“Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies”
Today the Belarusian Chief of Defence Staff and First Deputy Minister of Defence, Major General Viktor Gulevich, held a press conference on what Russia and Belarus plan to do during the ‘Zapad-2021’ exercise. The drill is planned for 10-16 September and any information about its proceedings is always welcome. Belarus is particular has been more open about shedding some light on ‘Zapad’, compared to Russia, which has always been unwilling to share any information publicly (Russian MoD is yet to confirm it has already started moving its troops into Belarus for ‘Zapad-2021’).
Belarus-West relations underwent a 180-degree shift in the last year and this is clearly reflected in today’s conference. I will first report on what was said and then I will provide a short commentary.
According to Gulevich, the exercise is aimed at increasing the training of troops from the regional grouping of forces that provide security in the East European region. ‘Zapad’ has a defensive character and seeks to strengthen regional security and Belarusian adherence to allied obligations with the Russian Federation.
The topic of the exercise: The use of groupings of troops (forces) in the interests of ensuring the military security of the Union State.
The exercise was designed taking into consideration modern approaches to the use of troops (forces) based on the experience of armed conflicts in recent years, operational training activities, as well as the forms and methods of using troops developed in the armed forces of the two states.
The ‘legend’ of the exercise assumes that a crisis developed near Belarusian borders that aggravated Belarusian security. The situation has the potential to lead to a conflict and war waged against the Union State. Opposing actors are “illegal armed groups, separatist and international terrorist organizations with external support” with “external support”
During ‘Zapad’ several tasks will be performed including 1) the creation of a regional grouping of troops (forces) in a short time based on military formations that are combat-ready in peacetime, and possess a high level of mobility and the ability to conduct autonomous actions; 2) Management and control of air and air defence units in repelling strikes of air attacks of a simulated enemy; 3) approbation of new methods of conducting defensive actions; 4) the landing of tactical airborne assault forces.
Belarus will deploy 400 personnel and 30 vehicles to Russia, whereas Russia will send 2,500 servicemen to Belarus. Kazakhstan will also send 50 troops attached to the CSTO CRRF. Altogether, 12,800 will be taking part in ‘Zapad’ on Belarusian territory, but, according to Gulevich, only 6,300 soldiers “fall under the Vienna Document 2011”.
In terms of hardware, both countries will deploy 350 armoured vehicles including about 140 tanks, around 110 pieces of artillery, and more than 30 aircraft and helicopters. Notifications about the size of ‘Zapad’ had been previously sent to the OSCE.
The exercise will take place at four training ranges in Belarus and nine in Russia.
I expected slightly more details about the conditional enemies that will be fought during ‘Zapad’. Four years ago, Belarusian MoD provided maps and descriptions. Nothing has come out this year yet.
The exercise will feature both defensive and offensive or counteroffensive operations. Gulevich forgot to mention the latter two.
Phase one of the exercise (the creation of a regional grouping of troops) is occurring now. The regional grouping includes the Russian 1st Guards Tank Army and the Belarusian Ground Forces.
The enemy will be NATO and given the current Russian military presence in Belarus, offensive operations will be conducted against Poland and probably Lithuania. It is yet to be seen whether Ukraine plays any role in the Russian planning for ‘Zapad’.
Of course, bandits, armed groups, and terrorists are just euphemisms for NATO forces. ‘Zapad’ has always had an anti-NATO character and this year is no different. In fact, this year’s iteration has the potential to be more aggressive compared to ‘Zapad-17’ or ‘Zapad-13’.
Belarusians said ‘Zapad’ would also be held at the training range near Grodno. Gulevich did not mention this location. Concurrently, Russians say ‘Zapad’ take place at 10 ranges in Russia, not nine.
Interestingly, Gulevich stated that the number of personnel taking part in ‘Zapad’ on Belarusian territory is 12,800. This almost reaches the Viena Document’s 13,000 troops limit. If this number is exceeded, Russia and Belarus would be obliged to provide more information about the exercise including onsite observations, briefings on the scenario, opportunities to talk to individual soldiers, and even overflights of the exercise. If 300 battle tanks and 500 armoured combat vehicles are involved, observation is mandatory.
The 12,800 figure leaves no room for Russian units taking part in ‘Zapad’ in the Russian Federation. And there are many of them. In terms of ground force personnel, we are talking about at least an additional 15,000 men. Unless, of course, the official narrative is that ‘Zapad’ is only taking place in Belarus and all Russian military activity within its borders is non-Zapad related.
Russia is meant to send 2,500 personnel to Belarus during ‘Zapad’. This is also an underestimation. In Baranovichi Russia already has 1-2 battalion tactical groups (around 1,000-1,800) servicemembers. We still don’t know how many are near Brest, perhaps just as many. Additional ground and air units will be introduced before the active phase starts on 10 September. Let’s not forget Russian VDV (airborne) units, which are certain to arrive in Belarus at some point. The 2,500 number will certainly break.
As I already stated, this year ‘Zapad’ will be bigger compared to 2013 and 2017. Perhaps the biggest exercise in the Western Military District since 1999 when the first post-Cold War ‘Zapad’ was conducted.