By Stanisław Żaryn, for StopFake

In the coming days, Russia and Belarus are holding a massive joint military exercise whose scenarios feature, among other things, taking aggressive action against NATO. However, the scale and the course of Zapad 21 are not the only reasons why NATO and its planners should keep the focus on the Alliance’s eastern flank.

For the past couple of weeks, the eastern border of NATO has been under great strain. Lithuania, Latvia and Poland have had their frontiers with Belarus hit by a mass wave of migrants. This influx has been provoked, enabled and stimulated by the regime in Minsk. It clearly is an intentional and rouge attempt by Alexander Lukashenko to destabilize these three countries – all of them NATO and EU member states. The Belarus dictator intends to open and establish a migration route going through his country to the West. And he makes big time money on this. Russia, lured by the vision of a destabilized Poland (Lithuania and Latvia) and chaos in the region, is gradually increasing its involvement in the scheme. Quite disturbingly, the situation will grow more serious in the nearest future – just across NATO’s eastern flank, Russia and Belarus will shortly hold strategic military drills nicknamed “Zapad 2021”. The Central and Eastern Europe countries are about to face yet another major challenge.

The so called “active phase” of the exercise is scheduled for 10-16 Sept. and will be marked by an intense military activity of the armed forces of both countries. The Russian and Belarusian troops will train in tandem according to scenarios prepared by the staff, and these include hostile operations against the Alliance’s eastern flank. Take, for example, scenarios in which subversive groups are to breach the Belarus-Poland border. Hence, in the coming days, the situation is expected to be tense. The upcoming drills may easily serve the Kremlin and Minsk as a pretext to stage provocations, carry out sabotage, push disinformation, or even provoke border incidents. Russia has a long-time experience in using a wide array of measures to destabilize the targets of its choice. Therefore, the presence of a large number of soldiers on training in Belarus and Russia may emerge as an opportunity to take more serious steps against Poland. The possibility to hide behind the backs of the Belarusian troops or to justify border violations with excuses like “we simply lost our way” significantly increases the Kremlin’s room for manoeuvre and provides it with a good informational cover.

It is highly likely that during Zapad 21 Russia and Belarus will do their utmost to increase the migratory pressure on Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, putting the impenetrability of their borders to test. Similarly, there is a high risk that other hostile actions will be taken on the Belarusian side of the border. Here in Poland specifically, we might also witness Russia and Belarus inspiring provocations in the closes vicinity of the frontier.

A bigger wave of migrants will be a breeding ground for propaganda activities of both regimes. Therefore, in the coming days the public opinion is expected to be flooded with manipulated narratives and subjected to various information warfare efforts. These will surely exploit the situation at Belarus-Poland border, the recent decision by the Polish government to declare the state of emergency in those parts of Poland that neighbour Belarus or the steps taken to seal the border. There might be repeated attempts to accuse Poland of creating chaos on NATO’s eastern flank, pursuing a policy that has led to the emergence of a military threat or presenting a “confrontational approach” to Russia and Belarus. One can bet the good old narrative of a “Russo-phobic Poland” has not worn out a bit and will be used. Other narratives presumably high on the agenda of the Russian and Belarusian propaganda apparatus will feature deploring the reluctance by Poland to treat those “refugees” (whom they never were, by the way) in a humanitarian manner or its eagerness to violate the international law and EU values.

The foregoing characteristic, however, does not exhaust the full range of hostile propaganda activities we are about to face. On occasion of the Zapad 21 exercise, Russia will attempt to amplify the narratives intrinsic to its everyday influence operations targeted against the West and the public opinion in Russia. So, the Kremlin will boast about a successful modernization of the Russian armed forces and restoration of its military might. The scale of the exercise and its success will be trumpeted. These narratives, primarily designed to dazzle the Russian people, will at the same time serve as a means of intimidation of western communities. The Kremlin will also portray the drills as a reaction to a (purported) threat posed by the West. More specifically, the creation of a non-existent external threat followed by efforts to make sure the Russian society will be afraid of it is the thing the Russian authorities always do. Zapad 21 will only strengthen this manipulation.

Russia’s notorious partner – Belarus – will not be spared by the Kremlin either. The Zapad 2021 exercise will provide Moscow with an opportunity to push the regime in Minsk further to accelerate the ongoing merger of both countries – on Russia’s terms, of course. Russian president Vladimir Putin may use the drills to blackmail his Belarusian counterpart with leaving the Russian troops on Belarusian soil. But he can use energy or financial issues as tools of blackmail as well.

As this year’s Zapad 2021 military exercise is held, the international security setting is very specific. Multiple efforts aimed to destabilize Poland, Lithuania and Latvia and massive drills just across NATO’s eastern flank – all this makes it an obvious necessity to keep a watchful eye the activities taken by the Kremlin. The coming weeks will abound in new manifestations of Russia’s aggressive stance and further attempts by the Kremlin to gain new possibilities to exert an influence on NATO.

By Stanisław Żaryn, for StopFake

Stanisław Żaryn is Spokesman for Poland’s Minister-Special Services Coordinator, National Security Department at the Chancellery of the Prime Minister of Poland