen and US resident, emerged as a vocal critic of Kagame. He leveraged his newfound celebrity status to call attention to what he labelled as human rights violations by Kagame’s post-genocide government, a Tutsi commander who rose to power after his forces seized Kigali and brought an end to the genocide. The Rwandan president is a divisive figure who is credited with Rwanda’s progress and stability following the genocide, but who is also criticised for his intolerance of any criticism, be it domestic or international. Several cold case murders of Rwandan dissidents in several African countries have been attributed to Kigali, despite Kagame’s government’s denials.
Rusesabagina went on to head an opposition group called the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD). In 2018, in a YouTube video, Rusesabagina called for armed resistance, claiming that democratic processes continued to fail to bring about change in Rwanda. He said, “The time has come for us to use any means possible to bring about change in Rwanda as all political means have been tried and failed… Rwandan people can no longer stand the cruelty.” This was following Kagame’s third re-election win the year before, with 98.8 percent of the vote.
After a cunning plot to bring Rusesabagina back to Rwanda from exile in the US, he was apprehended in Kigali in August 2020. Then, Rusesabagina’s trial started in February 2021. His supporters claim he was kidnapped and forcibly taken to Rwanda. On the other hand, Rwandan authorities say he was tricked, rather than forced, into flying on a private plane. He thought the plane would take him to a meeting in Burundi but instead landed in Kigali. Yet, according to Human Rights Watch at the time, Rusesabagina’s arrest amounted to an “enforced disappearance,” which it regards as a serious breach of international law. One can see that from the very start, the trial was unfair. It all started with a kidnapping, and then Rusesabagina was held in solitary confinement for more than 250 days, in contravention of UN standards on prisoner treatment. Throughout his detention, he has been mistreated in accordance with international standards. Other individuals, whom were FLN members, were tried alongside Rusesabagina, and some testified against him.
He was indicted for supporting a militarised wing of his opposition political platform (MRCD). The armed wing, called the National Liberation Front (FLN), is responsible for the death of nine Rwandans in attacks that occurred in the country between 2018 and 2019. Prosecutors said he recruited dozens of fighters for the FLN and that Rusesabagina had “encouraged and empowered the fighters to commit those terrorist acts.” Some of the other individuals tried alongside Rusesabagina, who were FLN members, testified against him. During the trial, these FLN members testified in a contradictory and inconsistent manner about Rusesabagina’s level of involvement with the FLN and its fighters. The judge presiding over the case said, “We find Rusesabagina’s role in creating FLN, his provision of funds and purchasing for them secure phones to use, all constitute the crime of committing terrorism. We therefore find him culpable of the crime of terrorism.” However, Rusesabagina has denied responsibility for violence perpetrated by the MRCD’s FLN. He claimed he never ordered for people to be targeted or killed, although he did admit to sending money to the FLN.
Rusesabagina pulled out of the trial shortly after it began in March of this year, claiming that he was not being given a fair trial, which he was promised, and that he was not allowed proper access to his lawyers. Victoire Ingabire, an opposition leader in Rwanda with a similar story to Rusesabagina, and who spent six years in prison for terror charges, said the Rusesabagina verdict was never in doubt. She said, “In a country where freedom is limited, all power is in the hands of the executive … How could a judge dare to take a decision incompatible with the wishes of the president?”
This case has undoubtably sparked worldwide criticism. His backers and supporters have hailed the trial as an example of Kagame’s ruthlessness in dealing with political opponents. The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which is in power in Rwanda, has continued to target people it considers a threat. The court decision was evidently intended to send a message to the opposition. This appears to be a ‘show trial’ with the goal of stifling dissent and ensuring that anyone criticising or questioning Kagame is simply not permitted to do so. Yet, Kagame has denied conducting a ‘show trial,’ claiming that Rusesabagina was put on trial not because of his prominence, but because of the lives lost as a result of “his actions.” Kagame also said, “He is here being tried for that. Nothing to do with the film. Nothing to do with celebrity status.” Ultimately, Rusesabagina was sentenced to 25 years in prison for “being a member of a terror group and participating in terror activities.” The option for pursuing a life sentence against Rusesabagina was scrapped as this is his first offence but given Rusesabagina’s age and bad health condition (a cancer survivor), the 25-year sentence looks more like a death sentence.
Lastly, this case is also important as while there are a number of high-profile dissidents and critics of President Paul Kagame in exile, the country has never been able to bring any of them back and prosecute them for terrorism. So, this case sends the message that those in the diaspora who criticise Kagame should also be aware that the Rwandan authorities can track them down wherever they are.
The massive, Russo-Belarusian Zapad 2021 operational-strategic war games have ended. Zapad happens every four years and always rehearses the same scenario. A supposedly imaginary western coalition (aka NATO) is working with ‘terrorist’ elements to unseat the power in Belarus and take over parts of the country. The joint forces of the Union State, Russia and Belarus, must repel the invasion, defeat the enemy head-on and sustain a possibly longer-term regional war with a nuclear component towards the end. The live-fire elements of the Zapad-21 military exercises took place between 10-16 September across 14 training zones in Belarus and Russia. Western countries were not invited to observe the drills, nonetheless it featured hundreds of troops from “friendly” states like India and Kazakhstan, among others.
The Zapad drills have always been about rehearsing operational-strategic warfighting at the regional level against NATO, with a particular focus on force mobility, joint operations across army branches, and high-level Command and Control (C2).
Based on an outline of Russian major exercises in terms of mission, quantity of forces, readiness and C2, it is clear that Russia’s warfighting potential has increased in the past decade. Therefore we are able to draw at least two main conclusions.
First, Russia’s ambition for warfighting potential as mirrored in exercises has always been to carry out strategic-level warfighting operations against a peer adversary. That corresponds to a potential to fight at least a regional war with conventional forces.
Secondly, in the early 2010s, the available warfighting potential for Russian commanders was low. The level of participating forces, some tens of thousands, did not match the C2 scope of the exercises. That available potential in terms of forces corresponded more closely to the level of local war. Not anymore. The trend since 2014 is force participation in the hundreds of thousands, which arguably reflects the strategic-level ambition for warfighting potential much better.
Also on a further assessment it is important to note that with Belarus’ foreign policy options severely constrained with the West, Zapad-21 re-enshrined the military importance of the Union State and the increased military integration, if not the ‘merger’, between Russia and Belarus. In September, both countries signed yet another strategic partnership that opens the way to greater military-technical cooperation and arms sales. Russia will not have a permanent base in Belarus after all, but the debate has now shifted. In March, Russia announced the creation of three joint training centers, one of which will open in Grodno in Belarus.
Moreover, is it particularly relevant to underline that the proposed scenario of this year’s exercises was an initial act of aggression from a coalition of states vaguely resembling NATO territory, against which the Union State of Russia and Belarus had to defend. And ultimately repel by organizing a counter-offensive through a regional combat grouping of forces. The goal of the exercise is to show the ability of the Russian armed forces to move fast and well in a Western strategic direction. And while the Western Military District is the main actor in Zapad, it was also supported by troops from the Central Military District, reservists, and security forces such as Rosgvardia and the FSB.
Ultimately, Zapad signals to NATO and its allies that pre-emptive ‘enemy’ operations will be met with decisive Russian force, which therefore raises the cost of deterrence. Geopolitical propaganda aside, the Kremlin reportedly behaved this time and avoided the global positioning system (GPS) jamming and other provocative behaviours from four years ago. The glimmer of hope is that Russia might be more willing to avoid miscalculation and tactical errors with NATO and its allies.