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.

The US-Russia Military Balance in Europe Part II

Saber Strike 18

Beyond Ukraine and Crimea, the most probable flashpoint for future Russian military action in Europe is the Baltic states. The eastern expansion of NATO and the European Union into areas formerly part of the Russian sphere of influence was not well-received by Russia. Most Russians view the encroachment, and presence of NATO military forces on their borders as intolerable. Vladimir Putin has used the situation as a rallying cry to whip up nationalism and help solidify his hold on power. Putin views the NATO presence there as a roadblock to his desire to increase Russia’s standing in the world, and influence events in territories once occupied by Russia. Given that Moscow has already used its military to destabilize Georgia, Crimea, and Ukraine to keep them in the Russian sphere, it’s not outside the realm of possibility to assume it could happen in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in the future.

The Baltics pose a different situation since all three states are full NATO members. If attacked, their NATO allies will come to their aid. After the annexation of Crimea, the United States and NATO have paid closer attention to the easternmost reaches of the Atlantic alliance. Large exercises are held, air policing missions continue, and frequent appearances by US and other allied forces offer a reassuring sight for the population. Yet if push came to shove, neither the US or NATO could move enough combat power to the Baltics to deter or defeat an overt military move by Russia. It’s  a matter of numbers and distances. Russia has its most capable land and air forces in the Western Military District (WMD) as mentioned earlier in this series. This district borders the Baltic States, and the number of available combat units exceeds what the US and NATO have in the immediate area, or what they can generate and move east at the onset of a crisis or conflict.

Despite holding a distinct military advantage over the US and NATO in Eastern Europe, don’t expect Russia to send waves of tanks, and MiGs into the Baltics one day. If the moment arrives when Moscow decides to move, it will be a subtle maneuver, similar to what took place in Crimea. Hybrid war is tailor-made for the circumstances in the Baltic states where the slightest misstep could bring about a major war. The Western Military District has numerous special operations units under its command, and inserting them into the Baltics in the leadup to a ‘crisis’ wouldn’t be terribly difficult. The sudden appearance of ‘little green men’ at key locations, coupled with a series of major cyber-attacks, and riots touched off by ethnic Russians could be enough to destabilize a small nation like Lithuania, or Estonia overnight.

Given the availability of surface-to-air missile batteries, and fighter aircraft in the WMD, Russia can also impose a no-fly zone over the Baltics on short notice. Such a move would hinder the initial US military move in a crisis or conflict, which would revolve around airpower. The US has a respectable number of combat aircraft still based in Europe. This fact has led Russia to base a number of the highly capable SA-21 Growler (S-400) SAM system within range of the Baltics to deny US and NATO warplanes access to the airspace over an area where Russian forces are operating.

With just two  combat brigades permanently based in Europe, as well as a rotating armored brigade, the US would not be able to introduce a large ground force into the Baltics at short notice. NATO is in a similar fix. Revisions, and enhancements need to be made to the US military presence in central and eastern Europe to  redress the present disadvantage. The effort currently underway is not the determined, unified effort that s needed. In the next segment, we will look at US efforts to balance the military scales in Europe and what direction they are moving in.

The US-Russia Military Balance in Europe: Part I


The performance of the Russian military in the 2008 Russo-Georgian War revealed a number of woeful deficiencies in the training, doctrine, and equipment of Russian forces. The conflict concluded in a decisive victory, but the performance of Russia’s armed forces indicated the reforms and modernizations begun in the aftermath of the Second Chechen War had yet to fully take root. The military was moving in the right direction, however, more work would be required before it could be seen as a legitimate first-rate professional military on par with its Western peers.

Since 2008 Russia has undertaken a series of ambitious, and determined reforms, and modernizations. The final verdict on just how successful these attempts have been cannot be determined short of a major war. The involvement of Russia’s military in Syria and Ukraine fail to qualify as proper test beds. Neither conflict offers a realistic opportunity for Russia to conduct large scale combined arms operations. What they have offered, however, is the opportunity for many Russian soldiers and officers to gain invaluable combat experience.

The Western Military District (WMD) is the command responsible for confronting NATO. The organization and deployment of Russian land, air, and naval units in the WMD region presents insight to the General Staff’s thoughts on potential future conflicts in Europe. Although the WMD is the smallest Russian military district in terms of geographic size, it has the largest number of combat units assigned to it. These forces are generally the best trained, and equipped units in the Russian armed forces.

