Zapad 2017: What It Reveals About the Prickly Russia-Belarus Relationship

A T-72 tank drives during the Tank Biathlon 2016 competition at the "Stalin Line" memorial near the village of Goroshki, Belarus October 22, 2016. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko​

Aleksander Lukashenko tries to maintain a delicate balance between close cooperation with Russia and guarding Belarusian sovereignty.

In addition to military relationships, Minsk is cautiously emphasizing Belarusian distinctness to strengthen its national identity in the face Kremlin claims that Belarus is part of the “Russian world.” Belarus is increasing the emphasis on Belarusian as the preferred national language without taking overt steps that might isolate older generations and potentially anger Russia. There has also been greater emphasis on the wearing of traditional Belarusian clothing. These steps could, over time, reduce Belarus’ vulnerability to disproportionate Russian influence by helping Belarusians believe they are a sovereign country and that their independence is worth protecting.

As the exercise plays out, the West should consider closely monitoring it to discern how well Russian-Belarusian forces are integrated. The world should not forget that the relationship between Russia and Belarus remains close despite occasional quarrels. Even if Russia withdraws all forces from Belarus after Zapad, Belarus is still likely to treat Russia as its primary partner. Any changes in their relationship are likely to play out subtly and over time.

Bruce McClintock is an adjunct policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and a former U.S. Defense Attaché in Moscow.

Bilyana Lilly is an assistant policy researcher at RAND, a Ph.D. candidate at the Pardee RAND Graduate School and the author of Russian Foreign Policy Toward Missile Defense: Actors, Motivations, and Influence.

Image: A T-72 tank drives during the Tank Biathlon 2016 competition at the "Stalin Line" memorial near the village of Goroshki, Belarus October 22, 2016. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko​

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