With Zapad 17 having officially ended and the withdrawal of Russian forces from Belarus ostensibly complete, NATO intelligence officers will be spending the next few weeks analyzing the major exercise and drawing conclusions from it. One of the concerns prevalent in NATO circles prior to Zapad was whether or not all of the participating Russian military units would depart Belarus once the exercise ended. Aware of this unease, Moscow transformed the departure of Russian combat aircraft from Belarussian airbases and their arrival back in Russia into a media event of sorts. On the surface, the move was conducted to minimize the NATO concerns and assure neighboring nations that Russian forces were in fact returning to their home territory instead of remaining in of Belarus.
Despite Russia’s efforts, suspicions that all was not being revealed remained with a number of Western military officers and diplomats. While Russian fighters and bombers were heavily photographed and videoed leaving Bealrus, the same media attention was not afforded to ground forces supposedly also departing the country. A reason for this could be that not all of the Russia’s units are leaving Belarus, or at least not with the same amount of equipment and weapons they arrived with.
Ukraine’s Commander-in-Chief General Viktor Muzhenko expounded on these suspicions and worries when he alleged that a number of Russian troops had remained in Belarus following the end of Zapad. Muzhenko told Reuters that Russia did not withdraw all of its combat units, and misrepresented the actual number of troops that were involved in the exercise. Moscow had claimed that no more than 12,000 troops were taking place, however, estimates from other sources put the number at anywhere from 70,000 to 110,000.
Moscow wasted little time in responding to Muzhenko’s allegations. A press conference was hastily laid on and a spokesman for the Ministry of Defense vehemently denied there are any Russia troops still inside of Belarus. According to the spokesman, the last train carrying Russian soldiers and equipment departed Belarus on 28 September. The press conference, and the official reaction of the Russian government, was widely covered by the state media.
On the other side of the coin, Polish defense minister Antoni Macierewicz has called for Muzhenko’s claims to be treated seriously, leaving the door open to closer NATO scrutiny of Russia’s actions and intentions in the aftermath of Zapad 17.
With Zapad 17 set to commence one month from tomorrow, the Russian and Belarusian militaries are at work laying the groundwork for the massive exercise. Advance parties from multiple Russian Army and Air Force units have begun arriving in Belarus to make necessary preparations for the surge of forces expected to begin moving into the country later in August. Exercise areas, and other facilities must be ready for the combat troops when they arrive. Activity at Belarusian rail depots close to the Russian border has also increased sharply in recent weeks. The equipment belonging to many Russian ground units will be coming into Belarus by way of rail and preparations for the logistics side of Zapad has to be ready to go by the end of the month at the latest.
The 4th Guards Tank Division advance party has been sighted in Slonim, a city in western Belarus that is home to a Belarusian mechanized infantry regiment. The large training areas outside of Slonim are expected to be a primary exercise area for Zapad 17 and the appearance of 4th Guards Tank Division troops in the area adds credibility to the assumption. Lida Air Base, located south of Lithuania, is also seeing an upswing in Russian activity. There has been a limited Russian Air Force presence at Lida since 2013. For a time, Russia was considering permanently basing fighters there until the Belarusian government denied the request. Advance parties, as well as a small number of fighters from two or more fighter squadrons, have landed at Lida since 1 August. More aircraft and personnel will begin streaming in as the month goes on.
With the growing Russian military presence around them, more and more Belarusians are becoming anxious about Zapad 17 and what will happen afterwards. The consensus is that not all of the Russian troops, weapons, and equipment will be returning home when the exercise is over. Instead, concern is growing that Russia will establish a permanent military force in Belarus which will serve to erode the Belarusian sovereignty and independence. The worst-case scenario some Belarusians see is an annexation of their homeland along the lines of what Russia did to the Crimea region in 2014.
It is somewhat ironic that many Belarus natives are nearly as concerned about Zapad 17 as some NATO military officers. In a little over one month, NATO and the people of Belarus will find out of their fears are justified or misplaced.
