The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) has begun massive Zapad 2021 operational-strategic war games together with its smallish ally Belarus. The quadrennial Zapad (“West”) exercises are designed to test the ability of a joint Russo-Belarus military force to defend the Russo-Belarus Union State against enemies, presumably the United States and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies. Of course, according to the MoD, Zapad 2021 will be “defensive in nature” and “not aimed against any particular nation.” The official Zapad scenario this year envisages a clash between a fictitious “Polar Republic” (the aggressor) and the “Central Federation” (the good guys). The scenario apparently does not mention any rogue terrorist armed groups, as many of Russia’s post–Cold War military exercises did. Both the “Polar Republic” and “Central Federation” are supposed to be militarily on par with each other, with modern, well-developed armed forces. The “Polar Republic” uses its military to put pressure on the “Central Federation.” The standoff escalates into war with massive air offensives (the invented stand-in for the West attempting to use its presumed air and precision weapons superiority). Ultimately in the scenario, the “Central Federation” fights back and defeats the aggressor (Militarynews.ru, August 20).
A joint Russo-Belarusian military force officially exists since 1999; and since 2017, it is comprised of the Russian 1st Guards Tank Army plus the entire Belarusian Armed Forces. To date, there have been no Russian combat troops permanently based in Belarus. According to the Belarusian MoD, during Zapad 2021 some 2,500 Russian soldiers will be moved in to form a joint force with some 10,300 Belarusian troops and a token contingent of 50 uniformed personnel from Kazakhstan—an ally of both Russia and Belarus within the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) (Militarynews.ru, August 5). The number of Russian troops entering Belarus is not big, and the overall joint force formed on Belarusian soil under Zapad 2021 does not seem overly impressive. But the main events of Zapad 2021 will be elsewhere. According to the Russian MoD, up to 200,000 soldiers will be involved in this year’s Zapad drills in the Baltic Sea and the Arctic, from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok, the Kurile Islands and Kamchatka. Zapad 2021 is scheduled to last until September 16, but a Russian MoD spokesperson announced it will take until mid-October 2021 to redeploy back to home bases all the mobilized troops (Militarynews.ru, August 20).
Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka has ruled in Minsk since 1994. President Lukashenka likes to periodically don specially designed military attire, but he has never spent much to upkeep and modernize his country’s regular military. Belarusian defense spending over the years has equaled around 1 percent of GDP, or only some $500 million per annum—hundreds of times smaller than in Russia. The peacetime Belarusian army is conscript-based and small in size, with only five full-strength brigades: three light and two mechanized. Lukashenka’s priorities seem to have been the local KGB, special police and Interior Ministry Forces brigades. Those internal security services have been instrumental in keeping Lukashenka in power by suppressing internal dissent and brutally crushing the mass popular demonstrations that erupted to protest the disputed August 9, 2020, presidential elections. To defend against external threats, the Lukashenka regime has built a mobilization system of reservists and a militia-style, 120,000-strong territorial defense force—a cheap “people’s army.” But actually deploying such a force is tricky for a despot if at least half the population turns against him. With the emergence of the 2020 protest movement, a true mass call-up of reservists or territorial militias in Belarus would have been tantamount to handing out lethal weapons to political opponents. Though he has managed to repress the opposition to a stalemate (see EDM, September 8), Lukashenka remains weak politically and militarily, battered by increasingly punitive Western sanctions and ever more dependent on Moscow’s good will as well as financial, economic and military support to survive.
On September 8, 2021, a batch of Russian Su-30SM jet fighters was deployed to the Baranovichi airbase, in the Brest region of Belarus, with Russian pilots and ground support crews. The Su-30SMs will be part of a previously announced joint Russo-Belarusian air and air-defense training center. And according to media accounts, the Russian jets will stay beyond Zapad 2021. Russian pilots will reportedly “patrol and defend” Belarusian airspace. If that comes to pass, it would mark the first permanent Russian combat deployment in Belarus since the early 1990s (Lenta.ru, September 8).
Unlike Belarus, after more than ten years of intense military reform Russia possesses a large standing armed force that can field hundreds of thousands of permanently ready troops at relatively short notice. Some reservists will be called up during Zapad 2021 and deployed to nearby Kaliningrad Oblast “as an experiment.” The exact number of these specially selected reservists has not been disclosed; but in accordance with an ukaz (decree) signed by President Vladimir Putin, it will be fewer than 5,000 (Interfax, September 6).
Also as part of Zapad 2021, on the South Kurile Islands, Russian infantry and armor will be testing their ability to take on Japanese and US forces (Militarynews.ru, September 8). Moreover, a joint task force of Baltic and Northern Fleet marines supported by warships will be performing a large-scale landing operation with heavy weapons in the Kaliningrad region, mimicking a possible wartime assault on the coast of Poland or the Baltic States (Militarynews.ru, September 6). In the spring and early summer of 2021, the same assault ships and marines were deployed in the Black Sea, together with a massive concentration of warships of different Russian fleets, during a so-called test of “battle readiness” that involved a massive mobilization of Russian military forces in much larger numbers than in Zapad 2021: Over 300,000 men, 35,000 pieces of heavy weaponry, 180 ships and some 900 aircraft (Militarynews.ru, April 29). The fact that the marines and large assault ships of the Baltic and Northern Fleets have finally been moved out of the Black Sea and Crimea and are ready for action in Kaliningrad is presumably good news: this year’s massive war preparations (the spring “battle readiness” concentration of forces on the Ukrainian border and Zapad 2021) turned out to be just that—preparatory drills. As the fall and early winter commence on the East European (Sarmatic) Plain, starting the traditional autumn Rasputitsa (“sea of mud” season), a large-scale regional war in Europe’s East in the final months of 2021 looks highly unlikely, despite the still-simmering tensions between Moscow on one side and Kyiv and the broader West on the other.