On 20 August the First Deputy Head of the Main Directorate of International Military Cooperation of the Russian Ministry of Defense, Major General Yevgeny Ilyin, stated that the Zapad-2021 exercise would involve around 200,000 personnel. This stands in stark contrast to the figure provided by the Belarusian Chief of General Staff, Major General Viktor Gulevich, who in early August claimed that only 12,800 servicemen would take part in Zapad in Belarus.
Here are a few words to place these numbers into a context.
Let’s start with Gulevich. He gave the 12,800 number for soldiers training in Belarus. However, ‘Zapad-2021’ is taking place in Belarus AND Russia so the abovementioned number will be easily broken and therefore should mandate the deployment of OSCE observers. Let alone, I am also quite certain that more than 13,000 personnel would be involved in Zapad in Belarus.
Secondly, he also stated that 2,500 Russian soldiers would be deployed to Belarus in support of the exercise. As of late August, Russia had already deployed three battalion tactical groups into Belarus with additional artillery support. We still haven’t seen any airborne forces (VDV) coming in. Our expectation is that they would eventually be deployed. Therefore, the 2,500 figure is already likely exceeded.
Now Ilyin. What struck me here is how little attention in Western media was paid to what he said. When Russian and Belarusian officials are not truthful about the scope of military activity near NATO borders, the Western press immediately and rightfully picks up on that. However, when they are truthful the press seems to no longer be interested.
Zashchita, Zaslon, and a nuclear exercise
And this time Ilyin could have been true as to the scale of Zapad, however, there are some important caveats. Firstly, people seem to look at Zapad through the prism of the active phase of the exercise that is scheduled for 10-16 September. This is incorrect. ‘Zapad’ comprises a myriad of various military, civil, emergency, national guard exercises. The main goal is to prepare the Russian Federation to go to war with NATO countries. Just to give a couple of examples, in August the MoD held the Zashchita-2021 exercise around Arkhangelsk and Severodvinsk where they deployed a joint emergency group, which responded to an emergency situation (radiation hazard) at the Belomorsk naval base. The group comprised personnel from Rosatom, MoD, Ministry of Emergency Situations, Sevmash, Zvyozdochka and local government employees.
Prior to that, the 27th NBC Brigade was deployed to Kurchatov, where they “eliminated” the consequences of a simulated accident at the Kursk nuclear power plant. A similar exercise of this nature was held in 2017.
Secondly, also in preparation for ‘Zapad’, in July the Russian National Guard held a comprehensive operational and strategic exercise called ‘Zaslon-2021’. In September they could be used as a third-echelon force, which is deployed into the occupied territories right after the main combat forces have moved on. This, of course, draws upon the NKVD and KGB heritage.
Let’s also not forget that Russia could also conduct a nuclear exercise in September, akin to the one undertaken in 2017. “On 4 September Russia included a nuclear dimension in the pre-‘Zapad’ preparations when 11 Strategic Rocket Forces (SRF) regiments were simultaneously sent out to conduct a dispersal drill,
which seems to have tested how the SRF units could deal with chemical weapon-equipped ‘saboteurs’ seeking to destroy mobile launchers. This fits into the overall ‘Zapad’ scenario where an enemy would be seeking to destroy elements of the Russian nuclear triad to limit its strike capability. This culminated with a Yars intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test on 12 September, likely used as a deterrent exercise within the pre-‘Zapad’ scenario.”
More than 25 BTGs?
In summary, if we were to take out all of the ground force units from the Western and Southern Military Districts, we could perhaps get the 200,000 figure. But not all ground units will be involved in ‘Zapad-2021’ and certainly not all service members. However, the addition of all bodies and structures both military and civilian, that are involved in various exercises occurring in Russia throughout spring, summer and autumn could indeed involve as many as 200,000 people
In terms of ground force presence, in March-April this year Russia deployed some 20-25 battalion tactical groups into training ranges across WMD and SMD, which gives a total of some 18,000-23,000 men. It is too early to say whether ‘Zapad-2021’ will surpass this figure, but it is likely.