Zapad-2021: What to Expect From Russia’s Strategic Military Exercise

Michael Kofman

Zapad-2021 is not just approaching. It’s already here. Zapad, meaning “west,” is Russia’s Strategic Command’s-Staff Exercise, scheduled for Sept. 10–16. This exercise focuses on Russia’s Western Military District and Belarus and includes areas under the Northern Fleet’s Joint Strategic Command. Strategic exercises of this type are capstone training events for the Russian military and rotate every year (since 2009) between zapad (west), vostok (east), tsentr (center), and Kavkaz (Caucasus). Consequently, Zapad takes place every four years. Each exercise focuses on one of these strategic directions and is led by that military district’s Joint Strategic Command. Zapad intermingles military training for regional or large-scale war, demonstrations of capability, and political signaling.

Annual strategic exercises such as Zapad allow the Russian General Staff to further develop operational concepts, test Russian military and civilian integration, experiment with force structure, reserve mobilization, or logistical elements. Over the years, Zapad has become more routinized, but it remains an important demonstration of military power aimed at helping maintain coercive credibility vis-a-vis Washington. Even though the Russian military sees itself as relatively inferior in a regional or large-scale war with NATO, Zapad is meant to convey the potential costs and escalation risks of such a conflict. This year’s exercise will also illustrate Russia’s ability to defend its interests in Belarus and deploy substantial military power onto the country’s territory.

Zapad-2021 will be larger than the 2017 iteration. It takes place against the backdrop of a political crisis in Belarus, and an ongoing confrontation between Russia and NATO, which has resulted in intensifying military exercises, deployments, and activity in Europe. While Russian exercises often engender a sense of foreboding and anxiety across NATO member states on its borders, Zapad-2021 has not been subject to the same media sensationalism that characterized coverage in the summer of 2017. The Russian military has previously used exercises to rehearse military plans against specific neighbors (the Russian-Georgian War in 2008) and to mask large troop movements for the seizure of Crimea in 2014. The peak time for annual Russian military training events has historically been autumn. However, recent years have witnessed more of a year-round approach to training exercises as well as higher levels of readiness across the force.

Major exercises are indeed a time for vigilance, and caution, but they also present opportunities for Western analysts and intelligence services. Exercises like Zapad provide useful updates on the state of the Russian armed forces and Moscow’s ability to generate and deploy combat power in the region of greatest concern to U.S. planners, as well as on the evolution of capabilities, operational concepts, and integration across the force. Over the years, Zapad has become an increasingly scripted event, with many of the movements pre-planned and exercised in advance, and has evolved to include preparatory activity, prepositioning of forces, and exercises in July and August that lead up to the main event in September. Yet the exercise remains a useful snapshot for those who regularly observe Russian military developments and look at the state’s capacity to mobilize, generate reserves, provide logistical support for large formations, etc.

What Happens on Z-Day?

The exercise scenario involves an opposing “Western” coalition against a joint Russian-Belarusian force. The simulated opponents normally include neighboring NATO member states backed by the United States. In 2017, the adversaries in the exercise — called Veyshnoriya, Lubenia, and Vesbaria and intended to represent Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland — were seeking to partition Belarus and annex its northwestern regions.

Belarusian official sources have offered a glimpse of the scenario for 2021: As the military and political situation in Europe deteriorates, Western states turn their attention to Belarus and having failed to destabilize Belarus via non-military means, this Western coalition decides to use force to achieve its political aims. The Russian-Belarusian Northern coalition must compel this Western group to terminate hostilities on acceptable terms. This year, the Western coalition comprises states called Nyaris, Pomoria, and the Polar Republic along with so-called terrorist organizations. This is an interesting development. While Nyaris appears to represent Lithuania and Pomoria is probably a stand-in for Poland, the Polar Republic is likely intended to represent Norway or another Scandinavian state, heralding a significant role in Zapad-2021 for Russia’s Northern Fleet Joint Strategic Command. Zapad-2021 will be held across Belarus at five training ranges in Brest, Baranovichi, Domanovsky, Obuz-Lesnovsky, Ruzhanskiy, and the region surrounding Grodno. Many of these ranges are in western Belarus, near the border with Poland and Lithuania. Another nine training ranges in Russia will be involved, and the Northern Fleet also will have an important part to play during this exercise.

