Between 10–16 September 2021, Russia and its ally Belarus conducted the active phase of the Zapad-2021 command-staff exercise. Zapad tests Russian warfighting capabilities in the Western operational direction and thus it has a strong anti-NATO character. This has always been the case.
The main goal of the Zapad-2021 exercise is to test how the joint Russo-Belarusian Regional Grouping of Forces (RGF) would fare against NATO-led forces in a regional conflict scenario. This means operations at the high-end of the spectrum against technically superior forces.
It tests Russian and Belarusian Armed Forces abilities to mobilise, force generate, deploy, maintain their forces in the field and conduct operations across the entire spectrum of conventional warfare.
At the same time, from the Russian perspective, Zapad seeks to integrate the Belarusian Armed Forces into the RGF which is the main Russo-Belarusian grouping designed to undertake joint combat operations.1
Zapad came at a time when the Russia-West relations were at their lowest point since the end of the Cold War. The European Union’s decision to support anti-Lukashenko opposition following the August 2020 elections in Belarus has further deepened the East-West divide.
It is thus not surprising that this year’s Zapad was the largest in its post-Cold War history. Although the main training range was in mainland Russia, throughout Zapad and in months leading up to the exercise, Russia and Belarus conducted a myriad of smaller-scale exercises that from NATO’s perspective should perhaps be more concerning than the active phase of the exercise itself.
Logistics is Key
In March 2021, the Russian Armed Forces began what turned out to be the largest mobility exercise since the end of the Cold War that was not directly connected to any ongoing military operations. Within a space of a few weeks, Moscow forward-deployed sizable elements belonging to the 41st Combined Arms Army (CAA) to the Pogonovo Training Range, south of Voronezh (equipment was deployed there between March and October). Simultaneously, airborne subunits and elements of the 58th CAA were sent to Crimea. By mid-April, Russia had elements of the four CAAs deployed near Ukraine (including two that are permanently stationed there) with additional airborne units also sent to the peninsula.
This showed that, within a month, Russia can effectively significantly strengthen any axis in the Western and Southern theatre of military operations with sizable contingents.2 They can thus achieve a preponderance of power, manpower and equipment relatively quickly in areas that are deemed to be the most threatened. Or where Russia plans to attack.
Effective logistics and cooperation between the armed forces and various levels of local and federal authorities are at the core of Russian military preparations. Zapad further amplified the notion that a war against NATO will involve the state as a whole. For instance, a logistics exercise conducted in August in a port in Vyborg that ultimately delivered redeployed T-72B3Ms (Russian battle tanks) to the Kaliningrad Oblast as reinforcements, involved border guards, customs officers, and personnel from the Ministry of Emergency Situations, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the military. The emergency exercise Zashchita-2021 also held in August created joint emergency groups that responded to radiation and nuclear hazards at a naval base and the Kursk nuclear power plant. Personnel involved in this exercise were selected from the Armed Forces, Rosatom, the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Emergency Situations, Sevmash, the Zvyozdochka Shipyards and local government authorities.
Before that, in July, the Russian National Guard (NG) held the Zaslon-2021 exercise. The NG can be tasked to provide rear-guard security, but also to conduct kinetic operations, usually against “armed bandits” and “terrorists”. In a combat scenario, the NG can fulfil the role of a capable third-echelon force tasked with controlling occupied territories and conducting low-level operations against insurgents.
Lastly, although the Belarusian Armed Forces offer additional manpower and equipment to support Russia-led operations, for Moscow, Belarus serves mostly as a forward-deployment logistics hub. The country hosts more than 30 storage facilities which provide everything needed to conduct military operations against NATO. This includes tanks, fighting vehicles, artillery pieces, oil, lubricants and also clothing and food. Russia is responsible for maintaining appropriate levels of stocks within these bases. This cooperation again increases the readiness of the Russian forces to conduct war against NATO. Russian planners do not necessarily need to be concerned about the logistics footprint of their forces and their ability to sustain the fight during the initial defensive operations in Belarus, or offensives in Poland or Latvia and Lithuania. Yet, despite this, Zapad also tested Russian ability to provision Belarusian warehouses with equipment.
The active phase of the drill was held at numerous ranges in Belarus and Russia and it also provided the participants with some points about main warfighting concepts.
Belarusian Armed Forces are not expected to conduct independent operations, perhaps except for some Special Operations Forces (SOF) components. Ground forces will only fight as a part of a larger Russia-led grouping.
Zapad-2021 confirmed that the Russian 31st Air Assault Brigade is serving as a rapid reaction, mobile strike echelon, a high-readiness, flexible force that can reinforce a part of the front. The exercise also reaffirmed the focus on airborne operations. When dropped with their organic equipment, these forces can hold critical terrain until heavier ground force units arrive, conduct flanking raids, or delay opposing forces’ reserves.
The 2021 iteration of the exercise did not seem to include a nuclear element. In 2017, there was a large strategic rocket forces dispersal drill and two intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launches conducted around Zapad. This year only one Tu-95 (Bear strategic bomber) was used as a tool to test air defences in the Western MD. There also were short-range ballistic missile launches which hypothetically could have included nuclear elements. This, however, has never been confirmed. Does that say something about how conflict termination could occur in a conflict with NATO? Is Russia more confident in its conventional deterrence vis-à-vis NATO? At the moment, there is too little evidence and it is too early to conclude that Moscow feels that its conventional capabilities are sufficient to conduct a high-end conflict with the Alliance.
Manoeuvre defence seems to be the main concept to be utilised during Russia’s defensive operations. It seeks to force NATO to move in a favourable direction from the Russian point of view, limit its movement through the employment of minefields and then destroy its forces by artillery strikes.
Lastly, the Russian military leadership is still concerned about NATO’s massed missile-aviation strikes that can take place during the initial period of war and which can cripple Russo-Belarusian forces and degrade their forces to the point a conventional military response will be ineffective. The emphasis on air defence ability to engage targets at various heights and speeds is evident.
Should there be a Russo-NATO war, whoever mobilises and deploys first will win. Quick mobilisation comes from increased General Staff-civil authorities co-operation. Readiness is being addressed through investments into Russian Armed Forces mobility, railways, maritime and vertical.
Exercises from March to September 2021 showed that Russia can quickly forward-deploy its forces to any axis and maintain them, perhaps indefinitely. Compared to NATO, Russia enjoys the upper hand in mobility and deployability. Likewise, they have the upper hand in artillery capability, integrated air defence, electronic warfare, the size of their armour and mechanised forces. Upon seeing the first signs of Russian mobilisation in Belarus or near the Baltic States, NATO must be able to quickly forward-deploy its air defence and ground forces into the most threatened areas. A delay in doing so will make a conventional conflict with Russia short-lived and NATO is unlikely to be the winning side.
1 The RGF is a Western Military District-commanded body which includes the entire Belarusian land components and, on the Russian side, the 1st Guards Tank Army.
2 Lead elements of the 1st Guards Tank Army arrived in Belarus almost two months before the active phase of Zapad commenced.
This article was written for ICDS Diplomaatia magazine. Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).