Zapad-21 Begins Today In Russia and Belarus

The Russian military begins its largest military exercise of the year today with the start of Zapad-21. This exercise, the latest in a cycle of quadrennial Russian exercises will test the readiness and combat power of the Western Military District. The WMD is home to many of Russia’s better-equipped and trained land and air units. This year’s Zapad comes at a time of heightened tensions between Russia and it Western neighbors. As a general rule, Zapad exercises draw increased scrutiny and attention from Poland, Ukraine, the Baltic States and NATO. It will take place in a number of ranges and training areas in Russia and Belarus and include forces from these two nations. The Belarusian Ministry of Defense has announced that Zapad-21 will include 13,000 troops from Belarus and Russia. However, as is generally the case, this number is a low figure. There appear to be far more Russian troops presently in Belarus than the official count. As a rule, troop numbers are manipulated to keep Zapad-21 within the guidelines called for in the Vienna Document. Any military exercise including more that 13,000 troops requires observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to attend.

The general concern among Russia’s western neighbors, as well as NATO, is that an exercise the size of Zapad could be used as cover for military action. To be fair, this is not a recent worry. Its origins go all the way back to the Cold War when NATO officers suspected major exercise would act as a prelude to a Soviet/Warsaw Pact invasion of Western Europe. Given the major Russian military buildup and exercises near the Ukrainian frontier earlier this year, Western concern is understandable. However, given the current picture of the world situation, Zapad is not expected to serve as a prelude to Russian military intervention in Ukraine, or Eastern Europe in the near future.

Upcoming Russian Military Exercise In Belarus Sparks Concern….As Usual

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.

Russian Military Buildup Drawing To A Close

Russia has announced a conclusion to the military exercises underway in close proximity to the Ukraine. Units will soon begin returning to their primary installations in other parts of the country, deescalating the situation immeasurably. This move will allay fears in Ukraine, Europe and the United States of a Russian military operation in eastern Ukraine. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu made the announcement earlier today, stating that the goals of the exercise have been met and Russian troops “demonstrated the ability to ensure reliable defense of the country.”

Yet in true Russian fashion, this move comes with some significant caveats attached.

A large number of Russian units will be departing the areas near the Ukrainian border, true. However, many of these units are leaving their heavy equipment behind. Heavy equipment in military terms translates to tanks, self-propelled artillery, infantry fighting vehicles, etc. With a sizable amount of heavy equipment remaining, it gives Russian troops the ability to rapidly deploy from other parts of the country and marry up to the equipment of their parent units. Similar to what the United States Army established with REFORGER and POMCUS sites in the Cold War. A very effective move on Russia’s part, and one that does not fully remove the threat facing Ukraine from the east and south.

There has been no information released about the Black Sea and whether the naval exercises there will also be coming to an end.

Naturally, the initial reaction from Ukraine and the West has been to hail the move as an indication of Vladimir Putin backing down in the face of a unified West. However, in the coming days and weeks this perception is likely to wear away. Vladimir Putin is a disingenuous, calculating individual. There’s generally a purpose behind every one of his major decisions. It is safe to assume there is one behind this one. As time goes on, it will become clear what the purpose is.

Ukraine Update: 6 April, 2021

I’m just getting back into the swing of things following a long (and very relaxing) holiday weekend. Unfortunately, the world has been going on as normal and there are now two specific areas in the world where tensions are growing quickly and the prospect of at least one crisis on the horizon appears to be quite good.

Tonight, I’ll take a quick look at Ukraine and the surrounding area. Tomorrow it will be an update on the South China Sea and probably more Ukraine news.  Then come Thursday, I will begin taking an in-depth look at both areas and what the future may hold.

 Russia’s buildup of forces along the border is continuing. On Tuesday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu stated that major military exercises are commencing across the country. On the surface, this news appears to be an attempt to tamper down rising speculation and concern over growing indications of Russian troop and equipment movements aimed at the Ukrainian border and Crimea. The United States and NATO have noticed the troop movements and are requesting a clarification of the Russian government’s intentions.

Also on Tuesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy publicly called on NATO to begin laying the foundation for Ukrainian membership in the Atlantic Alliance. The statement appears to be a knee-jerk reaction to the geopolitical tensions and the prospect of Russian military action against Ukraine. Zelenskiy is hoping the prospect of Ukraine rapidly earning NATO membership will encourage Russia to think twice about any designs it may have on Ukraine. On the flip side, however, the prospect of Ukraine actually joining the alliance could prompt Russia to move fast and hard to achieve its objectives before Kiev falls under the protection of NATO’s powerful military umbrella.

Preparations for Defender 20 Are Underway

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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.