Forty years ago, Russia used a major military exercise in part to scare the Polish communist leaders into cracking down on protesters, many of whom are associated with the independent union Solidarity. A similar Russian exercise could now be aimed in part at putting pressure on Belarus. If so, the West could respond in several ways.

On September 10, Russia began a week-long military exercise called Zapad-2021. involving perhaps some 100,000 people, it focuses on the western region of Russia and Belarus. The exercise can simulate threats from Poland and the Baltic countries, NATO members, and Scandinavia.

This war game could come at the right time for an anxious Kremlin. Since a blatantly stolen presidential election in August 2020, Belarus has been plagued by public unrest and anger. The dictatorial regime of the president Alexander Lukashenko started the violence. Over 35,000 Belarusians have been detained and hundreds tortured. But popular opposition may not have ebbed, even if it is less visible. Moscow might want tougher measures.

The repression gave rise to opposition in exile operating from Lithuania. In July, President Biden and Congress received his leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.

The Europeans support it as well as the opposition. Germany seeks to show these “brave people that we are by their side”.

This opposition evokes memories of the late 1970s and early 1980s of the Polish protests. In Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe, they posed the greatest nonviolent challenge to authority. Perhaps not by accident, Zapad-1981 was the largest Soviet military exercise ever, involving 100,000 to 150,000 troops.

There are similarities and differences between the two exercises and their political dimensions.

A similarity seems to be the purpose of bullying. In September 1981, the Kremlin used Zapad to put pressure on hesitant Polish leaders. Three months later, the Polish Communists impose martial law. Thousands of opponents have been imprisoned and nearly a hundred have been killed.

The Kremlin could also use Zapad-2021 to induce a harsher crackdown in Belarus or its acceptance of an air base long sought after by Moscow.

Another similarity could be the costs of intervention. In 1981, the USSR was grappling with food shortages and a demoralizing war in Afghanistan. Any push into Poland may have met with armed resistance or a longer-term insurgency. The costs and risks could have been high.

Today, Russia is more prosperous, but its economy is sluggish and its standard of living has declined. Generous grants to bolster a compliant diet in Belarus can be loathed in Russia.

A third similarity could be the fear of losing a sphere of influence. In 1981, the Kremlin viewed any Polish exit as likely to cause unrest elsewhere behind the Iron Curtain. Now Moscow may fear that a “color revolution” in Belarus will encourage other neighbors to loosen ties.

There are also differences between yesterday and today.

The resistance to a Soviet assault on Poland could have been strong. Poland has long fought for independence. The protests were led by workers, not just urban elites. The Catholic Church and Solidarity were centers of resistance opposition. Resistance in Belarus may be weaker.

A second difference may be Moscow’s vulnerability to sanctions. By the early 1980s, the USSR was largely isolated from the world economy, with the exception of nascent energy sales to Europe. Today, Western sanctions could have a more powerful impact on the Russian economy, as evidenced by the pain inflicted by Western financial sanctions imposed in 2014.

A third difference may be the strength of Western support for Poland. Partly because it was seen as European and the diasporas were large and organized, the West supported the opposition. He increased shortwave radio broadcasting and CIA-funded Solidarity media. President Reagan has publicly championed the cause of the liberation of Poland.

Western responses to an increased Russian military role in Belarus may be weaker. An armed attack may lead to a further displacement of NATO forces to its eastern and Baltic flanks, or to heavier sanctions. But more gradual or unopposed encroachment may not be. Russia and Belarus could say that as states of the Union they have the right to cooperate.

A fourth difference is how the West can exert influence. In Poland, the West has relied on pillars of civil society that seem weaker in Belarus. On the other hand, the advent of the Internet and social media, and the deepening of economic ties between Belarus and the EU, may offer new sources of influence.

Zapad-2021 appears to be oriented west and north, but Russia could also use it as a sham to avert its eyes from a military operation against Ukraine. Last spring, Russia began a major build-up of forces on Ukraine’s eastern border and in the Crimea. Moscow’s goal was not clear, but many forces remain. The West can respond to any new coercion.

William Courtney is Deputy Principal Investigator at the non-profit, non-partisan RAND Corporation and served as the United States Ambassador to Kazakhstan and Georgia.


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