Next month, Russia will conduct its quadrennial military exercise centered on the readiness and combat capabilities of its Western Military District. Zapad 2021 will take place in Belarus and include forces from Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. As is generally the case when a Zapad exercise rolls around, there is growing concern and angst among Russia’s neighbors right now. In light of Russia’s mobilization of troops and equipment along the Ukrainian border back in March and April, the concern is reasonable. The troops eventually departed from the staging areas near the border, but the equipment remained. Under prime conditions it will be easy for the officers and troops from those units to redeploy from their installations around Russia, marry-up with their equipment and move to the border. In the eyes of many Western military analysts (professional and otherwise) a major exercise like Zapad could provide Russia with the cover needed to undertake such a move.
In all candor though, alarm and dire predictions over the exercise spring up like weeds every four years when Zapad exercises approach. This goes back to the late 70s and early 80s at the height of the Cold War when NATO warily monitored the movement of so many troops, tanks and aircraft into Poland and East Germany. Back then, what appeared to be an exercise could of very well been the prelude to a Soviet/Warsaw Pact invasion of Western Europe. Those fears were never realized. If they had, we probably would not be here right now, truthfully. Now in 2021, outside concerns are more varied and contingent on the respective vantage points of nation-states and supranational organizations.
As we move closer to September, this will be touched on regularly.
Massive protests continue in Belarus and show essentially no indications of diminishing. This weekend in Minsk 100,000 Belarussians turned out to demonstrate against the regime of Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko. Demonstrators marched on Lukashenko’s residence in the capital city calling for the embattled leader to step down. The results of the presidential election in August proved to be the spark that ignited the current wave of protests in Minsk and across Belarus. The election is seen as rigged by many Belarussians. In it, Lukashenko was the victor by a considerable margin even though anti-Lukashenko sentiment in Belarus has been high.
Security forces cracked down on the protests this weekend. Hundreds of peoples were detained and arrested. Riot police used heavy-handed tactics to disperse and isolate groups of protesters. Barbed wire, and military vehicles armed with water cannons were deployed. Maria Kolesnikova, a senior opposition figure, was apparently apprehended by masked men, and thrown into a minibus that left the scene seconds later. Police deny bringing her into custody, leaving her fate unclear. The concern among other opposition members is that Kolesnikova is now in the custody of Belarussian State Security Committee.
Russia continues to monitor events in Belarus closely. Although Russian President Vladimir Putin indicated last week that Russia might be compelled to intervene militarily in Belarus at some point, there are no indications of that occurring in the near future. Moscow is content right now with the situation as it stands. Lukashenko remains in control, however, that control could very well be slipping away at this time. Memories of Euromaidan have unquestionably formed in the mind of Putin, and other senior Russian officials. The uprising in Belarus bears some similarities to the 2013-14 Ukrainian revolution. This time around, Russia cannot afford to be slow off the starting blocks. If at some point the survival of Lukashenko and his regime becomes questionable, Putin will not waste any time moving to ensure Belarus does not fall into the West’s sphere of influence.
At the German port of Bremerhaven the first wave of US troops and equipment started arriving on Friday as preparations for the Defender 20 exercise move into high gear. In the coming days and weeks they will be followed by 20,000 troops and roughly a division’s worth of equipment. The equipment will make the trans-Atlantic crossing by ship and arrive at ports in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany. Troops will fly across, mate up with their equipment and then move east from staging areas in Germany to Poland and the Baltic States where the bulk of the exercise will take place. For citizens of Germany and the Low Countries who remember the later years of the Cold War, it might seem more like 1987 than 2020 for the next few weeks. Defender 20 bears more than a passing resemblance to the REFORGER exercises held by the US during the Cold War.
Defender 20 will be the biggest NATO military exercise in Europe in 25 years. The purpose of the maneuvers is more significant than the size. This will be the first time since the REFORGER days that the US has practiced moving a division sized force across the Atlantic and then deploying to a potential battlefield. Europe in 2020 is a very different place than it was in 1987, but the emergence of the Russian threat in recent years highlights the need for the US and NATO to take the defense of Eastern Europe seriously. NATO’s creation the Enhanced Forward Presence in the Baltics is a sign of this. But if a conflict should break out in Eastern Europe or the Baltics, US heavy-maneuver forces will be essential to defending Europe, as was the case during the Cold War when the main opponent was the Soviet Union. The main difference now is geographic location of potential fighting. In a future conflict it will be Poland and the Baltics, not West Germany and the rest of Central Europe.
