December 16, 2021

Defending the Union. Zapad-2021

Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation,
Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation
Russian logistics vehicles moving through the Mulino Training Range.
Russian logistics vehicles moving through the Mulino Training Range.

The quadrennial exercise, Zapad, often prompts speculation that its real purpose is to provide cover for Russia to build up forces to attack a neighbouring state. This year’s iteration of the exercise took place during a tense period, with NATO-Russia relations at a low point, Russia moving large military units near Ukraine, and Minsk driven closer into Moscow’s embrace.

The active phase of the exercise took place in Russia’s Western Military District and Belarus between 10 and 16 September and saw the two countries rehearse large-scale conventional war against NATO. But, as this analysis demonstrates, Zapad is much more than its active warfighting phase. Other exercises take place in Russia in the overall framework of Zapad, and Russia takes the opportunity to also exercise other government bodies and its National Guard. Zapad-2021 was probably the largest command and staff exercise conducted in western Russia since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Through Zapad-2021, Russia demonstrated its ability to move to a war footing, forward-deploy combat units, generate new fighting formations, conduct combined-arms high-tempo operations, and ensure steady logistic support to the frontlines. The exercise also confirmed the high degree of integration between the Belarusian and Russian armed forces at all levels. From the planning and operational perspectives, Belarus is a part of the Russian Western Military District.

This analysis describes the scenario and main events of Zapad-2021, and outlines other related exercises conducted in parallel. It draws some initial lessons from the exercise for NATO.

Download and read: Defending the Union. Zapad-2021 (PDF)

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