What You Need to Know About Russia’s Big Wargame On NATO’s Doorstep
- By Ben Watson Read bio
September 11, 2017
Here’s what NATO and the region is watching for this year — and why.
For weeks, Russia and Belarus have been preparing for Zapad 2017.
Zapad is Moscow’s recurring Cold War-era wargame designed to show the world Russia can outmatch NATO. Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs calls the drills “exceptionally defensive” in nature. Zapad involves fictional battles played out across western Russia, Belarus and Kaliningrad.
“So not far from many NATO members on the eastern flank, like Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland,” said Lauren Speranza, associate director of the Transatlantic Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council in Washington. ”It could be the largest exercise since the end of the Cold War.”
- Ben Watson is news editor for Defense One. He previously worked for NPR’s “All Things Considered” and “Here and Now” in Washington, D.C. Watson served for five years in the U.S. Army, where he was an award-winning combat cameraman and media advisor for southern Afghanistan’s special operations … Full bio
#ZapadWatch: Viejšnoryja — The Land of Free Belarusians
A fictional adversary country made up for the Zapad 2017 military exercise is conspicuously close to NATO and sparks imagination of Belarusians.
On August 29, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin and Belarusian Deputy Defense Minister Oleg Belokonev introduced the scenario for the upcoming Zapad 2017 exercises. Deputy Minister Fomin offered highly dubious official statistics, stating that only 12,700 soldiers, including 7,200 Belarusian and 5,500 Russian troops, will participate. The @DFRLab already reported discrepancies between official numbers and open source evidence in preparation to 2017 exercises. Military officials also presented designated training grounds, military hardware, and other formally required information.
The most significant part of the scenario announcement for the Zapad 2017 exercise were the fictional borders and hostile countries the military exercise is designed to overcome. The three hostile countries made up for the exercise include territory in Belarus’ NATO-member neighbors Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland. The main fictional country created for the exercise also includes territory in Belarus typically associated with opposition to the current government. Some Belarusians took to social media to imagine what their newly-created, fictional country would be like.
The Scenario of Zapad 2017
Russian and Belarusian general staff, Russian media outlets, and Russian social media stress the defensive nature of the exercise. In the scenariocreated for the military exercise, a coalition of fictitious adversary countries (Viejšnoryja, Lubenia, and Vesbaria) forms to split the friendly “Northern Union” (Russia and Belarus) by marching their troops into western Belarus. This aggression leads to full occupation of Belarus, which the Russian and Belarusian forces deployed for the exercise aim to repel.
Viejšnorian borders (Source: Teleskop-by.org)
The fictitious countries presented in the exercise redraw the borders not only of Belarus, but also Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland. The newly created country of Viejšnoryja (Вейшнория, Vajšnoryja, Vaišnoria) is situated in north and west parts of Belarus.
Viejšnoryja — Geography and History
Even though these countries are fictitious, there are historical, geographical, and cultural explanations for the Russian and Belarusian thought process of creating them for the exercise. The most likely explanation for the borders of Viejšnoryja is that the Belarusian government regards this area as a potential source of unrest and opposition to the Lukashenko regime and Russian foreign policy. The fictional Viejšnoryja has several interesting historical, political, and cultural coincidences.
First, the territorial borders coincide with the regions that strongly supported Lukashenko’s opponent, Zenon Pozniak, during the 1994 elections.
Distribution of Pozniak supporters during the 1994 Belarus President elections. (Source: Belarus Digest)
Secondly, the territory also overlaps with the regions home to the greatest concentration of Roman Catholics in Belarus.
Distribution of Roman Catholics in Belarus. (Source: Kasparov.ru)
The regions that comprise Viejšnoria traditionally maintained close cultural and historical connections with Lithuania and Poland, and the Soviet-Lithuanian Treaty of 1920 gave this territory to the Republic of Lithuania. Grodno, the capital of Viejšnoryja, was an important cultural and political center for Poland — in the 16th-18th Centuries, every third Seim (parliament meeting) was held here — and for Lithuania, where it was the “second capital” of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
The map demonstrates the ties of “Viejšnorian territory” to Lithuania and Poland in 20th century. Western part of “Viejšnoria” was given to Lithuanian Republic according to Soviet-Lithuanian piece threaty in 1920. Most of “Viejšnorian territory” was part of the Polish Republic during 1921–1939 period. (Source: VK)
Belarusian speakers make up most of the population in these regions. The Belarusian language was stigmatized for years by President Lukashenko and was adopted by the opposition as a language of choice.
Regions where Belarusian is spoken at home. Red: Belarusian, Blue: Russian (Source: Belarus Digest)
Lastly, most of Viejšnoria is densely populated with people of Polish descent.
Distribution of Belarusians of Polish descent. (Source: Belarus Digest)
The demographic profile of the fictional nation of Viejšnoria suggest the military planners of Zapad 2017 may view this region as a source of potential threats in real life, which might play an anti-regime role similar to the role that L’viv Oblast played during the Maidan events in Ukraine.
Predictably, the announcement of the Zapad 2017 scenario went viral on social media. Some Belarusians imagined Viejšnoryja as a free and democratic version of Belarus, with a large collection of online memes. These Belarusians, generally opposed to the Lukashenko regime, suddenly imagined themselves as “Viejšnorians” — citizens of Belarus in a parallel-universe.
Military badge: “Viejšnoryja — Memetic Warfare” (Source: Twitter)
The post reads:
We haven’t started this war! But if we will fight, we will win!
A few days after the Zapad 2017 scenario announcement when Russian military staff first described the fictional Viejšnoria borders, internet users made sure that Viejšnoryja had all the characteristics and symbols a country needs — an anthem, flag, coat of arms, and the capital city at Grodno.
These symbols include Jagiellon cross, a symbol of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.