The exercise typically has two phases. In the first three days, Russian forces simulate a NATO intervention into Belarus that Russia and Belarus respond to together. The exercise is, in effect, a meeting engagement. This segment tests Russia’s ability to raise units on alert, mobilize reserves, and deploy active units to the combat zone (training ranges) amid simulated large-scale aerospace attacks by the United States and NATO from multiple strategic directions. One of the primary tasks in this phase is to deflect and parry a strategic NATO aerospace attack on both Russian forces and critically important infrastructure in the Russian homeland. Russian formations must leave their garrisons while quick reaction forces like the airborne simulate flanking attacks along a fragmented front. This portion of the exercise tests command and control relationships, logistics, and transitioning of the economy to a wartime footing. Large reserve formations are activated, and military districts practice coordinating critical civilian support functions. Russian forces are not just deploying and defending during this phase, but engage in sustained counterattacks, seeking to disorganize and attrite the opponent’s offensive operation through conventional strikes and electronic attack.

The second phase involves a combined-arms Russian force “stabilizing” the situation in response to a crisis. Here, the ability of the Western Military District’s Joint Strategic Command to command and control forces in theater will be tested while the General Staff coordinates and executes strategic operations. Russian ground forces will simulate a maneuver defense, degrading offensive forces and drawing them into fire cauldrons or pockets, before then conducting a counteroffensive. Russian strategic deterrence forces will simulate strikes against critical targets in theater, as well as on infrastructure in opposing states. These are intended to demonstrate the Russian military’s ability to inflict substantial costs via conventional means and compel an opponent to abandon the conflict. The overarching goal is to degrade the opponent’s ability and will to sustain a military campaign. The Russian navy will practice destroying enemy surface action and carrier strike groups, repelling amphibious landings, and conducting long-range strikes against land-based infrastructure. Airborne units will arrive to reinforce forward deployed formations, form up into battalion tactical groups, and conduct raids or flanking actions to hold operationally significant positions.

Although Zapad is formally a weeklong affair, preparations take place well in advance, with training sites selected early in the year. This year, maneuver formations and logistics units have deployed particularly early to ranges, some two months in advance. Most of these preparatory activities have already been taking place in July and August. Months of exercises by associated commands make the entire affair less a large-scale readiness test and more an event that is regimented or scripted in nature. Approximately 2,500–3,500 Russian troops have deployed to training ranges in Belarus ahead of the exercise and other units have moved to their respective training ranges across Russia’s Western Military District.  The commander of Russia’s Western Military District said last month that his units are “completing their preparations for this year’s major training event,” adding that “joint command and staff exercises have already been held along with a series of special drills for the types of comprehensive logistic support, including three on the territory of Belarus.” Therefore, what constitutes the Zapad exercise today is not a sudden or intense stress test of the Russian military system, but months of military activity, force movements, and exercises.

What to Look for in this Exercise

A meeting engagement in Belarus resulting from a political crisis is the Russian equivalent of the Baltic high-end fight for NATO planners. The scenario may seem unrealistic to Western observers, but it is no more improbable than fears that Russia will attempt to seize the Suwalki Gap in Lithuania. From a Russian perspective, Belarus is situated along the Smolensk operational direction (within the western strategic direction), covering the so-called “Smolensk gate” on the way to Moscow. The shortest ground route from Europe to Moscow runs through Belarus. (The shortest land route from Russia to its forces in Kaliningrad, on the other hand, is not actually through the Suwalki Gap.) Zapad is neither defensive nor offensive. These are political characterizations that don’t have much analytical utility in evaluating military exercises. Russian operational concepts include both offensive and defensive elements.

The Russian General Staff is concerned by what it has nicknamed a Western “Trojan horse” strategy: first using indirect means to destabilize a country, then employing advanced conventional capabilities to paralyze the armed forces, execute massed airstrikes against critical infrastructure, and rapidly achieve war aims. The Russian military goal is to convince a U.S.-led coalition that it cannot achieve a decisive victory early on, and that the war will result in substantial military, or economic costs, along with likely nuclear escalation. Russian thinking is premised on the belief that Russia can raise costs to a level that will outweigh the gains sought, particularly in a fight over Belarus. The 2021 exercise may simulate calibrated employment of conventional and non-strategic nuclear weapons to manage escalation and compel the opposing coalition to negotiate.

This year, Russia will be keen to demonstrate advancements in coordination between service branches and independent combat arms and in the ability of the force to field joint operational-level formations. The Russian military continues to improve combat service support and logistical capacity for moving and sustaining large ground unit formations. Since Zapad-2017, Russian force structure has expanded — for example, the 18th division in Kaliningrad has been established, with new divisions being formed on the basis of existing brigades. Even if Zapad-2021 is repeating a staple scenario, some participating formations will be new. Russian airborne brigades will continue experiments with “new type” formations and developing air-mobile concepts.

