First contingents arrive ahead of major exercise
On August 12, the Belarusian Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced that the first Russian troops would arrive in country on August 15 to prepare for Zapad 2017, a joint Russian-Belarusian military exercise that takes place every four years. Footage posted on news media and social media gives some indication of the locations of these first Russian units.
Zapad 2017 is scheduled to begin in September. According to the same Belarusian announcement, a special joint preparatory exercise to be held August 21–25 will precede the Zapad exercises.
The user’s public profile on VK says that he lives in the city of Orsha, which is located an hour away from the Russian border, and which is on the main railway artery to Minsk. Unfortunately, the image does not provide enough visual geographical reference for a more detailed confirmation.
The following day, on August 15, Belarusian media outlet Tut.By published a news article about the arrival of Russian troops in Belarus. An internet user commented that he had already seen some military equipment moving on the Minsk-Borisov-Orsha line in June.
Russian troops in Borisov
On August 16, the Belarusian citizen journalism outlet ex-Press published a video showing military vehicles passing down a road. The article states that the video was submitted by one of its readers. The video shows Ural military trucks with Russian number plates, and the article claims that these trucks were going down Vaynrubov Street to a forest near the Belarusian 72nd Joint Learning Center.
@DFRLab has previously reported onthe 72nd Joint Learning Center, located on the southern outskirts of the city of Borisov in the military village of Pechi. On July 17, Belarusian Defense Minister Lieutenant-General Andrei Ravkov mentioned Barisov as one of the locations for the Zapad 2017 exercise.
The video only gives a few visual clues as to the location. However, in the bottom left of the shot, a green grass circle in the middle of an intersection is visible, resembling the center of a roundabout. There is indeed one such roundabout on Vaynrubov Street that is surrounded by trees. The roundabout is located right by the village of Pechi. Unfortunately, there is no street view available for the location, for more detailed verification.
Not all reactions to the arrival were positive. The image of Orsha station shared by Dmitry Kostin on August 14 was posted to Belarusian nationalist VK group МАЯ КРАІНА БЕЛАРУСЬ (“MAYA KRAINA BELARUS”). The post generated some 80 likes, 60 comments and 5 shares. The most popular comments were hostile toward Russia:
If they did not pay for a green card for every single [piece of military equipment], I suggest making the trains pay a fine ))
If they want, let them prepare car covers for themselves
If they think they will take this land easily, THEN THEY ARE VERY WRONG.
A similar anti-Russian sentiment was also shared in the city of Brest. On August 15, Radye Svaboda, the Belarusian service of Radio Liberty, published images of a billboard with an orange poster that read:
Where you get the Russian army, you get war. Russian soldier, go home!
The article stated that the “posters were seen in many crowded places in Brest, at public transport stops and on advertising boards.”
— Свабодка (@svabodka) August 15, 2017
This tweet about the article raised over 160 retweets, 130 likes, and 13 replies.
The same day, the Belarusian human rights-focused media outlet Charter97 published an article stating that a demonstration against the exercise would be held on September 8:
On September 8, at 19:00 UCT, the preventive rally demanding the abolition of the Zapad 2017 exercises will start at Kastrychnitskaya Square in Minsk.
On August 17, Charter97 reported on a small rally in Brussels. Around a dozen protesters gathered by the building of the European Commission with posters that said “Stop Putin!”, “Stop war!”, and “No to exercise Zapad 2017.”
All these protests, both online and on the streets, were extremely small. As such, they do not necessarily represent broader sentiment; however, they did reach out to the public, at least in Brest, and were mentioned in some media outlets.
The open source evidence suggests that Russian troops have arrived in Belarus to prepare for Zapad 2017. Some sightings of these troops have been reported from the military village of Pechi, south of the city of Borisov. This location was previously mentioned by the Belarusian Defense Minister as one of the locations for Zapad 2017.
Some Belarusian national activists have perceived the arrival of Russian troops as hostile. Anti-Russian posters were posted in multiple locations in the city of Brest, and a small rally against Zapad 2017 took place in Brussels. None of these incidents were significant in size; a clearer indication of the scale of the sentiment may come on September 8.
@DFRLab will continue to monitor and report on developments under the hashtag #ZapadWatch.
Nika Aleksejeva is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).