Zapad 2021: Absorption of Belarus

The first trains carrying Russian troops and hardware have arrived in Belarus on 21 July as part of preparations for this exercise.

Is it too early to bring Russian troops to the Belarus territory as exercise itself officially will take place September 10-16th?

Actually, Zapad is traditional Soviet and Russian strategic military exercise since 1977, which has main goal to improve the practical skills of commanders and staffs for strategic operations by Soviet coalition forces on Western strategic direction. Originally it was Warsaw pact, now – it`s Regional Group of Force for Russia and Belarus.

So its really special kind of Russian military exercise even compare to other strategic ones like Kavkaz, East or Centr, which mostly concentrated on mobility, movement of force, logistics, mobilization, etc on one of strategic directions. But Zapad always focusing on the practice of the new doctrines, concepts and tactics.

Zapad-2021 will take place in special situation in Belarus with Lukashenko regime under international isolation and sanctions which create favorable conditions for Russia to strengthen own influence in Belarus.

Additionally, it looks like Russia will try to use Zapad-2021 to deploy own troops on Belarus territory under official explanation of the activities of new joint military structures.

First of all, Russia announced that the Air forces of Russia and Belarus will begin joint air-defense missions on the Belarus territory this summer. In addition, Belarus and Russia have agreed to establish three shared combat-training centers within the framework of the bilateral Strategic Partnership Program for 2021–2025. One of these facilities, a joint combat training center of the Air Force and Air-Defense Forces, will be located on the territory of Belarus, in Grodno region. Russia will host the other two combat training centers – in Nizhny Novgorod (for land forces training) and Kaliningrad oblasts (for special forces training).

 It`s possible to predict that during Zapad-2021 will be the huge movement of the forces – from Russia to Belarus and from Belarus to Russia with explanation of using of all of these training centers.

According to the open sources, Russian forces will arrive to the several destinations at the almost of the entire territory of Belarus. There will be five areas of arrival for Zapad 2021: Minsk (Barysaw, Ozerishche), Viciebsk (Viciebsk, Zaslonava, Stolbtsy), Mahilioŭ (Osipovichi), Brest (Baranavichi) and Hrodna (Lososna).

In the same time, Belarus military units will travel to Russia for the station Ilyino (Nizhny Novgorod Oblast) probably for the joint combat training center in Nizhny Novgorod for land forces training. The second Russian station for Belarus forces is Ashuluk (Astrakhan Oblast), located near the military training ground for air defense units.

Some short forecast for Zapad-2021 which will happen 10-16 September

  • It will be again a new approach of the Russian General Staff to conduct strategic operation on the Western direction together with Belarus troops and using Belarus territory.
  • For many years Russia has been pushing Belarus to deepen military co-operation up to deploying Russian military bases on Belarus territory.
  • It looks like the long discussing story about Russian military bases in Belarus may now come true.
  • Besides joint air-defense missions on the Belarus territory and shared combat-training center in Grodno region, it was officially announced that Russia and Belarus will deploy joint SIGINT and ELINT posts on Belarus border with Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Ukraine.
  • The migration crisis which was created by Belarus on the Lithuanian border probably will add to the scenario of the exercise some new elements which will explain activities of Belarus and Russian military units in the area close to borders with Baltic states. During Exercise Zapad-2017 Belarus and Russia used fictional states like Veishnoria to explain counteroffensive operations on the territory of Baltic states and Suvalki gap. So this time they could use the same approach.
  • Russians will pay special attention to the training of new created 18th motorized rifle division of 11th Army Corps in Kaliningrad enclave. It is clear that new division was created after lessons of Zapad-2017 when so called Suvalki gap case made a lot of noise both in NATO and Russia. Obviously, 18th motorized rifle division will have main priority and goal to seize Suvalki gap between Poland and Lithuania to cut NATO links of communication and logistics with Baltic states before NATO troops and even main Russian forces will arrive to this territory through Belarus. Such a scenario were considered during Zapad-2017 exercise and NATO wargames in the same time.
  • Officially proclaimed that Zapad-2021 “will focus on combating cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles, as well as on fire and electronic warfare activities against enemy formations, ways to train airborne troops’ vertical envelopment capability and rapidly shift between military activities”. From my point of view this is will be one of the main task for Zapad-2021 – to check readiness of Russian and Belarus troops to conduct network centric operations by itself and act against enemies which use network centric warfare approach.
  • Definitely it will be challenge for NATO and Ukraine to keep this level of competition  with Russia taking to consideration that next conflicts will be a collision of opposing «systems of the systems» designed especially to achieve goals on battlefield and with the operationalization of an AI at strategic, operational and tactical levels.

Generally, during and after Zapad-2021 we will see the intensive process of unification and absorption of the Belarus Armed Forces by the Russian Armed Forces. And even it won`t be probably officially established permanent Russian military base on the Belarus territory but in reality for Kremlin it will be even more success because Russia will use all of Belarus territory and all of Belarus Armed Forces as own facilities and own instruments.

Mykhailo Samus

NGRN Director

After 20 years in media as well as in security and defence analysis and consultancy, Mykhailo is an experienced researcher in the sphere of international relations, national resilience and new generation warfare. Served 12 years in the Ukrainian Armed Forces, he gained his Master’s Degree in International Journalism from the Institute of Journalism, Kyiv Shevchenko National University (2007). Having started his career as a journalist at Defense Express, he became the Editor-in-Chief of the Export Control Newsletter magazine, and then the Deputy Director of the Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies.

He was the founder (2009) of the EU CACDS office in Prague (Czech Republic), and was responsible for the coordination of CACDS international activities, its regional sections, and projects with NATO and the EU. Mykhailo also was the member of the editorial border of the CACDS Analytical Bulletin Challenges and Risks.

Now Mykhailo is a chief and one the drivers of new international project – The New Geopolitics Research Network which is an independent and nonpartisan initiative to provide a think tank platform for researchers, academics, experts, journalists, intellectuals who aspire to shape a new facets of geopolitics.

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