WASHINGTON — NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance would keep a close eye on “hybrid activities” by Belarus against alliance member Lithuania, as the former teams up with Russia for the Zapad 2021 military drill next month.
In an Aug. 9 tweet, Stoltenberg said he had discussed Belarus’ behavior, including what he called “migratory pressure,” with Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda. “NATO is closely monitoring the situation and considering how we can further assist our ally and maintain safety and security in the region,” he wrote.
Lithuanian officials and Western analysts for weeks have flagged the Belarusian regime’s seemingly coordinated push of illegal migration into the tiny European Union member, including from Iraq, Iran and Syria.
The simmering standoff is but one puzzle piece in what analysts said is a potentially precarious context for the Zapad exercise. The event will see 12,800 troops training in Belarus from Sept. 10 to Sept. 16, including 2,500 from Russia, according to Russian state-owned news agency Tass.
Russian officials have said the exercise will pose no threat to NATO or Europe. Its scenario is based on “a crisis situation emerging in a conflict that breaks out and develops due to the increased activity of outlawed armed gangs, separatist and international terrorist organizations that enjoy external support,” Tass quoted the Belarusian head of the General Staff, Viktor Gulevich, as saying.
But according to analysts, the absence of details is concerning.
“The lack of transparency is what scares the hell out of people in Lithuania, in Estonia and Poland, and me,” said retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, a former commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe.
He noted that equipment left behind by Russian forces in a troop buildup outside Ukraine some months ago could suddenly come into play under the guise of the exercise, for example, creating the kind of military ambiguity that NATO officials have been wanting to avoid.
Hodges was speaking Aug. 5 at an event sponsored by the Washington-based Center for European Policy Analysis where he is an analyst.
“Lithuania has been at the forefront of hybrid activities that make you wonder what is, and isn’t, Zapad,” added Egle Murauskaite, a Vilnius-based senior researcher and simulation designer with the University of Maryland’s ICONS project.
According to Tass, the exercise will entail roughly 140 tanks, 110 artillery pieces and multiple-rocket launchers, and more than 30 aircraft and helicopters.
Sebastian Sprenger is Europe editor for Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multinational investments in defense and global security. He previously served as managing editor for Defense News.