On Friday Russia and its longtime isolated former Soviet satellite ally Belarus kicked off what’s being described as Europe’s largest military drills in decades, involving up to 200,000 troops – including elite paratroopers – nearly 800 tanks, and 15 warships plus 80 aircraft, according to Russian defense ministry (MoD) figures.
Dubbed ‘Zapad-2021’ – the exercises are taking place jointly at nine Russian and five Belarusian ranges and bases, with close to 13,000 Russian troops being hosted on Belarusian soil. By comparison, one of NATO’s recent and largest exercises in Europe, Trident Juncture 2018, involved only 40,000 troops.
“The objectives of the exercise are to check readiness levels and the Belarusian and Russian military command bodies’ ability to jointly ensure military security and territorial integrity,” the Russian MoD said in a statement.
The games additionally have the participation of the militaries of Armenia, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia, the MoD has confirmed.
The drills will test the allied militaries’ “interaction during combat operations and letting commanders and staff practice troop management during joint actions in repelling aggression against the Union State,” the Russian military added, referencing the agreement going back to 1999 in which the two countries committed to deeper political and economic integration.
NATO said that it was not invited to send observers to the games, and urged Russia and Belarus to “act in a predictable and transparent way.” A NATO spokeswoman said “This is especially important when there is increased military activity along our borders, to reduce risks and avoid any accidents or incidents.”
According to analysis in War on the Rocks, Russia is preparing to defend against a Ukraine scenario akin to 2014 and 2015, but centering on Belarus:
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.
One Russian military analyst, Robert Lee, explained to US state-funded RFE/RL that such a joint exercises is geared toward anticipating future West-backed Color Revolutions: “We know that Russia has wanted to expand its military footprint in Belarus, and this exercise may give us an indication of what Belarus would allow.”
“It could also involve greater integration of Russian and Belarusian military and security services to put down a Color Revolution-type scenario in Belarus,” the analyst added.