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 I

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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.

 

Saturday 30 September, 2017 Update: Concerns Remain Following the Conclusion of Zapad 17

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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.

 

Wednesday 13 September, 2017 Update: Zapad 17 Gets Underway

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After months of anxious speculation by Western politicians, general officers, and media outlets, the waiting is over. Zapad 17 is underway. Russia’s quadrennial strategic military exercise has attracted an overwhelming amount of scrutiny and attention. In light of past behavior on the part of Russia, some observers and analysts believe this exercise could be cover for a large scale Russian military action against NATO, or even against their erstwhile Belarussian allies. The 2008 Georgian invasion, and 2014 Crimean takeover were preceded by large scale military exercises. This fact is pointed to as cause to suspect Zapad 17 might be more than it appears. Other observers, politicians, and military officials suspect that Russia will use the exercise to permanently station large numbers of troops in Belarus, tilting the military balance in eastern and northern Europe in its favor.

Practically speaking, Zapad 17 is a preparation for war. After all, that is the point of a strategic exercise like this. In the absence of a hidden political agenda, the results of the exercise will be an indicator of the nation’s military capabilities and of vital importance to Moscow.

Zapad 17 will run from 14-20 September and involve units from every Russian service branch and military district. Moscow claims there are only 12,000 or so troops participating, however this number is deliberately false. In reality there are upwards of 100,000 personnel involved. Not admitting the true number is a deliberate attempt by Moscow to prevent Western observers from being allowed to monitor the exercise up close. Russia and NATO have previously agreed that exercises containing upwards of 30,000+ troops trigger an automatic attendance by observers from the other side. By cooking the numbers in this case, Russia is taking advantage of a loophole to keep as many prying eyes out of Belarus as possible.

As the week goes on and Zapad 17 unfolds, we’ll keep  an eye on what is happening in and around Belarus and the Baltics.

Tuesday 5 September, 2017 Update: Putin Sniffing out an Opportunity in the North Korean Crisis?

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Vladimir Putin would never allow a good crisis to go to waste, so it is no surprise to find him speaking his mind on the North Korean crisis. During the 2017 BRICS summit in Xiamen, China, the Russian leader took some time to speak about the simmering situation in northeast Asia. To be honest, Putin’s comments were not earthshattering by any means. He offered his opinion that economic sanctions are likely not going to persuade North Korea from dropping its nuclear weapons program, and championed diplomacy as the sole course of action left which can resolve the crisis peacefully. Putin also issued a frank, and somewhat dramatic warning that further escalation of the crisis could result in a “planetary catastrophe.” While his observations are not very insightful, they are more or less accurate. Sanctions will not do any more good and if this crisis continues to escalate it could result in the use of nuclear weapons, and a regional war that causes tens of thousands of deaths.

Putin’s words are not the result of newfound respect and concern for humanity. He did not wake up yesterday morning, hug a tree and suddenly decide that what the world needs now is love. Vladimir Putin is a man who rarely takes action or says something unless there is some benefit to be gained for him or his country.

In this case, the favor Putin’s words might bring about is more concentrated global attention on the North Korean situation just as Russian military forces are preparing to commence the large scale Zapad 17 maneuvers in Belarus. There has been considerable speculation about what will come from the exercises. Some Western observers are suspicious of Putin’s intentions, believing that when Zapad concludes, the Russians may not leave entirely. It could mark the beginning of a permanent major Russian military presence in Belarus, or perhaps a move of some sort in Ukraine, not necessarily a military one either.

If he does plan to take some sort of action during or after Zapad, the current North Korean crisis potentially provides him with perfect cover. Even though he is despised by many, Putin’s thoughts on North Korea will carry weight and cause politicians and media types to consider the crisis more carefully. As that is happening, the scrutiny that has been placed on Russia lately will dissipate briefly, giving Putin a potential window of opportunity. Perhaps he will make use of it, perhaps not.

Either way, the Russian president’s public statements about North Korea make it seem that he is considering the possibility at the very least.