Russian troops have begun arriving in Belarus for preparations for the Zapad-2021 (‘West-2021’) joint military exercises slated for September.
As the Belarusian Defense Ministry stated the focus of the drills that will take place on September 10-16 will be on the use of force to ensure the military security of the Union State of Russia and Belarus.
The military maneuvers will be conducted both in Russia and Belarus. So far, 17 countries, including China and India, are invited to participate in the drills.
Traditionally, the Zapad exercises represent a point of concern to the West, especially to its easternmost regions including Poland and Lithuania. While, Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya insists that the Lukashenko’s regime can use the presence of Russian troops to provoke certain western countries and Ukraine, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu attempted at assuring the public that the upcoming drills are of ‘defensive nature’.
Crackdowns on media
On July 27, Belarusian authorities banned the Polish-funded Belsat TV-channel after labeling it ‘extremist’.
The channel is a subsidiary of Poland’s public broadcaster Telewizja Polska that provides news mostly in Belarusian. Its main audience is Belarusians closely following events and developments surrounding the opposition movement against President Lukashenko.
From now on, sharing information from Belsat is prohibited in Belarus and is subject to punishment in the form of fines or real jail time.
To date, around 50 NGOs operating in the country face closure. Earlier, Belarusian authorities intensified crackdowns on independent media and shut down several key news outlets such as Tut.by and Nasha Niva.
On July 28, Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya met with US President Joe Biden at the White House. The meeting was proposed by Tikhanovskaya’s side to increase international pressure on the incumbent Lukashenko regime.
During the talks, Tikhanovskaya asked Biden to help make Belarus a successful example of a peaceful transition to democracy. She also called the meeting a ‘powerful sign of solidarity’ of the US with Belarusians and ‘a message to the whole world that the greatest country [the US] in the world is with us’.
Earlier, as part of her US tour, Tikhanovskaya had a number of meetings with high-ranking officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken. She consistently urged US politicians to grant their support for the democratization of Belarus and called for sanctions against the Lukashenko regime.
Tikhanovskaya has been living in exile in Lithuania after the largely disputed 2020 presidential elections in Belarus.
On July 24, the Ukrainian parliament registered a bill according to which Ukrainians can be stripped of their citizenship if they get a Russian passport. Due to the ongoing conflict in Donbas and the 2014 annexation of Crimea, Russia is referred to on the parliament’s website as the ‘aggressor state’.
The text of the bill has not been made public yet and it is currently under consideration. Nevertheless, it caused a negative reaction in Moscow with some of its officials claiming that the bill aims at splitting Ukrainian society. Meanwhile, on July 20, Deputy Chief of the Russian Presidential Staff Dmitry Kozak said that between 2016 and 2020 about one million Ukrainians obtained Russian passports.
Reshuffle in high-military ranks
On July 27, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy relieved Ruslan Khomchak from the post of the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Subsequently, Major General Valeriy Zaluzhny, who headed the military’s northern command, filled the position.
According to the Ukranian president’s press secretary, the decision was motivated by ongoing conflicts and misunderstandings between the Defense Ministry and the Armed Forces. As the press secretary stated, Zelenskyy ‘wants to see a synergy’ between the two institutions.
Khomchak was appointed Commander-in-Chief in March 2020.
On July 28, three more replacements among high-ranking military officials were made by President Zelenskyy. Specifically, he replaced the Chief of the General Staff of the country’s Armed Forces, the Commander of the Air Assault Troops, and the Joint Forces Operation Commander. In a similar fashion, the need for effective cooperation between commanders and military leaders along with the pressing issue of modernization of the Ukrainian forces were cited as a pretext for such radical reshuffling of military cadres.
On July 29, marking the Day of Special Operations Forces (SOF) in Ukraine, country’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy signed laws on establishing ‘national resistance’ and increasing the number of troops with the Armed Forces.
Both of the laws were proposed by President Zelenskyy and subsequently adopted by the parliament. With the new amendments, the number of troops in the Ukrainian Armed forces will increase by 11,000 to 261,000.
US military help and China’s vaccine pressure
Ukraine and the US are to strengthen cooperation in the field of research and development, test and evaluation between the Ministry of Defense and the US Department of Defense. The Ukrainian Cabinet of Ministers already endorsed the relevant draft agreement and Defense Minister Andriy Taran is to sign it soon.
The agreement is to boost bilateral military-technical projects which would help equip the Ukranian Armed Forces with modern weapons and hardware according to NATO standards. This is of special importance due to the ongoing crisis in Donbas.
Nevertheless, despite Ukraine’s obvious alignment with the US, Kyiv also has to weigh its interests against those of another superpower, namely China. Specifically, Beijing pressured Kyiv into scrapping its signature from a joint statement at the UN Human Rights Council regarding the situation in Xinjiang in exchange for deliveries of Covid-19 vaccines.