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Zapad (“West”) exercises

Despite the stated goals of Zapad as a counterinsurgency exercise, many Western defense and security experts view the Zapad exercises as blueprints for how Russia (and Belarus) would attack the Baltic States and potentially Poland. The WMD’s Zapad series Joint Strategic Exercises [JSEs], have taken place in 1999, 2009, 2013, and 2017. While JSEs allow for strategic messaging, advertising Russia’s capabilities to potential adversaries, allies, and arms buyers, Russia’s JSEs are not simply shows of force or demonstrations.

Zapad-81 exercises were unprecedented in terms of the number of military personnel and equipment involved. At these maneuvers, the offensive of the Soviet and allied troops was practiced in the event of a possible war with the NATO bloc.

Following suspension of the strategic exercises after the Soviet collapse, Russia conducted a one-off ZAPAD 1999 before fi nally reinstituting regular annual exercises since 2008. In 1999 the Russian armed forces conducted the biggest and most openly anti-Western exercise of their post-1991 history, known as Zapad (West)-99. ZAPAD and other exercise scenarios have reportedly integrated urban counterterrorist and counterinsurgency operations with large-scale conventional operations and mop-up of surviving enemy units and resistance forces.

The sheer numerical advantage over the U.S. and allied forces in potential conflict areas might deter the U.S. from opposing enemy aggression. To further cement this advantage, recent training and exercises, such as the Zapad exercise, have emphasized rapid mobility and deployment of force, again with the objective of winning decisively before the U.S. and allies can effectively counter the action.

These maneuvers are not a one-time burst of military activity. They are taking place in the context of a series of operational-strategic exercises that have been taking place on Russian territory since the beginning of summer - Kavkaz-2009 and Ladoga-2009. That is, the maneuvers take place practically along the perimeter of the Russian borders.

Zapad 1999

During the Zapad-99 maneuvers, possible actions of the Russian Armed Forces were worked out in the event of a conflict with the NATO bloc, similar to the Yugoslav one that occurred in the spring of 1999. Based on the results of these exercises, it was found that Russia can only withstand possible aggression from the West with the use of nuclear weapons, which caused a number of noticeable changes in the schemes for using these weapons, especially tactical ones. The "threshold for the use" of nuclear weapons was lowered, in addition, Russia actually abandoned the Soviet obligation not to be the first to use nuclear weapons.

Zapad 2009

The two stage “Zapad 2009” (West 2009) began on September 8, involving a total of 12,500 servicemen, including 6,000 from Russia, and 40 aircraft among 200 items of military hardware. Zapad 2009 simulated a war beginning when Belarus was attacked by Poland and Lithuania for allegedly mistreating its Lithuanian minority, and this steadily escalated to the point of nuclear strikes. In the ZAPAD 2009 exercise what is now popularly referred to as Russia’s “escalate to de-escalate” doctrine was first observed. The exercise is most remembered for its culmination, namely the simulation of a tactical nuclear strike on Warsaw.

In the second half of September Russia and Belarus held military exercises codenamed Zapad-2009 and Ladoga-2009. These were the largest exercises of their kind on Russia's western borders since the end of the Cold War. At least 30 000 soldiers, 100 planes and helicopters and 20 warships took part. The last time a maritime landing exercise of a similar scale was held was in 1981, at the height of the Cold War.

The Russian side at the maneuvers was represented by units of the 20th combined-arms army of the Moscow Military District, operational groups of the Air Force High Command, the commands of the Military Transport Aviation and the Airborne Forces, including units of the 98th Airborne Division. During the maneuvers, in particular, a parachute landing of 600 military personnel with armored vehicles was planned.

At the exercises, it was planned to work out not only the performance of combat missions by units, but also issues of managing units and units of a new look, created in the course of military reform. They were led by the chiefs of the general staffs of Russia and Belarus - Army General Nikolai Makarov and Lieutenant General Sergei Gurulev.

The issues of mobilization of reservists and equipment and the transfer of units over long distances by various modes of transport were also worked out - a necessary condition for modern conflicts that require active maneuver by forces, often on a global scale. The naval part of the exercises, which took place in the Baltic, were be led by Vice Admiral Chirkov, Chief of Staff of the Baltic Fleet, who is currently acting commander of the Baltic Fleet. At sea, the tasks were performed by warships, including the frigates Neustrashimy and Yaroslav the Wise, which have recently entered service. In addition, naval aviation and marine infantry units, including those that came on their landing ships from the Northern and Black Sea fleets.

The exercises were significant in terms of not just their scale but also their timing and location. The active phase of the Zapad-2009 exercise began on 18 September, coinciding almost exactly with the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939. Part of the operations took place at the mouth of the Bay of Gdansk, and all the experts concur that Ladoga-2009 had all the makings of preparations for a potential attack on the Baltic States and Finland, stretching as it did the full length of the border between Russia and those countries.

