MS Risk Blog

Zapad 2021

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The massive, Russo-Belarusian Zapad 2021 operational-strategic war games have ended. Zapad happens every four years and always rehearses the same scenario. A supposedly imaginary western coalition (aka NATO) is working with ‘terrorist’ elements to unseat the power in Belarus and take over parts of the country. The joint forces of the Union State, Russia and Belarus, must repel the invasion, defeat the enemy head-on and sustain a possibly longer-term regional war with a nuclear component towards the end. The live-fire elements of the Zapad-21 military exercises took place between 10-16 September across 14 training zones in Belarus and Russia. Western countries were not invited to observe the drills, nonetheless it featured hundreds of troops from “friendly” states like India and Kazakhstan, among others.

The Zapad drills have always been about rehearsing operational-strategic warfighting at the regional level against NATO, with a particular focus on force mobility, joint operations across army branches, and high-level Command and Control (C2).

Based on an outline of Russian major exercises in terms of mission, quantity of forces, readiness and C2, it is clear that Russia’s warfighting potential has increased in the past decade. Therefore we are able to draw at least two main conclusions.

First, Russia’s ambition for warfighting potential as mirrored in exercises has always been to carry out strategic-level warfighting operations against a peer adversary. That corresponds to a potential to fight at least a regional war with conventional forces.

Secondly, in the early 2010s, the available warfighting potential for Russian commanders was low. The level of participating forces, some tens of thousands, did not match the C2 scope of the exercises. That available potential in terms of forces corresponded more closely to the level of local war. Not anymore. The trend since 2014 is force participation in the hundreds of thousands, which arguably reflects the strategic-level ambition for warfighting potential much better.

Also on a further assessment it is important to note that with Belarus’ foreign policy options severely constrained with the West, Zapad-21 re-enshrined the military importance of the Union State and the increased military integration, if not the ‘merger’, between Russia and Belarus. In September, both countries signed yet another strategic partnership that opens the way to greater military-technical cooperation and arms sales. Russia will not have a permanent base in Belarus after all, but the debate has now shifted. In March, Russia announced the creation of three joint training centers, one of which will open in Grodno in Belarus.

Moreover, is it particularly relevant to underline that the proposed scenario of this year’s exercises was an initial act of aggression from a coalition of states vaguely resembling NATO territory, against which the Union State of Russia and Belarus had to defend. And ultimately repel by organizing a counter-offensive through a regional combat grouping of forces. The goal of the exercise is to show the ability of the Russian armed forces to move fast and well in a Western strategic direction. And while the Western Military District is the main actor in Zapad, it was also supported by troops from the Central Military District, reservists, and security forces such as Rosgvardia and the FSB.

Ultimately, Zapad signals to NATO and its allies that pre-emptive ‘enemy’ operations will be met with decisive Russian force, which therefore raises the cost of deterrence. Geopolitical propaganda aside, the Kremlin reportedly behaved this time and avoided the global positioning system (GPS) jamming and other provocative behaviours from four years ago. The glimmer of hope is that Russia might be more willing to avoid miscalculation and tactical errors with NATO and its allies.