Russia’s quadrennial large-scale military exercise Zapad 2021 will take place September 10 through 16 in the country’s western military district. The exercise is organized jointly with Belarus. Many think tanks and policy experts in the U.S. and Estonia are already looking at possible scenarios for the exercise and security implications for the region. Below is a summary of what has been published so far and more analysis to come.
In the past, Zapad has raised concerns over the Kremlin’s intentions and provocations toward its western neighbors and NATO. According to Wikipedia, Zapad 2009 included “a simulated nuclear attack against Poland and the suppression of an uprising by a Polish minority in Belarus.” The Jamestown Foundation cited reports of Zapad 2013 indicating that “the training scenario featured an attack and/or landing by ‘Baltic terrorists’ targeting Belarus in which these forces held out despite numerous assaults by the Russo-Belarusian defenders.” Zapad 2017 was a complex strategic exercise that employed forces from all of its five geographical military districts and its sixth “Information Military District.” NATO’s comprehensive summary of Zapad 2017, titled ZAPAD 2017 and Euro-Atlantic security, is available at www.nato.int/docu/review by searching for articles from 2017 in the Select Date field.
NATO’s summary includes data showing that the Kremlin has consistently evaded the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) requirements for outside observers of largescale exercises. The OSCE’s Vienna Document is a set of confidence building measures aimed at reducing the risk of conflict. It seeks to ensure exercise transparency among OSCE member nations by setting the threshold for military drills without inviting international observers at 13,000 deployed troops. In 2013 and 2017, Russia underreported participating troop levels by a factor of five or more. Pre-exercise maneuvers so far this year indicate the threshold again will be exceeded by at least as large a margin.
Political shifts since the last exercise will likely be evident in this year’s iteration. In 2017, Minsk was not as politically aligned to Moscow as it is currently and invited observers from seven countries, including the Baltic nations, and several international agencies in an effort to distance itself from the exercise and reassure western neighbors. For Zapad 2021, given the dire political situation in Belarus and Lukashenka’s dependence on Putin for support, demonstrating Belarusian loyalty to the Kremlin will be a high priority. There are reports that Lukashenka will welcome Russian soldiers to remain in Belarus after the exercise, which was not the case in 2017. The Atlantic Council’s analysis of this aspect of Zapad, along with implications for Ukraine, can be found at www.atlanticcouncil.org by searching for Brian Whitmore and scrolling to his post from July 28, 2021.
Speculation on the main exercise scenario seems focused on Russia’s response to an escalation of the political-military situation in Belarus, though it’s likely that other facets will play out in conventional and hybrid contexts. Jamestown and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) both took deep dives into Russia’s military activities leading up to Zapad and implications for the exercise, neighboring countries, and regional security. Those articles are available at jamestown.org under Programs and Eurasia Daily Monitor, and www.csis.org by searching for Zapad. The Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) also held an event on August 5th looking at various aspects of the exercise, including its context in NATO-U.S.-Russia relations and security, the importance of international observers, and defining what Russian military movements are actually part of Zapad vs. what is declared. That event is posted at cepa.org under Events.
Estonian and other Baltic officials have spoken about the importance of cooperation leading up to the exercise. According to news.err.ee on April 21, 2021, Estonian Defense Minister Kalle Laanet and his Lithuanian counterpart Arvydas Anušauskas agreed that “[m]aintaining and raising situational awareness, as well as assessing a defensive and deterrence posture on a flexible basis, [are] key for all three Baltic states come August, when Zapad starts.” Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid raised the possibility that the migrant crisis on Lithuania’s border with Belarus might be tied to the exercise. This report is available at www.baltictimes.com on July 30th. On August 1st, kaitseministeerium.ee reported that senior U.S. and Estonian officials have agreed to regularly share information on the Lithuania-Belarus border situation “to prevent an escalation of events in light of Zapad 2021 strategic exercise … and with the Russian Federation troops massed on the Ukrainian border, still there.”
The Estonian Council on Foreign Relations (Eesti Välissuhete Nõukoda or EVN) is holding a members-only live event on the exercise on August 26th that might be posted on their website afterwards at www.evn.ee. More information is shown on the accompanying graphic. The Estonian American National Council (EANC), along with its Central and East European Coalition (CEEC) colleagues, will host a live post-Zapad analysis event the week of September 20th. EANC will provide more details here as they become available.