- - Thursday, August 24, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

For the week beginning September 14, the Russian military will conduct its quadrennial military exercise called “Zapad,” the Russian word for “west.” Earlier Zapad exercises have caused great apprehension among the NATO nations, and this one will be no exception.

Zapad 2017 will be held in western Russia and into Belarus, a former Soviet satellite state that borders three NATO-member nations, Estonia, Latvia and Poland. The Russians say that their forces participating in Zapad 2017 will number only about 15,000 troops but NATO reportedly expects that they will number more than 100,000 along with their vehicles, armor and air assets.

According to a report in the August 12 Economist magazine, Russia’s earlier “Zapad” exercises have been alarming because of their nature. Zapad 2009, for example, included a simulated nuclear attack on Warsaw. That report also states that Estonia’s defense minister estimates that Russia has requisitioned 4,000 railway cars to take troops and equipment into Belarus. Russian forces are already flowing into Belarus.

Belarus, roughly the size of Washington State, has been independent since 1991. Its location makes it strategic, and its government and recent history make it the nation most likely to return to Russian domination.

Belarus‘ president since 1994 is Alexander Lukashenko, sometimes called the “last dictator in Europe.”

Mr. Lukashenko, in 1991 a member of the Belarusian parliament, was the only member of that body who voted against independence from Russia. As should be expected of a lifelong communist such as Lukashenko his government is autocratic and highly oppressive. It is also the nation that is ideally suited for Russian President Vladimir Putin to use as a base to threaten both Ukraine to the south and the three NATO members that border Belarus. Zapad 2017 could be a brilliant exercise in geopolitics by Mr. Putin.

In 2005, Mr. Putin said that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century.” Since then, he’s made considerable progress in reassembling a new Russian empire modeled after it. Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea began as an invasion of Mr. Putin’s “little green men” — Russian troops wearing uniforms but no national identification — and ended with formal annexation of Crimea.

Mr. Putin’s thrust into Belarus is anything but covert. It’s possible, even probable, that Mr. Putin likes the idea that his “Zapad” troops will effectively occupy Belarus so much that he will decide that many or most of them will stay. Mr. Lukashenko’s government could offer that Belarus be annexed as part of Russia just as Crimea was.

The timing for Zapad 2017 is perfect from the Russian perspective. The Trump administration remains undecided about sending arms to Ukraine which begged for them unsuccessfully from the Obama administration.

With Belarus on its North, Ukraine will feel pressured by the Russian presence there as well as from the southeast, where Russian proxy forces are still warring against the Kiev government’s forces. Russia announced the closure of the Kerch Strait to construct a bridge between Crimea and the Russian mainland thereby cutting off Mariupol, Ukraine’s key port for exporting steel.

Mr. Putin’s 2014 letter to the Ukrainian “rebels” referred to the area they are fighting in as “Novorossiya,” a czarist-era term for southeastern Ukraine meaning “new Russia.” His ambitions for Ukraine are all too clear.

If, as expected, Russian forces remain in Belarus, there every reason for the “little green men” campaigns to begin in northern Ukraine and even Estonia and Latvia, both formerly Soviet satellites. They might even reach into Poland which, though stronger and bigger than Estonia and Latvia, is increasingly isolated among EU nations under President Andrej Duda.

Estonia has been targeted by Mr. Putin before. In 2007, Russian cyberattacks that, with various levels of effectiveness, disabled the Estonian government for weeks. That nation has since become a center of ant-cyberwar technology. Nevertheless it is quite vulnerable to a new “little green men” campaign.

President Trump needs to signal strong support for Ukraine as well as the three NATO members on Belarus‘ border. Though he may still rankle at the sanctions bill, Mr. Trump shouldn’t hesitate further in sending badly needed anti-tank missiles and other weapons to Ukraine.

Estonia never invoked the NATO treaty’s mutual defense provision when it suffered the 2007 cyber attack. Under a Russian “little green men” attack, it could and should.

To prevent Mr. Putin’s proxy forces from infiltrating or attacking the three NATO members on Belarus‘ border, the president should invite the presidents of Latvia, Estonia and Poland for a summit at the White House.

During that summit Mr. Trump should give a speech that warns Mr. Putin of any effort to undermine the governments of those nations by proxy attacks and reaffirm our commitment under the NATO treaty. U.S. and NATO forces should stage their own military exercises in all three of those nations together or in series.

Mr. Putin can be relied on to pursue any weakness in the U.S. position in the Baltics and anywhere else an opportunity presents itself. He understands geopolitics well, especially in the context of his ambition to restore Russian rule over Soviet-like empire. He has, so far, foregone any invasion of a NATO member nation. But his forbearance is assured only by our determination and deterrence.

• Jed Babbin was deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration. He is a senior fellow of the London Center for Policy Research and the author of “In the Words of Our Enemies.”

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