Both the EU and NATO failed to react to what were openly hostile acts on the part of the Russian Federation. Neither organisation has yet formulated a strategy for defence against an invasion from the east, because some European NATO members consider the issue to be too sensitive politically.

Zapad 2013

During the Zapad in 2013, the two principal participants in the exercises—Russia and Belarus— contributed more than 75,000 men, who were engaged in simulated operations in the air, on land and at sea. The deployment of these forces and the execution of the exercises took place on a heater-wide level, in close proximity to the Baltic states.

The exercises "West-2013" were held simultaneously on the territory of Russia and Belarus. Joint operations at five training grounds - three Belarusian and two Russian - provided an opportunity to work out combat interaction between the armed forces in various conditions.

The practical actions of the military authorities and troops were carried out at 6 training grounds located on the territory of Belarus and in the Kaliningrad region of Russia. The tactical episodes were based on the options for joint actions of the Belarusian and Russian military units and subunits that are part of the RGV(S) in the protection and defense of military facilities, the elimination of enemy sabotage and reconnaissance groups and illegal armed formations, as well as the consequences of man-made accidents.

A feature of the exercise was the participation in it not only of the military personnel of the armed forces of Belarus and Russia, but also of Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as part of the exercise of the Collective Rapid Reaction Forces of the CSTO "Interaction-2013".

The total number of personnel who took part in the exercise on the territory of Belarus amounted to about 12.9 thousand military personnel (from Belarus - a little more than 10 thousand, from Russia - about 2.5 thousand, from other CSTO member countries - about 300 people). About 350 units of armored vehicles were involved, including about 70 tanks, over 50 pieces of artillery and MLRS, more than 50 aircraft and helicopters. On Russian territory, about 200 servicemen of the 103rd separate mobile brigade were involved in the exercise from the Armed Forces of Belarus.

At the training ground, the interaction of motorized rifle and mobile units of the armed forces of Belarus and Russia, territorial troops, internal troops of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Ministry of Emergency Situations of Belarus, units of assault aviation and combat helicopter bases in the course of performing tasks to cover the state border, search, block and destroy detected sabotage reconnaissance groups and illegal armed formations.

During the exercise, military-theoretical developments were tested in the use of various forces and means. New models of weapons and military equipment of Belarusian production were also involved, including the automated remote-controlled observation and fire complex "ADUNOK", as well as the domestic automated tactical control system "Soldier - combat system", which increases the information interaction of a serviceman in the unit, his mobility due to the use of modern materials in the elements of the protection system.

Vladimir Putin and A. Lukashenko visited the Belarusian military training ground Gozhsky, where, according to the scenario of the exercise stage, they practiced a joint opposition to an attempt by a hypothetical bandit formation to break into the territory of the Union State by land. Then the heads of the two states arrived at the Khmelevka training ground in the Kaliningrad region, where Russian and Belarusian troops were practicing repelling terrorist aggression from the sea.

Later, Vladimir Putin held a meeting via videoconference on the preliminary results of the joint Russian-Belarusian exercises "West-2013". The head of state positively assessed the results of the exercises, calling them another step towards ensuring the operational compatibility of the armed forces of the Union State.

Zapad 2017

Moscow held ZAPAD 2017 in northwestern Russia and Belarus, arousing concerns in states along Russia’s borders. The Russians focused on command and control for strategic to tactical throughout the exercise. They focused on both conventional and nuclear, which the West expected. They focused on both offensive, defensive operations, and they incorporated a whole-of-society approach. They mobilized their people, et cetera, in some aspects of this. And so, it was a reinforcement of the doctrine that was developing over the past ten years.

The exercise tested and demonstrated the readiness of the participating forces to respond to a sudden attack, and it rehearsed a rapid transition from peacetime to a wartime footing focusing on logistics, command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance and the preparation of the state and society for wartime mobilization. Moscow held a similar exercise, VOSTOK 2018, in the Pacific theater in September.

Swedish analysis of the Zapad exercises foresaw tank and combined-arms armies consisting of divisions as the primary model for a Russian advance into the Baltic States. These armies would be supported by airborne units with attached tank companies and naval infantry amphibious landings, all backed by large-scale indirect fires. In the huge Zapad 2013 exercises, Russian military forces conducted classic large-scale conventional theater operations involving combined and joint operations in a scenario involving the Baltic region.

