As Ukraine prepares to celebrate the 30th anniversary of its renewed independence on August 24, there is unease that Russian President Vladimir Putin will use the opportunity to further antagonize a nation he believes should never have been an independent, democratic country separate from Russia. A massive joint Russian and Belarusian military exercise is set to take place September 10-16 just north of Ukraine’s border. That drill, called Zapad 2021, includes a rehearsal of Russian-led operations against forces from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), according to the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor.
On August 9, Russia’s Southern Military District started massive drills along Ukraine’s eastern border as well as to the south in occupied Crimea, which was forcibly seized in early April 2014. Those drills will run through September 15 and will coincide with Zapad 2021.
“The Russian military is framing the exercises as testing the ability of Russian officers to use attached assets and demonstrate creative decision-making,” the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW) said in an analysis.
But despite the Russian military’s effort to frame the exercise as a routine military drill, it is abundantly clear that Mr. Putin and his ally, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka – known as the last dictator of Europe – are intent on doing what they can to destabilize Ukraine. For Mr. Lukashenka, it’s certainly about retribution. In recent weeks, Ukraine has become a haven for Belarusian opposition activists, dissidents and even Olympic athletes who fear for their lives if they stay in Belarus, though it appears that even in Ukraine Belarusians are not safe. Activist Vital Shyshou, a Belarusian who led a Kyiv-based organization that helped persecuted compatriots, was found hanged in a park near his home in Kyiv on August 3.
“It is worrying that those who flee Belarus still can’t be safe,” said exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svytlana Tsikhanouskaya.
Mr. Lukashenka has accused Ukraine of stoking protests in Belarus that have threatened his rule. Ukraine’s Foreign Affairs Ministry responded to the accusations, saying that “Ukraine will remain open and hospitable to the citizens of Belarus who are forced to look for places to live and work in Ukraine.
During an eight-hour monologue on August 9, Mr. Lukashenka rhetorically asked why Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was “training militants on the territory of Ukraine and throwing weapons at us here.” Perhaps the most worrying element of Mr. Lukashenka’s accusation is that it will be used by both the Russian and Belarusian presidents as a pretext for further military aggression against Ukraine.
We believe the next few weeks will be a period of great potential danger for Ukraine. As many Ukrainians rightly prepare to celebrate an incredible milestone – the 30th anniversary of their country’s renewed independence – we also urge them to do so with great caution. Wolves are prowling on the doorstep.