Belarus hosted the trilateral military exercise Slavic Brotherhood 2017, on June 6–14, bringing together Armed Forces personnel from Russia, Belarus and Serbia (Vsr.mil.by, June 16). The maneuvers were headed by Lieutenant General Andrei Ravkov (the defense minister of Belarus), Zoran Djordjevic (minister of defense of Serbia), Colonel General Aleksandr Zhuravlev (deputy chief of the Russian General Staff), and Colonel General Anatoly Sidorov (the chief of staff of the Collective Security Treaty Organization—CSTO). Previously hosted by Serbia (2016) and Russia (2015), this year the event assembled 1,000 military personnel and 150 pieces of Russian and Belarusian military equipment that was also used by the Serbian forces.
According to the legend (the introductory description of the exercise scenario), participants of the multinational tactical battalion exercise would conduct a joint anti-terrorist operation on the territory of a “certain state” for “protection of peace” (Redstar.ru, June 6) and “combating international terrorism” (TASS, June 6). During these drills, the joint forces conducted a number of (all in all, more than ten) “tactical episodes” that included reconnaissance of the adjacent area, tactical military operations of a limited scale within the exercise area leveled against terrorist groups, as well as evacuation of the injured. Russian military officials stated that the specific exercise area was deliberately chosen because of its “tricky natural obstacles such as rivers, bogs and woods,” thus providing “an additional challenge for military personnel” (Redstar.ru, June 8). According to the final report, all tasks and goals set prior to the drills were successfully accomplished.
In this regard, it would be worthwhile to mention certain elements that have not been extensively discussed by Western observers:
- Operational novelties: One of the most distinctive traits of these exercises was special emphasis on conducting operations at night. Moreover, for the first time, “the multinational tactical group” that was formed during the exercise employed combined-arms operations (“kombinirovannym sposob”) while occupying main targets (Redstar.ru, June 16).
- Technical innovations with special emphasis on Electronic Warfare (EW): During the exercise, Russian paratroopers tested infantry combat systems “Ratnik” and “Kovboy.” The former is a helmet with a special eye monitor, communication systems, and special headphones, including 10 subsystems and 59 individual items (Vpk-news.ru, October 11, 2016); while the latter is special fire-resistant body armor.
- Emphasis on symbolism: A tactical battalion group of the 76th Guards Air Assault Division that took part in the games currently bears the name “udarnaia” (“shock troops”). According to the commander of the Russian Airborne Troops, Andrey Serdyukov, units of this type are characterized by “stupendous standards in terms of formation, equipment and training” (TASS, June 6). Prominent Russian military expert Viktor Litovkin suggested that emergence of these units is a continuation of the Soviet military tradition to designate so-called “Guards units”. Today’s udarnaia formations are to become the new “face of contemporary Russian Army and Navy forces.” At the same time, the editor-in-chief of the Arsenal Otiechestva magazine, Viktor Murakhovsky, related this move to “increasing the spirit of competitiveness in Russian Armed Forces.” Murakhovsky noted that the newly revived tradition dates back to the First World War, when units of this type were known as “death battalions” (TASS, June 5). Reportedly, by this winter, the status of “udarnaia” will be granted to three units in the Russian Far East, 14 in the Western Military District (WMD) and 16 mechanized infantry, tank and marine units in the Southern Military District (SMD).
- Yugoslavia-related narrative and “Slavic brotherhood” themes: The rhetoric of Russian military officials and the mass media was filled with frequent allusions to events in Yugoslavia (1999) and the role played by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) therein. In an interview with the press, Lieutenant General Nikolay Ignatov underscored the instrumental role the Airborne Forces play in the Russian Army. Namely, he referred to the ten-hour-long trek during the Kosovo War by Russian Airborne Troops, who crossed 600 kilometers and did not allow NATO to “occupy the territory of Kosovo in an organized manner,” which signified the “perpetual existence of Slavic brotherhood” (Redstar.ru, June 6). Similarly, conservative Russian media outlets argued that “being unable to achieve full conventional superiority over a potential adversary [i.e., Russia] today (unlike during the Yugoslav War, when the proportion [of Russian to North Atlantic Alliance forces] was 1:36), NATO is growing increasingly nervous about Russian counter-measures” (Eurasia.film, June 13). The same media sources have openly proclaimed Slavic Brotherhood 2017 to be a rehearsal of Zapad 2017, which will be hosted jointly by Russia (including Kaliningrad Oblast) and Belarus on September 14–20.
- Russian “soft power” in action: Russian officials stated that Russian was “a working language” during the exercises. Furthermore, a collateral yet highly important element of the event was a series of visual exhibitions (three in total) that demonstrated Russian military history and traditions past and present. Special sections were allocated to an exposition entitled “Armiya Rossiy,” an exhibit depicting the legacy of the Great Patriotic War (1941–1945), and a display dedicated to Slavic Brotherhood 2017.
Finally, it is worth digging deeper into whether the true purpose of these war games reflects their officially stated goals. Russian sources maintain a purely defensive nature of the event. The Mukhavets River, situated in western Belarus (close to the Brest Fortress), was the first point of invasion of Nazi German forces in June 1941. Thus this whole area, where the Slavic Brotherhood 2017 exercise also took place, represents a kind of “gate” into Russia, which presumably needs to be defended. On the other hand, given the growing Russian-NATO tensions over the “Suwałki Gap” (a narrow strip of land connecting Poland and Lithuania between Belarus and Kaliningrad) there is a possibility that the exercise was a rehearsal for an offensive strike against Poland from the territory of Belarus. It is thus instrumental to note a particular description from the exercise’s legend that called for the “introduction of military forces to the territory of a certain state in pursuit of regional stability” (Redstar.ru, June 8). Notably, such wording resembles the official pretext used by the Soviet Union to invade Poland in September 1939.
Given the strengthening of military ties between Moscow and Belgrade, the accession process of Serbia to the European Union can be expected to grow into another sharp point of tension within the EU. As such, the further development of military exercises like Slavic Brotherhood may pose significant risks to European unity and cohesion in the face of Russian activities.