With a fresh outbreak of fighting underway in the Ukraine and the possibility of escalation increasing once again, I feel that this is an opportune time to talk about Poland. The Western media has spent over a year dissecting the conflict in the Ukraine, the dangers of a resurgent Russia and the US response to Vladimir Putin’s challenges. However, there has been very little talk about Poland and more specifically, the task of defending Poland if Russian designs should ever stretch that far west. The prospect of defending Poland is unquestionably being discussed in detail at the Pentagon, Brussels, and the Ministry of Defense in Warsaw. Unfortunately, the subject has not come up very often in military journals and foreign policy publications. Very little, if any information about how a potential war in Poland could play out is available for public consumption.
With all of this in mind, the DIRT project for June is going to be centered on the defense of Poland.
Poland is the nexus of Russia’s future designs on Eastern Europe. Since the annexation of Crimea, Poland has taken steps to strengthen its defenses, forge concrete assurances from its allies and prepare its population in the event of a Russian attack. The mood of the entire nation has changed since March, 2014. Civilians, politicians and military professionals alike recognize that there is a potential threat building to the east.
As history shows us, Poland is no stranger to war. The ground on which the nation-state is set upon has been contested many times. Even when the territory did not belong to the Poles, it was fought over. The land has been fertilized with the blood of soldiers from a score of armies over the centuries. In the 20th Century, Poland’s defeat at the hands of the Third Reich and Soviet Union in 1939 underscores the victory its armed forces achieved over the Soviet Union in the Polish-Soviet War in 1921. The Eastern Front ebbed and flowed across Poland in World War II.
Over the next three weeks, I will publish the series in 3-4 parts. In them, a host of political, military and economic factors will be discussed and a picture of what a possible defensive plan for Poland might resemble. Part One will be published on Saturday, 13 June.
‘Amateurs study tactics,’ an old military adage goes. ‘Professionals study logistics.’ The military situation in the ground in the Ukraine exemplifies this adage almost entirely. The pro-Russian separatist forces have a secure, uninterrupted supply line that stretches from the eastern Ukraine to the Russian side of the border. Not only are they able to replace material loses from Russian stocks at a fast rate, the tacit participation of Russian military forces in the fighting has guaranteed success on the battlefield as well as ensuring the security of the supply line.
On the other side of the line, Ukrainian forces have not been able to even marginally stem the flow of supplies coming west. Nor have they been able to resupply at the same rate as their opponents. Their stocks are finite and resupply from the West has come in dribs and drabs instead of a consistent flow. Even worse for the generals in Kiev is the realization that material aid from the United States and European nations has not included large amounts of military goods. The US and Europe are taking every step possible not to escalate the fighting.
Combat units go through ammunition and spare parts at a very rapid clip when hostilities break out. Armored vehicles, helicopters and aircraft break down or suffer battle damage and have to be repaired or replaced. The Ukrainian military cupboard is growing empty. To say nothing about replacing weapons, aircraft and vehicles that are lost in battle. Kiev’s forces are being bled dry with no hopes of major resupply on the horizon while the separatists enjoy an unfettered supply line with access to every material good they need and more.
US intelligence sources and eyewitness reports from the ground have confirmed the arrival of Russian made vehicles and heavy munitions in eastern Ukraine. On Tuesday, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe reported that some of its group members personally witnessed a convoy of 43 large green trucks heading towards Donetsk. According to the report, some of the vehicles were hauling 120mm artillery pieces behind them. A similar report was received last week concerning the arrival of tanks and other heavy equipment in the area.
Clearly, something is going on. It appears that the Russians are resupplying the separatists in preparation for the resumption of offensive operations. Ukrainian positions in the eastern part of the country have been enduring artillery fire for the past few days. Preparatory fire most likely. The cease-fire agreement has already been stretched to the breaking point in some respects and broken in others. Fighting is going to resume on a wide scale in the near future. The primary questions right now are: how far do the separatists plan to expand their territorial gains? Will the Russians overtly intervene in the fighting with regular forces this time?
I will explore answers to those questions tomorrow. The coming days are going to be crucial. Expect daily updates at the very least.