TThe 1981 Zapad (“West”) military exercise was the largest and greatest exercise ever conducted by the Soviet Union. It comprised up to 150,000 soldiers from all over the USSR and its alliance of satellite states, the Warsaw Pact. Cold War nostalgics may be pleased to learn that this year’s iteration, which began on September 10, could be even bigger. Zapad-21 could involve as many as 200,000 soldiers from Russia, Belarus and several other countries, if the Russian Defense Ministry is to be believed, and exceeds the number of the largest NATO exercises in recent times. This reflects both Russia’s frosty bond with the West and the strengthening of relations with Belarus.
It is not entirely clear whether Zapad-21 will actually keep up with the spectacle of 1981. This is partly because Russia is caught between belittling its exercises for diplomatic reasons and beautifying them to intimidate its enemies. The Vienna Document, a confidence-building measure agreed between Russia and the West in 1990, states that exercises involving more than 13,000 soldiers must be reported and opened to foreign observers. In recent years, Russia has simply insisted that the seemingly huge drills are in fact a number of different, smaller and therefore exempt.
The same chicane is used for the Zapad-21. Belarus says it will take in 12,800 soldiers, conveniently just before the threshold. Russia said no more than 6,400 employees will train on Russian soil. In the same breath she repeated the number of 200,000 soldiers. America has asked Russia to explain “the apparent discrepancy,” noted a State Department spokesman. The real number is likely somewhere in between, albeit closer to the high end. “Russian military leaders are likely to hope that Western media will report exaggerated numbers,” says Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian armed forces at CNA, a think tank, “which will help confirm the extent and success of the exercise.” September 10-16, troops and equipment have been pouring into the training areas for months and some will almost certainly be left behind afterwards, as they did after a large deployment of troops in Ukraine this spring.
But it is not just the size of Zapad-21 that worries the West. The exercise spans Russia and Belarus with thousands of Russian troops in the latter (see map). And just as Zapad-81 emerged in the midst of a political crisis in Poland with growing protests against the communist government of the time, the background is turbulent today. After an election defeat in August 2020, Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian dictator, violently opposed the protests – and moved ever closer to the Kremlin. On September 9, Lukashenko met Russian President Vladimir Putin for the sixth time last year in Moscow and declared himself ready for “even closer military, political or … economic integration”. Putin noted that Russian loans to Belarus would exceed $ 600 million between September and the end of 2022.
Zapad-21 reflects this bonhomie. Its premise is that western aggressors – the fictional states of Njaris (mainly Lithuania), Pomorie and the polar republic (both Poles) – stir up “illegal armed gangs, separatist and international terrorist organizations” in Belarus and eventually invade Belarus. Russia and Belarus launch a daring counter-offensive to liberate the country. All of this reflects longstanding Russian fears of West-backed “color revolutions” in the former Soviet territories; the upheaval in Belarus gives the war games a contemporary response.
The first signs of the exercise are that Russian troops will be much further west, and therefore closer to the Belarusian border with Poland, than in previous Zapad exercises, notes Mr. Kofman. Some maneuvers will take place around Brest, right on this border and only 200 km from Warsaw. At the start of the exercise, Russia also sent an air defense system to Grodno, where it had set up a joint air defense center with Belarus in the spring. Grodno is close to the meeting point of Belarus, Poland and Lithuania. This zapad will also be the first to include Belarusian reserve forces.
All of this made Poland nervous. On September 6, the Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki explained why the government wanted to extend the state of emergency declared the previous week on the border with Belarus. This came mainly in response to a surge in refugees, encouraged by Belarus to put pressure on Poland and other neighboring countries, but the emerging exercises also played a role, Morawiecki suggested.
The Kremlin may be pleased that Zapad-21 should provoke such a reaction. Although Russia’s military spending is dwarfed by America’s and far behind China’s (see chart), its armed forces have changed dramatically over the past 15 years. They have grown from a ragged and resource-hungry post-Soviet force that did poorly in the war against Georgia in 2008 to a leaner, more agile and deadly organization with years of combat experience in Ukraine and Syria. The point of exercises like Zapad is not only to refine Russia’s readiness for a major war and its ability to wage it on the side of Belarus, but also to show that progress to potential adversaries. Zapad-21 includes not only the traditional land, air and sea offensives – as far as the Arctic – but also the Uran-9 ground combat robot and the largest electronic warfare exercises to date.
The exercise is also an opportunity for military diplomacy and underscores that while Russia is a pariah in the West, it has friends elsewhere. Several hundred soldiers from Armenia, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Pakistan and Sri Lanka take part, some borrow Russian tanks. China is not participating but held a major exercise with Russia in its northwestern region of Ningxia last month.
Belarus has become everyone’s closest friend. Lukashenko used to be cautious about allowing an overly dominant Russian presence in his country, but was forced to rely on Russia’s help to suppress the democracy movement. In the past it was Belarus that presented itself as the staunch protector of Russia’s western flank. Now, says Anna Maria Dyner from the Polish Institute for International Affairs, “we have a situation where Russia is trying to defend Belarus … was held.
As useful as Mr Lukashenko’s uncertainty was to Mr Putin, it could become a burden. Russia does not want to be drawn into a conflict, even if it is careful about muscle exertion. “For the first time, there is a real risk of unintentional armed incidents on the Belarusian border,” warns Artyom Shraibman of the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank, “not because one side wants to attack the other, but out of expectations.” mutual provocations and tendencies to interpret the actions of the other as hostile as possible. ”Mr. Lukashenko is so nervous and angry with his European neighbors that it is easy to imagine an accidental flare-up. ■