On August 29, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin and Belarusian Deputy Defense Minister Oleg Belokonev introduced the scenario for the upcoming Zapad 2017 exercises. Deputy Minister Fomin offered highly dubious official statistics, stating that only 12,700 soldiers, including 7,200 Belarusian and 5,500 Russian troops, will participate. The @DFRLab already reported discrepancies between official numbers and open source evidence in preparation to 2017 exercises. Military officials also presented designated training grounds, military hardware, and other formally required information.
The most significant part of the scenario announcement for the Zapad 2017 exercise were the fictional borders and hostile countries the military exercise is designed to overcome. The three hostile countries made up for the exercise include territory in Belarus’ NATO-member neighbors Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland. The main fictional country created for the exercise also includes territory in Belarus typically associated with opposition to the current government. Some Belarusians took to social media to imagine what their newly-created, fictional country would be like.
The Scenario of Zapad 2017
Russian and Belarusian general staff, Russian media outlets, and Russian social media stress the defensive nature of the exercise. In the scenario created for the military exercise, a coalition of fictitious adversary countries (Viejšnoryja, Lubenia, and Vesbaria) forms to split the friendly “Northern Union” (Russia and Belarus) by marching their troops into western Belarus. This aggression leads to full occupation of Belarus, which the Russian and Belarusian forces deployed for the exercise aim to repel.
The fictitious countries presented in the exercise redraw the borders not only of Belarus, but also Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland. The newly created country of Viejšnoryja (Вейшнория, Vajšnoryja, Vaišnoria) is situated in north and west parts of Belarus.
Viejšnoryja — Geography and History
Even though these countries are fictitious, there are historical, geographical, and cultural explanations for the Russian and Belarusian thought process of creating them for the exercise. The most likely explanation for the borders of Viejšnoryja is that the Belarusian government regards this area as a potential source of unrest and opposition to the Lukashenko regime and Russian foreign policy. The fictional Viejšnoryja has several interesting historical, political, and cultural coincidences.
First, the territorial borders coincide with the regions that strongly supported Lukashenko’s opponent, Zenon Pozniak, during the 1994 elections.
Secondly, the territory also overlaps with the regions home to the greatest concentration of Roman Catholics in Belarus.
The regions that comprise Viejšnoria traditionally maintained close cultural and historical connections with Lithuania and Poland, and the Soviet-Lithuanian Treaty of 1920 gave this territory to the Republic of Lithuania. Grodno, the capital of Viejšnoryja, was an important cultural and political center for Poland — in the 16th-18th Centuries, every third Seim (parliament meeting) was held here — and for Lithuania, where it was the “second capital” of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
Belarusian speakers make up most of the population in these regions. The Belarusian language was stigmatized for years by President Lukashenko and was adopted by the opposition as a language of choice.
Lastly, most of Viejšnoria is densely populated with people of Polish descent.
The demographic profile of the fictional nation of Viejšnoria suggest the military planners of Zapad 2017 may view this region as a source of potential threats in real life, which might play an anti-regime role similar to the role that L’viv Oblast played during the Maidan events in Ukraine.
Predictably, the announcement of the Zapad 2017 scenario went viral on social media. Some Belarusians imagined Viejšnoryja as a free and democratic version of Belarus, with a large collection of online memes. These Belarusians, generally opposed to the Lukashenko regime, suddenly imagined themselves as “Viejšnorians” — citizens of Belarus in a parallel-universe.
The post reads:
We haven’t started this war! But if we will fight, we will win!
A few days after the Zapad 2017 scenario announcement when Russian military staff first described the fictional Viejšnoria borders, internet users made sure that Viejšnoryja had all the characteristics and symbols a country needs — an anthem, flag, coat of arms, and the capital city at Grodno.
These symbols include Jagiellon cross, a symbol of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
Viejšnorian armed forces to “defend from the Minsk autocracy”.
The post reads:
Ready to join the Armed Forces of Viejšnoria to defend from the Minsk Autocracy.
People in the area also created other resources associated with nation-states, like Viejšnorian currency…
…a Viejšnorian passport…
…a designated leader…
…a Twitter account named “President of Viejšnoryja”…
…and traditional Viejšnorian food.
The proponents of Viejšnoria, even made up some history for their new fictional home. According to them, Viejšnoria was the second country to land on the moon.
According to the “Viejšnorians”, their country was the safest in the world, which may not be accurate given the fictional scenario from Russian and Belarusian military planners that bore Viejšnoria in the first place is rooted in military aggression.
The satirical content published by new “Viejšnorians” escalated after symbols and other resources were created. In fact, the fictitious country adopted a hostile policy toward Russia. A fictional Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Viejšnoryja released an “official statement” calling on the United Nations, the European Union, and the United States to stop Russian and Belarusian aggression towards Viejšnoryja.
Another Twitter post declared that Viejšnoryja became a member of NATO.
A Polish Twitter user asked when Poland will establish diplomatic relations with their new “neighbor” of Viejšnoryja.
This ultimately led to a website, where anyone can not only buy merchandise emblazoned with the new symbols of Viejšnoria, but also become a citizen of Viejšnoryja and get a printed “passport”. So far, nearly seven thousand internet users have become citizens and received passports.
The screenshot reads:
6824 people received Viejšnorian passports.
We may not know the precise reasons why organizers of Zapad 2017 decided to choose these borders of the new fictitious hostile countries, but it is likely due to concerns from Moscow and Minsk that the area of the fictional country of Viejšnoryja is an area a potential area of unrest in real life. An unintended effect of these announced “borders” was that the Zapad 2017 scenario announcement spurred a light-hearted satire of what the military exercise planners seem to be most afraid of — separatism and warmer relations with Western neighbors.
The idea of a democratic, western-oriented, and NATO-friendly Viejšnoryja seems to have mobilized young Belarusians to express their dissatisfaction with the current Lukashenko regime, marking another protest of the Belarusian opposition’s against the upcoming Zapad 2017 exercises.
@DFRLab will continue to monitor the situation through the summer, as preparations for Zapad 2017 intensify. If you or any other #DigitalSherlocks see anything on the ground or online related to the exercises, join the conversation using #ZapadWatch.
Lukas Andriukaitis is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).
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