Periodic Intimidation of Russia: ZAPAD 2021

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All steps taken by global power countries are carefully examined. New developments around the exercises carried out by Russia are also worth investigating in this context. Russia’s drills have started to be carried out more strongly, regionally and annually, after the military structure was updated in 2013. Drills are carried out in a cycle of “4 years-5 regions” such as Zapad (“West”, 2009-2013-2017), Vostok (“East” 2010-2014-2018), Tsentr (“Center” 2011-2015-2019) and Kavkaz (“Caucasus” 2012-2016-2020).[1]

In addition to these main exercises, smaller exercises are also carried out throughout the year in line with a specific plan. The most recent exercise to be put forward in accordance with the calendar is ZAPAD-2021. Russia has announced that it will conduct various exercises, three of which are with Belarus, until the ZAPAD-2021 exercise. According to Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, the exercises are aimed at increasing cooperation with the allies and testing whether the army’s capacity is ready for defense.[2] However, as in all studies carried out by Russia, another purpose in these exercises is to show its power to the international public opinion and to raise the image of Russia against the United States of America (USA) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries.

In addition to aforemention drill, smaller-scale cooperation and drills were conducted throughout the year with states such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. In addition to these, the ZAPAD/INTERACTION-2021 exercise, the predecessor of ZAPAD-2021, carried out jointly by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and the Russian Army, was held in the city of Qingtongxia in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region in western China between 9-14 August 2021.[3] The focus of this exercise is not the NATO threat; domestic politics and Central Asia.

The two states, sharing their knowledge and experience with each other in the fight against terrorism and in domestic politics, are trying to produce common policies in line with similar interests in Afghanistan, where the USA has withdrawn. Since the implementation of coordinated policies is aimed, the naming of ZAPAD-“Interaction” clearly conveys the desired message. In the exercise, in which many different military inventories were tested with approximately 10,000 soldiers, harmonious studies were observed.[4]

It is reported that the scale of the exercise is greater than the capacity of the Slavic Brotherhood-2020 held in the Brest Range of the 38th Airborne Brigade, close to the Polish border, with the participation of the Russian, Serbian and Belarusian armies in the west of Belarus in 2020.[5] ​Lukashenko claimed that after the “Slavic Brotherhood-2020”, NATO carried out military exercises in Belarus’ neighbors Poland and Lithuania and increased the number of weapons there.[6]

The aforementioned statement clearly reveals Belarus’ dissatisfaction with NATO and its exercises. In a poll conducted in Poland before ZAPAD-2021 on August 18, 2021, to the question of ‘Can Russia attack Poland?’ 34% of Poles said “yes”; 8% responded as “definitely will”. While 35 percent answered “no”; 11% said “they cannot do it with certainty”.[7] Even if Russia and Poland have joint exercises and studies, the fear of a part of the people is visible.

Lithuania, on the other hand, raises the accusation that Belarus is directing illegal immigration activities to their countries and reports the situation to NATO. This is considered as a hybrid activity carried out by Russia through Belarus.[8] It will not be difficult to say that every work that countries in the region do with NATO will be responded to by Moscow. The move to remove Estonia, Slovakia, Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania from their supply chains via Nord Stream Pipelines can be seen as a punishment for these countries’ relations with NATO.

Even though the Slavic Brotherhood-2020 Exercise, held in September 2020, conducted only in the west of Belarus, the ZAPAD-2021 exercises will cover almost the entire territory of Belarus  according to the intent. It has been reported that there will be two exercise areas in Russia and five in Belarus. Bases in Belarus; Minsk (Barysaw, Ozerishche), Viciebsk (Viciebsk, Zaslonava, Stolbtsy), Mahilioŭ (Osipovichi), Brest (Baranavichi) and Hrodna (Lososna).[9]

ZAPAD-2017 was held at six locations in Belarus (Lepelsky, Losvido, Borisovsky, Osipovichesky, Ruzhansky, Domanovsky+Dretun Training Site) and at three locations in Russia (Luzhsky, Strugi Krasnye and Pravdinsky). Approximately 12,700 soldiers, of which 7,200 were Belarusians and 5,500 Russians, participated in the exercise. In addition, approximately 70 aircraft, nearly 250 tanks and warships were used in the exercise.[10]

Belarusian Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin invited Kazakhstan to participate in the ZAPAD-2021 Belarusian-Russian strategic exercises and the Nur-Sultan administration announced that they would also participate in the ZAPAD-2021 exercises. Thus, 12,800 military personnel are expected to participate in ZAPAD-2021, including 2,500 Russian, 50 Kazakh and the rest Belarusian soldiers.[11] Although the number of military personnel varies between 100,000 and 200,000 in the exercises held in eastern Russia, the military activities carried out in European zones were prepared for the sake of limitation and observation.

