It is still too early to make any conclusions about Russia’s large-scale strategic-operational exercise Zapad 2021, but it is possible to identify at least three developments that have taken place since the Zapad 2017 exercise.
First, this time, Russia seems to exaggerate rather than understate the number of involved troops and equipment. According to the Russian Ministry of Defence, the size of this year’s exercise clearly exceeds Zapad 2017. About 200,000 servicemen, more than 80 aircraft and helicopters, up to 760 units of military equipment, including over 290 tanks, more than 240 guns, multiple launch rocket systems and mortars, as well as up to 15 ships are said to be involved, even though this statement, as any Russian official statement, may not be entirely truthful. In 2017, Russian officials claimed that the Zapad exercise involved up to 12,700 servicemen. Then, Western experts assessed that 65–70,000 Russian troops participated.
Irrespective of the actual number of participants, this year Russia does not even pretend to operate below the threshold of 13,000 participants agreed in the 2011 Vienna Document on confidence- and security-building measures, above which all activities will be subject to observation from other signatories of the document. Moscow simply ignores the obligations of the Vienna Document in the same vein as it violated both the INF Treaty, by developing and fielding the SSC-8 cruise missile, and also the 1975 Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe adopted in Helsinki, by using military force against Ukraine.
Second, this year’s Zapad exercise serves as a catalyst to increase pressure on Latvia, Lithuania and Poland who are already under strong pressure caused by human trafficking organised and conducted by the regime led by the self-proclaimed president Alexander Lukashenko. This form of weaponised migration has been combined with Belarusian servicemen crossing the border into Lithuanian territory. This is clearly a step beyond the uncertainty and uneasiness that Russia, and its satellite, in recent years has created among its neighbours through the general lack of transparency and risk-reduction and demonstrated recklessness that are closely linked with Russian military exercises.
Third, in 2017 there were speculations about whether Russia would use the exercise as a pretext to deploy forces to Belarus on a permanent basis, but these turned out to be exaggerated. However, Russia’s military presence in Belarus increased in 2020 after the political crisis forced Lukashenko to make concessions to President Vladimir Putin.
Russian-Belarusian exercises have become part of a ‘new normal’ and serve as a tool to better integrate the Belarusian armed forces into the Russian armed forces. This integration includes modernising the air force of Belarus by delivering modern Su-30SM Flanker H multi-role fighter aircraft and likely also its ground-based air defence capabilities by acquiring S-400 systems. These systems should not be seen solely as defensive since, because of their significant range, they could also be used offensively to target aircraft in neighbouring Latvia, Lithuania and Poland in case of an armed conflict.
Russia is taking another public step to erode existing arms control and security agreements, by waging a hybrid war against its neighbours who are NATO members and delivering modern weapons to a regime that suppresses and tortures its own population. These indications lead to the conclusion that the security environment, seen from the perspective of Russia’s neighbours, continues to deteriorate.
Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).