In August or September 2021, Russia and its ally, Belarus, will conduct its quadrennial Zapad-21 joint strategic-operational exercise.
Regardless of how Russia portrays the drill, its goal has always been to practice combat operations against NATO. It, therefore, should not come as a surprise that Zapad has always gathered a lot of attention in NATO and in neighbouring countries.
For this reason, I have decided to provide a continuous update of the Russo-Belarusian preparation for Zapad-21. So here comes the first instalment, of hopefully many, that will describe and analyse how both countries are preparing for the exercise.
From an analytical perspective, Zapad always sheds light on how Russia plans to conduct combat operations in the Western Operational Direction, what threats it seeks to tackle, and what capabilities it can deploy to end the conflict on its terms. For instance, the 2017 iteration of the exercise practiced warfare across the entire spectrum of combat operations: from peacekeeping operations to a nuclear release.
The reader should also be aware of a few things that relate to all Russian strategic-operational exercises.
Firstly, they start earlier and finish later than publicly announced. For instance, Zapad-17 officially ran between 14-20 September. But this was just its active, flashy phase. Pre-14 September, numerous units were mobilised, strengthened with additional personnel and forward-deployed. Logistics systems had already been operating in full swing. Air defence and strategic strike assets were put on alert. Zapad tests how the entire country, or a significant part of it, would operate when attacked. This is a strategic level exercise it encapsulates all state-level bodies.
At the same time, just as Zapad-17 started earlier, it also finished later. After it officially ended, a number of low-level peacekeeping/special forces exercises were held in Western Russia and in Belarus.
At the same time, other Russian Military Districts (MDs) will likely be involved in Zapad as well. The Northern Fleet will undoubtedly be included, even though officially, any drill occurring in the High North will be unrelated to Zapad. We will see whether there will be any movement in the Central and/or Southern MDs, which would indicate how Russia plans to reinforce its forces in the Western parts of the country.
This is a very brief overview of this strategic-operational exercise and I will be adding new comments and content as events occur. If the reader is interested, he may click here to download my analysis of Zapad-17 (I would like to thanks Janes for allowing me to publish this information in an open channel).
Here comes the first update:
According to press reports, on 27 October 2020 collegiums of the Russian and Belarusian Defence Ministries began a two-day meeting to discuss preparations for the Zapad-21, which will be the main training exercise in 2021.
According to the Belarusian Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin, both states have a single regional grouping of forces, as well as common views on security issues and ‘threats in the military sphere in the East European region.’
Russian Defence Minister, Sergey Shoigu, stated that more than 120 events are carried out annually within the bilateral Russo-Belarusian co-operation agreement, ‘half of which are operational and combat training.’ Shoigu also claimed that ‘measures introduced due to the coronavirus pandemic did not reduce the intensity of military cooperation between the countries.’
It is also understood that during the meeting “priority tasks for the use of the regional grouping of forces until 2025″ were discussed.
Citing Khrenin, Interfax reported on 29 October that Zapad-21 will take place on the territory of Belarus.
There are several things to unpack.
Likely a joint headquarters/staff was formed that will plan and execute the exercise in August/September.
Khrenin’s last comment implies Zapad will only take place on the territory of Belarus, which would be a very interesting development. It would fit nicely into the existing narrative that the West tires to destabilise Belarus and change the regime in Minsk. In reality, however, it is unlikely that Zapad will only be held in Belarus. It will involve many training ranges in Belarus, Kaliningrad, and mainland Russia.
Lastly, when Shoigu came to Minsk during the September-held ‘Slavic Brotherhood’ exercise, he claimed that both countries planned to conduct 130 exercises in 2020, but only half were carried out due to COVID. Him now claiming that COVID has no impact of Russo-Belarusian military co-operation is either disinformation or in September he was not fully aware of COVID’s effect on joint training exercises. I think the former is true.