Readiness and preparation have been major points for the WMD. Since the annexation of Crimea, and the resumption of tense relations with the West, Russia has held major exercises in the WMD multiples times a year. The largest of these, such as the Zapad series, are conducted for the purpose of preparing the forces in the WMD, and neighboring districts, for high-intensity conventional operations. In spite of the heavy publicity that hybrid warfare has received since the Crimean annexation, Russia’s ground forces in the western district are made up primarily of combined-arms units. Combined-arms operations have been the center of Russia’s land war doctrine since World War II, emphasizing maneuver and firepower. Hybrid warfare still has a place in future conflicts in Europe involving Russia, especially in the Baltic States. However, when it comes to planning for operations farther west, such as in Poland, combined-arms forces would be the mainstay.


Since the end of the Cold War, US ground forces have become lighter. Iraq, Afghanistan, and other fronts in the Global War on Terror emphasized infantry, special operations, and airborne troops more than they did armor and mechanized infantry. Heavy forces did find a niche in these warzones and proved remarkably effective. However, this was not enough to prevent US Army doctrine from shifting heavily to the employment of light forces on the battlefield. Ukraine, and the annexation of Crimea began to change the US mindset, as did events in other regions of the world. A high-intensity fight against a near-peer opponent equipped with large numbers of tanks, and armored vehicles became more likely. US ground forces have been adapting to meet the emerging threats since then, as have US air and naval forces. With that in mind, it needs to be stressed that Europe has not become the primary focus of US military planning, as it has for Russia. Atlantic Resolve, and the rotating presence of a heavy maneuver brigade in Eastern Europe is helping to change this, but much work remains to be done.

Responsibility for defending Europe against Russian aggression does not fall entirely on US shoulders. That obligation belongs to NATO though the US provides the bulk of the military forces and combat power NATO would bring to bear in a future war against Russia. The alliance has become more united in recent years owing to the growing Russian military threat. And thanks to President Trump’s tough talk, NATO members are beginning to contribute more money towards defense spending. Unfortunately, it will be some time before the results of this effort become visible. Even when that happens, NATO’s European member-states will be unable to defeat a Russian move into the Baltics, or elsewhere in Eastern Europe on their own. US military power is the key to defending Europe.


Sunday 13 August, 2017 Update: Russian Advance Parties at Work in Belarus for 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.


East Is Forward: The Russian Threat


This Christmas season is going to be a fitful one for residents in Eastern Europe. The conflict in the Ukraine shows no signs of ending soon. NATO fighters continue to encounter Russian aircraft dangerously close to NATO airspace. Neither Sweden nor Finland have been immune to encounters with units of the Russian military either. The submarine incident is well known and just last week a Russian fighter plane narrowly missed colliding with a Swedish commercial aircraft. The economic situation in Russia has pushed the simmering region farther into the limelight. Now, over the last two days it has come out that Russian forces recently conducted military exercises in Kaliningrad between 5 and 10 December. Every one of these factors have served to amplify the military power that Russia possesses, as well as the potential threat it poses to Eastern Europe should hostilities ever break out. Hostilities are highly improbable right now and not likely to break out. In the future, however, anything is possible. Eroding economic conditions have been the direct or indirect cause of most of the wars over the past 100 years. The Great Depression was the catalyst that brought the Nazis and Hitler to power in Germany and subsequently led to the Second World War. Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 is an excellent contemporary example.

The Russian Military Threat

Russia’s armed forces are in the midst of sweeping reforms and upgrades. In actuality, the services have been in the midst of one type of reform or another since the early years of the 21st Century. The latest series of changes were geared towards the Russian Army. The purpose of the reform was to change the army from a traditional mobilized type of ground force to a permanent combat readiness force. “New Look Army” began in 2008 and by 2011 had been branded a success. The traditionally separate naval fleets and military districts have been consolidated into four Joint Strategic Commands (OSK) similar to the unified command structure that United States and other NATO nations employ. The division structure is being replaced by a brigade structure. Divisions were broken down and reorganized into separate brigades. In 2013 a limited number of brigades were returned to division status.

The Russian navy and air force, like the ground forces, are going through upgrades and changes in their organizational structures and operational responsibilities. Vladimir Putin, in 2012, announced plans to build 50 ships and 25 submarines by the beginning of the next decade. The Russian air force is receiving small numbers of new aircraft and a number of new designs,  namely the T-50, are under development.