Furthermore, new electronic warfare, drone, and reconnaissance units have proliferated across the force at the battalion and company level, adding capabilities for electronic support and attack. Hence, the General Staff will be looking to see how these capabilities align with the operational concepts for their employment and the degree to which lessons from combat experience in Syria and Ukraine are being effectively integrated in training across the force. More recently, Azerbaijan’s decisive victory in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War has made an impression on the Russian military. Tackling the threat posed by remotely operated aircraft, loitering munitions, and drone swarms will be an area of emphasis.

Many elements of the exercise remain highly scripted, especially those scheduled for the day when President Vladimir Putin comes to watch. In general, the Russian military leadership has sought increasingly to move away from the military theater aspects of the exercise toward more realistic forms of training, “nonstandard” solutions to tactical scenarios, fewer scripted events, and more sophisticated targets or technical means of simulating adversary capabilities. Unfortunately, this is not much in evidence during strategic command staff exercises, which are the most “set piece” military events of the year. Videos of the chief of the Russian General Staff recently inspecting Western Military District training ahead of Zapad suggest that units are drilling weeks and months in advance to execute the tasks that they will perform during the exercise.

The Trouble With Belarus

Russia’s relationship with Belarus is changing in the wake of a  political crisis in Minsk, waves of protests in 2020 and 2021, and the Belarusian state’s repressive response. President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime is in survival mode, unable to play Russia and the West against each other. European neighbors have backed Lukashenko’s domestic political opposition, leaving him no other option than to become more firmly ensconced in Russia’s sphere of influence. Consequently, in contrast to Zapad-2017 when Belarus tried to act the victim of Russia’s security prerogatives, in 2021, this game is impossible. It is in Minsk’s interest to invite a much larger Russian footprint as a show of support for the regime.

Since 2020, Russian forces have conducted a series of joint exercises with Belarus and maintain a regular presence in the country. Moscow has also signed agreements for combined air patrols and training centers. Russia’s efforts to establish a joint air defense training center in Grodno have moved apace, with two Russian S-300PM2 surface-to-air missile vehicles deploying there in recent days along with several Su-30SM fighters. Moscow’s military presence in Belarus is expanding and taking on a more permanent character. As Putin told the Belarus leader in a recent phone call, Lukashenko “can always count on Russia’s support.” Russian support, however, is never free. Belarus’ military forms an important part of a regional grouping of forces. This grouping is a joint formation, integrating Belarusian armed forces with Russian military units, and is designed to be activated in a conventional military contingency. In 2020, Lukashenko alluded to recent changes in joint defense planning. The geographic sectors in Belarus where this grouping is to be deployed have likely been moved closer to the borders with Poland and Lithuania. Zapad-2021 exercises will reflect this change, with a much larger share of Russian forces exercising in Western Belarus than in previous iterations, particularly the 1st Guards Tank Army.

Belarus is also part of a unified regional air defense system with Russia. This system operates in peacetime and is Belarusian-led, whereas the regional grouping of forces is activated during a period of military threat. The regional grouping of forces is an operational- and strategic-level piece that fits into the Russian Joint Strategic Command planning for the fielding of forces along this strategic direction. However, the wartime command relationship between Russia’s Joint Strategic Command and the Belarusian General Staff is not clear. Zapad-2021 will further test Russian ability to integrate Belarusian and Russian units into this regional grouping of forces and work out interoperability, command and control, logistics, and other aspects of cooperation, especially following updates to joint defense planning.

Zapad-2021 Will Be Really Big, Definitely, Maybe

Zapad-2021 looks set to be larger than the 2013 or 2017 iterations, although it is no easy feat to estimate the size of this exercise. Judging from early deployments and training range selection, a more sizable Russian contingent will be in Belarus and Russian troops will be much closer to the borders with Poland than they were during previous Zapad exercises. Forces from Russia’s Central Military District are already forward deployed to participate in Voronezh, reservists from different districts have been activated, and units have been pre-deployed across training ranges. The past year has seen a visible uptick in Russian complaints about Western exercises and deployments near its borders, such as a spate of intense strategic bomber and intelligence aircraft overflights in 2020. Russia is therefore unlikely to restrain the scope of this exercise, and neither is Belarus. If anything, Moscow will be looking to conduct its own demonstration of military power in response to the intensifying activity on the part of NATO that it has complained about in recent years.