The exercise will start in April and the bulk of it will run through the end of May. As the start dates gets closer I’ll talk more about Defender 20, and Russia’s reaction to it.
General Curtis M. Scaparrotti, US Army, is the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR). As the senior military man in NATO, he shoulders the responsibility for making certain the alliance can defend its member-states from outside aggression. If SACEUR says he needs additional forces placed under his command to counter Russia, Brussels and Washington should listen carefully.
Yesterday, while testifying in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Scaparrotti warned of the growing Russian military threat and made it clear that he is not satisfied with the “deterrent posture” of the US troop presence in Europe. Put simply, the general is saying that he does not have enough troops on hand to defend the Baltic states, and Poland if the balloon goes up. Although it’s fair to say that no general officer is ever satisfied with the amount of forces under his command, and always calls for more troops, Scaparrotti’s comments yesterday were far from hyperbole. Last month this blog discussed the balance between US and Russian forces in Europe and many of the points made there are evident in Scaparrotti’s testimony. Next week I will wrap up the series and talk about this more, but for now it is SACEUR’s comments about Ukraine that need to be looked over right now.
The general also wants to bolster the Ukrainian military’s defenses. Along with the Javelin anti-tank missiles sold by the US last year, Scaparrotti supports providing other advanced systems to Kiev. Presidential elections will be held in Ukraine at the end of March, and there is growing concern that Russia will attempt to destabilize the elections. Perhaps by instigating a flare-up between the separatist forces it supports and Ukrainian troops in the east. The ceasefire there continued to hold, but only by a thread. It would not take much to push the region into a major conflict whether intentionally or not.
Scaparrotti views strengthening Ukraine’s forces as a safeguard against Russian action in the east. SACEUR also wants to increase the US and NATO naval presence in the Black Sea. In November 2018, Russian warships opened fire on Ukrainian vessels near the entrance to the Sea of Azov, opening a naval phase to the conflict. He wants additional guided-missile destroyers to be made available to patrol the Black Sea. Beyond providing a larger presence at sea, there’s little NATO can do to aid Ukraine’s fledgling naval forces.
In any event, Ukraine is not an alliance member and SACEUR’s main concern is defending NATO members from Russian aggression. However, Scaparrotti is perceptive enough to understand that the longer Russia remains tied down in Ukraine, the less time Moscow will have to consider new adventures against the Baltics or Poland.
When the Soviet Union dissolved in December, 1991, its successor the Russian Federation hastened the withdrawal of its military forces from Eastern Europe. The United States followed a similar path, decommissioning scores of units, and closing dozens of installations that had protected Western Europe from the threat of Soviet attack for decades. Neither country could further justify maintaining large military forces in Europe with the Cold War having come to an end.
Russia’s military withdrawal from Europe was complete. No troops, aircraft, tanks, or ships remained in Eastern Europe owing to political and financial considerations both in Eastern Europe and back home in Russia. The US military pulled out the lion’s share of its forces from Western Europe, however, a respectable number of units remained in theater. Even though the possibility of a major conflict erupting in Europe was non-existent at the time, the Pentagon deemed it essential to US national interests to maintain a presence there in the post-Cold War time period. An underlying reason for the move was the growing importance of the Middle East to US policy. With US bases in Europe closer to that region than bases in the continental United States, the ability to quickly move forces there from Europe was certainly a factor.
The state of the US-Russia military balance in Europe was not a priority for the Pentagon during much of the early 21st Century. The conflicts in Iraq, and Afghanistan, and the overall Global War on Terror consumed the lion’s share of attention, money, and material. After the pullout from Iraq began in 2009, a smaller drawdown of US forces in Europe also got underway. Budgets were being cut and the forces in Europe were targeted. More installations were closed, and units either decommissioned, or moved to new home bases in the continental US. In April 2013, the last US armored unit left Germany. Less than a year later, Russia annexed Crimea, fighting began in eastern Ukraine. Almost overnight Europe again became a central interest to the United States and the Pentagon began to seriously examine the military balance in Europe, and think about the future.