The Kremlin deployed S-300 air defense systems to Belarus in late August 2021, advancing a longstanding Kremlin campaign to establish a permanent Russian military presence in Belarus postured against NATO’s eastern flank. This deployment increases Russian military capabilities to contest strategic airspace between the Baltic states and mainland Europe. The Kremlin seeks to degrade NATO's ability to defend the Baltics. Russian military personnel, as opposed to Belarusian personnel, will likely operate these S-300 systems. Elements of Russia’s 210th Air Defense Regiment arrived in Grodno, on the Belarusian border with Lithuania, on August 28. The Belarusian Ministry of Defense (MoD) stated this deployment supports the permanent joint Russian-Belarusian air defense and air combat training center in Grodno that Moscow and Minsk agreed to create in March 2021. The Belarusian MoD did not connect this deployment to preparations for Russia’s annual strategic exercise Zapad-2021, which will occur in Belarus and western Russia from September 10 to 16. ISW first warned about the threat of Russian air defense deployments to Belarus in August 2020.
The Kremlin will deploy Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) units to Baranovichi, Belarus, on September 3. The Belarusian MoD stated that the VKS will deploy an unspecified number of Su-30 fighters to the 61st Fighter Air Base in Baranovichi in western Belarus on September 3. The Belarusian MoD also framed this deployment as part of the joint Grodno training center and did not connect it to preparations for Zapad-2021. Self-declared Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko previously proposed hosting Russian military aircraft in Belarusian airbases for joint use by Russian and Belarusian airmen—as opposed to opening a new Russian airbase in Belarus, which Lukashenko has previously rejected—on March 2. ISW forecasted the threat of Russian airmen operating out of Belarusian airfields in April 2021.
These S-300 and VKS deployments are likely Russia’s first permanent deployment of full combat units to Belarus, a key milestone in the Kremlin’s campaign to expand its military footprint in Belarus. Lukashenko has denied Moscow’s requests to permanently deploy Russian forces to Belarus up until this point. The likely permanent deployment of Russian S-300 and VKS forces is thus a major achievement in the Kremlin’s campaign to integrate Belarus into Russian-dominated structures. The Kremlin will likely leverage Zapad-2021 to increase Russia’s military influence in Belarus further and deploy ground forces to Belarus. Russia may additionally deploy S-400 systems to Belarus. Lukashenko stated on September 1 that he signed an agreement with Russia on August 30 to supply Belarus with “dozens of aircraft and helicopters and possibly S-400 [systems] in the near future.”
These deployments will increase Russia’s ability to contest strategic airspace in Poland, the Baltic States, and Ukraine. Deployments in Belarus will support existing Russian systems in Kaliningrad and mainland western Russia. The Kremlin likely seeks to degrade NATO’s ability to defend the Baltics. Russian pilots’ permanent access to Belarusian airfields, if achieved, would further enhance Russian force projection capabilities against NATO’s eastern flank and constitutes a significant threat to the West.
The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced the parameters for Zapad-2021 on August 20. The Russian MoD stated that 200,000 Russian and international personnel will participate in the exercises. Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, India, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Serbia, and Sri Lanka will send currently unspecified forces to participate in Zapad-2021. China, Vietnam, Myanmar, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan will send observers. Zapad-2021’s initial operational planning stage will simulate the joint Russian-Belarusian Regional Grouping of Forces responding to a simulated attack against Belarus from Poland. Zapad-2021’s second stage will feature joint combat operations to liberate occupied Belarusian territory. The exercises will occur at four training grounds in Belarus and nine in Russia as well as in the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Finland. The MoD did not officially announce all the locations where Zapad-2021 will occur, such as at the Sary Shagan Training Ground in Kazakhstan and other likely training grounds in Belarus.
Russia and Belarus continued international military deployments and preparatory exercises for Zapad-2021 in late August. Elements of Russia’s 15th Army Aviation Brigade deployed to the Machulishchi airfield near Minsk and the 61st Fighter Air Base in Baranovichi on August 24. Over 200 servicemen of the Belarusian 465th Missile Brigade and 336th Reactive Artillery Brigade began deploying from Osipovichy, Belarus, to the Sary-Shagan Training Ground in Kazakhstan on August 28. Russian—but not Belarusian—units previously deployed to Sary-Shagan for Zapad-2017. This exercise likely seeks to increase Belarusian deployment capabilities and increase Belarusian air defense units’ integration with Russian forces. Elements of the Belarusian 5th Spetsnaz Brigade deployed to Ivanovo, Russia, for joint exercises with elements of the Russian 98th Airborne Division on August 30. Russia and Belarus additionally conducted a suite of large-scale joint logistics and signal exercises to establish command and control (C2) networks for Zapad-2021 on August 23-27. These C2 networks include the Western Military District, the Southern Military District, Kazakhstan, and Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) headquarters—a C2 network much larger than what was used in Zapad-2017. Russian and Belarusian units conducted several other logistics exercises in late August. ISW has warned that such exercises can set conditions for Russia to establish the supply lines necessary to maintain a permanent military deployment in Belarus.