Zapad 2017 took place in Belarus, Russia, and the Kaliningrad exclave, from 14 to 20 September 2017. Although Zapad 2017 did not have the overt simulated nuclear strikes that were present in Zapad 1999 and 2009, the defensive phase of the exercise culminated with simulated, potentially nuclear, strikes from Tu-22M3 bombers on 15 September, and a 9K720 Iskander-M missile system on 16 September.

About 12.7 thousand servicemen were involved in training (about 7.2 thousand people from the Armed Forces of the Republic of Belarus., About 5.5 thousand people from the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, of which about 3 thousand in the Republic of Belarus Chellwek), about 70 aircraft and helicopters, up to 680 units of military equipment, including about 250 tanks, up to 200 guns, volley fire systems and mortars, as well as 10 ships.

For planning joint actions from the Russian side, operational groups of other security agencies are involved - the Ministry of the Interior of the Russian Federation (Ministry of Internal Affairs of Russia), the Federal Service of National Guard of the Russian Federation (Rosgvardia), the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB of Russia) and the Ministry of the Russian Federation for civil defense, emergency situations and disaster management (EMERCOM of Russia).

This exercise is the final stage of joint training of the armed forces of Russia and Belarus and will be held at the test sites located in the Republic of Belarus, in the Kaliningrad, Leningrad and Pskov regions of the Russian Federation.

During the exercise, the tasks of improving the interoperability of headquarters at various levels, as well as the interfacing of prospective systems of command and control of troops and weapons will be worked out; approved the provisions of the new statutory documents developed in the armed forces of the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus.

The intention of the exercise provides that extremist groups have penetrated the territory of the Republic of Belarus and the Kaliningrad Oblast of the Russian Federation, whose goal is to carry out terrorist acts and destabilize the situation in the Union State. Extremists have external support, receiving material and technical assistance, armament and military equipment from the air and the sea.

To combat conditional terrorists, it is supposed to work out a number of tactical episodes:

  • the transfer of military units and subunits of the Regional Group of Forces (Forces) to the areas of operation of bandit groups, with their subsequent isolation;
  • the actions of the Air Force and Air Defense Forces to support the ground forces and block air channels to supply illegal armed formations;
  • conducting a special operation to eliminate illegal armed groups, stabilizing the situation;
  • provision by the Baltic Fleet of the sea blockade of the area of ??the special operation, the suppression of the withdrawal of gangs by sea.

Russia's higher military command planned to work out options for armed resistance to:

  • the US/NATO coalition forces to block and seize the Kaliningrad region;
  • possible attempts to change the political regime in one of Russia's allied states;
  • attempt to de-occupy Crimea and/or ORDLO by Ukraine with the support of Western allies.

Among the undeclared goals of the "Zapad-2017" exercise one should highlight:

  • strategic deterrence of the US in Europe, demonstration of determination to use military force to defend their interests, and demonstration of Russia's readiness to provide military security to its allies, of course, if they behave properly;
  • practical verification and clarification of plans for the use of Russia's armed forces in the Western continental theater of war;
  • restriction (prohibition) of access of the enemy troops to strategically important areas (regions);
  • countering the global strike and repulsing a massive rocket and air strike;
  • hitting critical objects of the enemy with high-precision long-range weapons of all types of deployment using all possible targeting sources;
  • approbating and introducing new forms of use and methods of operation of troops, including hybrid warfare methods;
  • testing the readiness for redeploying strike units of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation over long distances, in particular from the Asian part of Russia's territory, that is, the Central and Eastern military districts;
  • assessment of the state of mobilization readiness of the Russian Federation.

In the run-up to the exercises, there was concern in the West that Russia would use the war games to seize parts of the Baltics that have high numbers of Russian minorities, as it did with Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014. There was also concern that Moscow would leave troops at NATO’s borders, for possible future confrontation with the West. But Stoltenberg said there was no indication Russia had done so.

The week-long Zapad 17 exercise held in September almost triggered a panic attack in Scandinavia, reinforcing fears of "Russian aggression." Across northern Europe, many leading dailies, including Finland's Helsingin Sanomat and Sweden's Aftonbladet and Svenska Dagbladet, conjured up a sinister picture, portraying the exercises as a sign of Moscow's preparations for a major confrontation with NATO forces. Swedish security investigator Krister Bringéus argued that Zapad's aim was to station Russian troops in Belarus on a permanent basis and possibly undermine the Suwalki rail corridor, which is the only land link between the Baltic States and the rest of NATO. However, the Zapad 2017 exercises ended, the Russian army left the territory of Belarus.

NATO accused Russia of misleading the Western military alliance about the military exercises it held last month with Belarus. "There is a discrepancy between what Russia briefed before the exercise ... and the actual numbers and the scale and the scope of the exercise," NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said 26 October 2017. Russian defense officials said the Zapad 2017 exercises involved 12,700 troops, but NATO contends there were nearly 100,000 troops from the Arctic to eastern Ukraine and that they simulated attacks on the West.

