The joint Russian-Belarusian Zapad 2017 war games, which ran during September 14–20, inspired a wide-ranging debate about the nature and geopolitical realities of Belarusian statehood and independence.
Thus, according to the Belarusian military analyst Alexander Alesin, the Kremlin had evinced utmost irritation with Minsk because, even though Moscow had long insisted on the offensive character of the exercises, Belarus had nevertheless invited several international observers, especially those from Ukraine, without coordination with Russia. Consequently, both President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu did not visit Belarus during the drill, and the Russian military commanders did not stay for a ceremonial meal right after the event (Naviny, September 26).
Artyom Shraibman, a political commentator for Tut.by, opines, on the other hand, that during Zapad 2017, Belarus was twice shown the limits of its sovereignty. In the first instance, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) kidnapped a Ukrainian citizen who came to Gomel, Belarus (see EDM, September 12). And in the second instance, the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced shortly after the beginning of the Zapad drills—and contrary to a detailed plan—that it was about to transfer a tank army to Belarus. While the Belarusian MoD disavowed this announcement, it clearly did not anticipate or understand what its Russian ally had in mind in the first place. In both cases, Shraibman argues, Moscow evinced extreme carelessness regarding Belarus’s image in the eyes of the West. This did not justify the Baltic States’ loud apprehensions, he suggests, but it did compromise Minsk’s guarantees that no attack on these countries would come from Belarusian soil (Tut.by, September 21).
Yauheni Preiherman, the director of research at the Liberal Club, a unique Minsk-based institution with ties to both international donor agencies and the Belarusian government, objects to Shraibman’s perspective on Belarus’s sovereignty. He calls the Zapad 2017 war games an event that bored everyone to death and cheers the fact that it is over. To Preiherman, the FSB’s capture of a Ukrainian citizen from Belarus need not be interpreted as any evidence of a limitation of Belarus’s sovereignty since spy agencies routinely engage in such activities across the world. Rather, the occurrence testifies to a “cynical and cruel” fight between Russia and Ukraine. Did the bugging of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone by the United States’ National Security Agency (NSA) limit Germany’s sovereignty, he asks (Tut.by, September 23). While some might give an affirmative answer to this seemingly rhetorical question by Preiherman, what is more important is that it actually lays bare the so-called notion of “attribute substitution,” a phenomenon studied by social psychology. Specifically, displeasure over limitations to sovereignty may be a spontaneous self-deception since few countries in the world exercise unlimited freedom of action to begin with. The true, if latent, displeasure may, in fact, be about which outside power limits one’s sovereignty rather than about the limitation of sovereignty itself.
Preiherman’s other main observation seemingly confirms the above reasoning. Specifically, with a good deal of satisfaction, he points to the fact that the Russian defense ministry’s announcement regarding a tank army deployment never materialized. And he notes, “Suffice it to recall the… [Russian] airbase deployment document that was reportedly agreed upon with Minsk and made public [by Moscow] on the eve of the 2015 presidential election. There is, however, no [Russian] airbase [in Belarus] to this day. What does this say about Belarus’s sovereignty?” Again, Preiherman claims that countries resort to tricks like this all the time, especially large countries in regard to small ones, and “Moscow, Washington, and Brussels are all tainted with that sin.” Thus, a classic realist argument pursued by Preiherman is that constraints to Belarus’s sovereignty do not depend on what others do in Moscow, think in Kyiv or proclaim in Vilnius. These are beyond Minsk’s control anyway, just as the widespread worries over Zapad 2017 had nothing to do with Belarus’s behavior but everything to do with its external instigators who were pursuing their own business interests. Belarus’s ability to pragmatically maneuver between the conflicting interests of its neighbors and efficiently defend those of its own—this is what Belarus’s sovereignty depends upon, believes Preiherman (Tut.by, September 23). In other words, a country’s sovereignty is limited by wisdom as much as mistakes, but there is hardly anything that one can do to control the geopolitical setting per se.
Such an idealist-versus-realist debate about Belarus’s foreign policy is illuminating, as it most probably reflects actual and perhaps more down-to-earth discussions in the corridors of power in Minsk. Surely, the idealist arguments are easier to prop up, as Russian media presents an unparalleled glut of pretexts. For instance, in late September, a closed-door court session in Vitebsk handed down a two-year prison sentence to a Belarusian for taking part in hostilities in Ukraine on the side of the Donetsk separatists (Svaboda.org, September 26). But a Russian media outlet replied that such a court verdict is itself a crime and an act of support for terrorism (Strategia, September 29). Moreover, the gist of the ideological battle within Belarus is framed as a fight between Russian-Belarusians and Litvins. The term “Litvin” is used to denote both ethnic Lithuanians and the population of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (from the mid-1200s to 1795), regardless of ethnicity. And the fact that Lukashenka recognizes Belarus’s roots in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania is considered by Russian “patriotic” voices a sellout to the West (EaDaily, September 28).
At the same time, realists have causes for celebration, too. From September 28 to October 1, the presidents of the [Catholic] Bishops’ Conferences of Europe took part in the annual Plenary Assembly, together with representatives from the Holy See’s delegations to the European Institutions. The whole assembly gathered in Minsk (Belta, September 28), although Catholics account for merely 15 percent of Belarus’s population. Also, the Minsk city administration has just registered the office of the Albaruthenia University, the nucleus of the first-ever Belarusian-language university in the Republic of Belarus (Svaboda.org, September 27). Both events were officially authorized by Minsk, thus seemingly extending the limits of Belarus’s sovereignty. As such, the debate on the existential issues of Belarusian statehood will continue.