According to the Belarusian Ministry of Defense, Zapad-2021 will include a total of 12,800 Russian and Belarusian personnel, 2,500 of whom will participate on Belarusian soil, and an additional 50 soldiers from Kazakhstan. Approximately 400 of the Belarusian troops will be participating on Russian territory. These numbers from the ministry are clearly untrue, as there appear to be already more than 2,500 Russian personnel in Belarus. The reason for submitting these figures is to assert compliance with the terms of the Vienna Document, a politically binding agreement adopted in 1990 that specifies confidence-building measures for major exercises in excess of delineated thresholds. The agreement requires participating members to invite observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to exercises that involve more than excess of 13,000 troops. By claiming that forces participating in Zapad are involved only in a collection of separate, discrete exercises, both Belarus and Russia have consistently circumvented reporting obligations and the transparency measures that constitute the spirit of this agreement. For example, for Zapad-2017, they officially submitted that 12,700 troops participated, with roughly 3,000 Russian soldiers involved.

In August, the Russian Ministry of Defense stated that 200,000 troops will be involved in Zapad-2021, including participants from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (presumably the 50 Kazakh soldiers mentioned by its Belarus counterpart). Zapad is therefore Europe’s largest “small” exercise, with the Russian defense ministry issuing an inflated count of 200,000 participants while simultaneously claiming, for reporting purposes, that no more than 13,000 will be involved. Actual figures of how many Russian soldiers participate in these strategic exercises vary wildly, depending on who is included as participating and over what time frame. The generally cited figure for Zapad-2013 is around 75,000 troops and associated personnel. Zapad-2017 was expected to be much larger – with official and media sources estimating 100,000 participants —  but ended up being smaller, more in the ballpark of 50,000–60,000. Back then, Igor Sutyagin, a defense researcher at the London-based Royal United Services Institute, estimated the size of the exercise at 48,000. Yet media narratives in advance of Zapad-2017 proved sensationalist: Some projected 100,000 troops on NATO’s borders, and there were reports that Russian troops might get left behind in Belarus as part of an undeclared occupation.

Bombastic statements regarding the size of the exercise have been part of a trend. It’s not clear if the numbers are wholly invented or if Russia’s Ministry of Defense is technically counting all forces and reserve formations that have some connection to the exercise, perhaps over the course of several months in the run-up to the actual event in September. The number of participants may take into account more than military personnel: Running parallel to Zapad are civil defense exercises, for instance, and the Russian National Guard will generate its own forces and prepare to suppress “diversionary” activity. Therefore, other participants whose role in the exercise is rather small may be counted in the dramatically inflated official figures. During the Vostok-2018 strategic maneuvers, the Russian defense ministry claimed 300,000 participants, though the actual number was many times smaller. Russian military leaders likely hope Western media will report exaggerated figures, which help validate the scale and success of the exercise. In the past, they have frequently revised their claimed numbers after the exercise is over.

Zapad has a small but visible international component. Russia and China have intensified their military engagement and bilateral exercises in recent years, with Chinese forces participating in Vostok-2018, Tsentr-2019, and Kavkaz-2020. Yet Beijing has chosen not to send forces to Russia for Zapad. Instead, Russia held a large operational-strategic exercise with China on Chinese territory in mid-August called Interaction-2021. The recently concluded exercise was rebranded by Russia and China as part of the Zapad series of events. Perhaps unexpectedly, India has chosen to send a small contingent to Zapad-2021 but will be using Russian tanks and infantry fighting vehicles for its part of the event.

Is Zapad an Opportunity to Learn?

Since Zapad reflects how Russia perceives the U.S. “way of war” and how it plans to deal with it, the exercise offers useful insights on Russian planning, operational concepts, and tactical developments in the armed forces. Aspects of the exercise are a publicity showpiece, but many of the training events reflect both advancements and limitations in Russian military capability and planning. Zapad should be viewed in the context of other exercises, not in isolation. Some of the more interesting insights to be gleaned will likely be about logistics, mobilization of reserves, command and control, coordination between different branches of combat arms, and the effectiveness of combat service support. These topics are not as flashy or exciting as demonstrations of new Russian missiles, but they are often far more important takeaways from the exercise.

The Russian military continues to see itself as militarily inferior to NATO, in the context of a regional or large-scale war. The Zapad series of exercises is a cogent manifestation of these concerns. That should, however, offer cold comfort. It does not mean that the Russian political leadership assesses that it lacks good military options, and perceptions of the military balance are but one input into decisions on war. Zapad is one way by which Moscow seeks to maintain coercive credibility, demonstrating it can take on a U.S.-led coalition and has options to manage escalation via conventional or nuclear weapons. It is a Russian attempt to deter what Moscow perceives as the worst-case scenario, in terms of U.S. political aims and to inspire domestic confidence in its own armed forces. Washington should pay close attention to this exercise. Despite the strong reorientation toward China in the U.S. policy establishment, Zapad serves as a reminder that Russia continues to be a capable conventional and nuclear military power. It retains the ability to upend much that is taken for granted about stability and security in Europe.

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