Alexander Grushko, Russia’s ambassador to NATO, disputed the claim. "NATO countries are counting all the military activities that took place in the Russian Federation and counting them as part of Zapad," he said. "We don’t accept the propaganda about the Russian exercises."

Ukrainian authorities estimated 240,000 Russian personnel would take part, while Lithuanian officials put the number lower, at 140,000, and Poland estimated 100,000 personnel would participate. These figures undoubtedly include not only Zapad, but forces in parallel exercises. The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) estimates 65 to 70,000 personnel took part specifically in Zapad 2017. To skirt the OSCE’s Vienna Document requirement that foreign observers be invited to monitor exercises with 13,000 or greater participants, the Kremlin claimed 12,700 participants took part.

Zapad 2021

In 2021, Russia conducted another major strategic exercise in the Zapad series. This exercise, aimed at the western strategic direction, takes place every four years – the previous one having occurred in 2017. Zapad 2021 was the largest exercise in the series to date. While Zapad 2017 involved an estimated 100,000 troops, Zapad 2021 involved a total of 200,000 troops, 250 aircraft and 760 pieces of equipment, including 290 tanks, 240 weapon systems and 65 warships. According to the Russian Chief of the General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, the exercise held on 13 September 2021 at the Mulino military training area alone involved 20,000 troops, which already exceeds the threshold for observation (13,000) stipulated in the Vienna Document.

The overall scenario was likely not very different from previous exercises in the western direction. There are concrete indications that NATO was still the main adversary. In addition to the Baltic Sea region, the exercise again had an important focus on the northern direction and the Barents Sea.

Unlike the Zapad 2017 exercise, this time, Russia did not bring additional troops from other regions to the military training areas along the Estonian border, and the most conspicuous part of the exercise took place at the Mulino training area in the Nizhny Novgorod Oblast. However, it would be a mistake to say that Russia moved the exercise further away from NATO’s borders, as Zapad 2021 also took place on the Lithuanian border in the Kaliningrad Oblast, on the Polish border in Belarus, and the Norwegian border in the Kola Peninsula and the Barents Sea. An important airborne exercise also occurred near Estonia at the Strugi Krasnye military training range.

Zapad 2021 showed that Russia’s military capability and readiness are still on an upward trajectory, with the exercise scale steadily increasing since 2009. Following the Zapad exercises, new formations have been created in the Russian Armed Forces, likely based on the lessons learned from the exercises. More and more of the prescribed tactical actions are practised in each subsequent exercise, in greater detail and on actual terrain. For example, in 2021, a large-scale night-time airborne assault was practised, and Iskander tactical missiles were fired from several regions simultaneously. This was due to the broader deployment of new armaments and equipment and the year-on-year improvement in combat and transport equipment readiness.

In 2021, the reinforcement of the Kaliningrad Oblast with additional units was practised in more detail than ever before. Approximately 2,000 marines with landing craft and combat equipment were brought into the region. In addition, 900 troops from the 1st Guards Tank Army were flown to the Kaliningrad Oblast in August to receive combat equipment from local depots and to form additional battle groups on the ground. This deployment was likely a test of the speed of the mobilisation system and the creation of reserve units.

In 2021, more countries participated in the exercise than ever before. While Zapad was mainly a joint Russian-Belarusian exercise in the past, another six countries participated with units of their own (Belarus, India, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Mongolia and Kyrgyzstan), and six more countries participated as observers (Vietnam, China, Uzbekistan, Myanmar, Pakistan and Sri Lanka). Involving other countries allows Russia to show that it is not an isolated pariah state and that Russia has strong military cooperation with many other nations. However, while these other nations participate in the exercise, it mostly remains on the military-diplomatic level; Russia likely only shares operational plans and substantive cooperation with the Belarusian Armed Forces. Foreign nations likely also utilise a customised scenario for the exercise, which differs from the scenario used by the Russian Armed Forces.

If there are no changes in the current cycle of strategic exercises, the next Zapad will likely take place in 2025. Before that, a joint Russian-Belarusian exercise, Union Shield – Shchit Soyuza 2023, was expected to take place in the region. If there are no changes in the current cycle of strategic exercises, the next Zapad will likely take place in 2025. Before that, a joint Russian-Belarusian exercise, Union Shield – Shchit Soyuza 2023, is expected to take place in our region. Next year, the Vostok 2022 military exercise will probably focus on the Far East. Previous Vostok exercises have shown that the Russian Armed Forces also use that opportunity to practise activities in the western strategic direction.

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Page last modified: 11-03-2022 19:38:15 ZULU