Russia has grandiose plans for its armed forces. The question that looms over Moscow’s head is whether or not the new economic realities will have an effect on the military rebuild. Putin claims that the economic drawdowns are not going to be an issue for the military, however, that could change rather rapidly.


Russia has a wide amount of military hardware pointed west towards Eastern Europe. Most of it is the property of military units that belong to the Western Military District. The WMD essentially owns every brigade, air regiment and warship from the western borders to the Nenets Autonomous District. 250-300,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen serve in the WMD. For operations against the Baltic States, Poland or other potential threats to the west, as well as the Ukraine, Moscow will call on the WMD to provide the forces. Listed below is a fairly recent order of battle for the Western Military District.

Western Military District

Ground Forces


6th Combined Services Army (St-Petersburg)

25th Independent Motor Rifle Brigade (Vladimirskiy Lager)

138th Independent Motor Rifle Brigade (Kamenka)

9th Artillery Brigade (Luga)

26th Missile Brigade (Luga)

5th AA Missile Brigade (Nenimyaki)

95th Command Brigade (Chernaya Rechka)

51st Independent Supply Brigade (Krasnoye Selo)

20th Guard Combined Services Army (Mulino, Nizhniy Novgorod Region)

2nd Motor Rifle Brigade (Kalinets)

4th Tank Division (Naro-Fominsk)

6th Independent Tank Brigade (Mulino)

9th Independent Motor Rifle Brigade (Nizhniy Novgorod)

448th Missile Brigade

288th Artillery Brigade (Mulino)

9th Command Brigade (Mulino)

69th Independent Supply Brigade (Tsentralnyy)

Independent units

27th Independent Motor Rifle Brigade (Vidnoye)

112th Missile Brigade (Shuya)

79th Rocket Artillery Brigade (Tver)

29th Independent Railway Brigade (Bryansk)

38th Independent Railway Brigade (Yaroslavl)

45th Independent Engineering Brigade (Nakhabino)

Independent Troops Contingent in the Dniester Region

Air Forces


15th Army Aviation Brigade (Ostrov)

378th Army Aviation Airbase (Vyazma)

549th Army Aviation Airbase (Levashovo)

800th Airbase (Chkalovskiy)

922nd Army Aviation Airbase (Pushkin)

105th Combined Aviation Division

455th Combined Air Regiment (Voronezh)

14th Fighter Air Regiment (Kursk)

98th Combined Air Regiment (Monchegorsk)

159th Fighter Air Regiment (Besovets)

790th Air Regiment (Khotilovo)

Naval Forces

Northern Fleet Submarine Command

7th Submarine Division

11th Submarine Division

24th Submarine Division

31st Submarine Division

Northern Fleet Ships 10 1st rank ships:

  • 1 aircraft carrier
  • 3 missile cruisers
  • 1 destroyer
  • 5 large anti-submarine ships

32 submarines:

  • 6 Project 667BDRM SSBN
  • 1 Project 941U SSBN
  • 1 Project 955 SSBN
  • 3 Project 949A SSGN
  • 6 Project 971 SSN
  • 4 Project 945/945A SSN
  • 4 Project 671RTMK SSN
  • 6 Project 877 diesel-electric submarines
  • 1 Project 677 diesel-electric submarine



128th Surface Ship Brigade

71st Amphibious Assault Landing Ship Brigade


Baltic Naval Base, which includes:

  • 64th Area Patrol Ship Brigade
  • 36th Missile Boat Brigade
  • 25th Coastal Missile Regiment
  • The 115th Battalion Division (i.e. detachment) of Ships Under Construction and Undergoing The Baltic Fleet’s Naval Aviation Group


105th Area Patrol Ships Brigade

13th Brigade of Ships and Submarines Under Construction and Undergoing Repairs

Baltic Fleet Ships

  • 2 destroyers
  • 2 frigates
  • 3 corvettes
  • 2 Project 877 diesel-electric submarines

The Baltic Fleet’s forces in Kaliningrad Region include a large group of ground troops:

  • 336th Marines Brigade
  • 79th Independent Motorised Rifle Brigade
  • 7th Independent Motorised Rifle Regiment
  • 244th Artillery Brigade
  • 152nd Missile Brigade
  • 22nd Independent SAM Regiment

Source: Andrey Frolov, Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST) , 2014