From August 26 through September 2, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka is overseeing the largest military exercise held in Belarus since 1991. Code-named Neman 2001, the exercise uses four training ranges, the main one of which, near Hrodna, is situated only a few kilometers from the intersection of the Belarusan, Lithuanian and Polish borders. The scenario presupposes that “aggressor countries” seize parts of Belarusan territory, but are rebuffed by Belarusan forces. That assumption mirrors the one underlying the Belarusan role in the CIS air defense exercise Combat Commonwealth 2001, which concludes today at Ashuluk, Russia. In that scenario, Poland supposedly lays territorial claims to Belarus and to the Kaliningrad Region of Russia.
Some 10,000 Belarusan army, internal and border troops, 130 artillery and surface-to-air missile systems, sixty battle tanks, 200 infantry fighting vehicles and armored personnel carriers, and forty planes and helicopters are involved in the Neman 2001 exercise. The troops will also test some new Russian-model or Russian-licensed weapons made in Belarus, such as Belgrad multiple rocket launchers, MAZ trucks, Kalashnikovs with telescopic sights and sniper rifles with new optical equipment. The exercise headquarters is a using satellite communications system loaned by Russia’s Defense Ministry gratis.
In a curtain-raiser interview on this exercise with the Russian Defense Ministry’s daily Krasnaya Zvezda, Lukashenka portrayed his military exercise as a response to NATO’s Amber Hope-2001, which is now in progress in Lithuania (see Baltic section above). The Belarusan president had announced as early as June that he would “respond” to Amber Hope by holding an unprecedentedly large exercise in Belarus near the Lithuanian and Polish borders.
Lukashenka celebrated his 47th birthday on August 30 by strutting in front of television cameras at the testing range near Hrodna clad in camouflage gear, taking aim through guns, checking combat hardware and receiving reports from army commanders. While confidently expecting reelection in the tightly controlled presidential balloting on September 9, Lukashenka is visibly nervous at the prospect of international nonrecognition of his preprogrammed electoral farce. His main opponent, Uladzimir Hancharyk, urged Lukashenka on August 26–the opening day of Neman 2001–to postpone the exercise until after the election and give up military posturing altogether. The president’s “anti-Western, bellicose statements are exposing not just Lukashenka but the country itself to ridicule,” Hancharyk commented.
Prefacing the ground-force Neman 2001, Belarusan military took part in joint air defense exercises with Russian forces in the Chita Region, eastern Siberia, on August 18-22 and at Cape Taran, Kaliningrad Region on August 22-23. These two were bilateral exercises, unlike the CIS exercise at Ashuluk; but all three presupposed that Belarus would join Russia in resisting a military “aggression” by NATO countries. Such projections serve mainly political purposes: Moscow reckons that this is one way to line up at least some CIS countries behind it, while leaders like Lukashenka earn Moscow’s political support by following its lead (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, August 23; Itar-Tass, RIA, NTV, August 26; Agentstvo Voyennykh Novostei, August 23, 28; Interfax, August 26-30; TV6, August 26, 30; see the Monitor, August 30).
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