The exercises to be carried out as a result of the 2011 Vienna Document are very close to the limits set in the number of personnel (13,000).[12] Russia sometimes avoids observation and control by conducting raid exercises In accordance with Articles 41 and 41.1 of the document, because of the condition of giving prior notice in planned exercises. Between 2013 and 2017, the Moscow administration conducted 24 raid exercises.[13] However, periodic exercises such as ZAPAD are not exempt from the requirement of prior notice if they are exceeded, as they are within the scope of planned exercises.

Although it is claimed in the media that the number of military personnel to participate is much higher,[14] it is not legally possible to experience such an increase in the exercise in which observers and media from many countries will take part. However at ZAPAD-2017, there are some unease about transparency, as Russia suddenly makes additional troop shipments out of schedule. [15] When asked about inviting Western countries to the exercise meeting, Lukashenko replied as: “Of course we will. Let them watch. We are ready to show the state of our armies and the level of our training” said.[16]

In the exercise, the Baltic Fleet, which was established in 2019 in Kaliningrad, Russia’s western territory, is also expected to be tested at full capacity for the first time.[17] This situation, which is one of the most important points of ZAPAD-2021, can be interpreted as a strong message to be given to Western countries. Such an exercise, which is held at full technical and military capacity on the western borders, causes the countries of the region to worry. In line with the aforementioned concerns, it is seen that European countries have shown some reactions, albeit inadequate.

Kaliningrad is a critical region that Russia took from Germany at the end of the Second World War. On August 27, 2021, it was seen that election posters of some German political parties, dating from 1949, indicating Kaliningrad as German territory, were hung on the streets of Germany. The German police launched an investigation for the incident, which was condemned by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It is significant that the event took place before the ZAPAD-2021 Exercise, in which the Baltic Fleet established in Kaliningrad would also participate.[18]

Another point that will make ZAPAD-2021 different from other exercises is that tank support vehicles called “Terminator” (BMPT) will be used in the exercise. According to the statement of the Russian Ministry of Defense, it is stated that the vehicles, which differ from normal tanks with a vertical aiming angle of 45 degrees, use a system that no army in the world has yet.It is reported that BMPTs, whose entire crew is in the hull, can also hit low-flying targets. According to sources, it is estimated that BMPTs will be in Belarusian tank battalions alongside the 1st Guards Tank Army of Russia’s Western Military District. As it can be understood, it can be thought that these vehicles, which are more agile than a tank, will be vehicles that can be used as a result of major problems that may arise in the residential area.[19] Therefore, these UNPTs, which have the potential to be used in areas such as Ukraine, can strengthen Russia’s hand.

In addition to all these, it is stated that electronic warfare systems will also be used at some stages of the exercise, and for this reason, interruptions may occur in GSM operators and data flow systems in the region. Russia’s series of exercises this year is expected to end with the “Peace Mission 2021 Exercise”, which will be held in September during the ZAPAD-2021 period, in which the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) members will participate. [20]

It has been reported that some of the military units came to the Ukrainian border again due to the ZAPAD-2021 exercise to be held after Russia reduced its military presence on the Crimean border to a small extent. Ukraine, which is waiting for the exercise with great concern, has expanded its measures by increasing its military presence on the border of Crimea, as it describes the military mobility in the region as a threat.

The “Sea Breeze-2021 Exercise”, which was held between June 28 and July 10, 2021 with the participation of more than 30 countries under the leadership of Ukraine and the USA, was held in the northwest of the Black Sea as the largest exercise since 1997. Before the aforementioned exercise, there was a tension between the British warship “Defender” and the Russian forces’ alleged border violation. Generally, “Sea Breeze Exercises” are perceived by Russia as a threat to NATO.[21] herefore, the performance of ZAPAD-2021 is expected to be a response and a show of strength.

In spite of the announcements that ZAPAD-2021 will be held in the last half of 2020, the international press is reporting these exercises as if they had never been declared before. The exercises are not held in response to another exercise in retaliation, but are officially announced a certain time in advance within the framework of annual calendars. The fact that the press organs serve these exercises at once and as a response to another event causes people to worry; At some point, it also ensures that the citizens stay politically alive.

Besides of all these, the use of the US’s B-52H aircraft capable of carrying nuclear weapons during the 50th Baltic Operations (BALTOPS 50), the leading maritime-focused exercise of the Baltic Region, organized by 16 NATO allies and two partner countries between 6-18 June 2021, Moscow described as a “provocation”. [22] Throughout the year, provocative activities were carried out in exercises such as Sea Breeze and BALTOPS 50, and for this reason, it was expected that similar responses would be given in the exercises to be organized by Russia.

An important reason why the countries of the region are worried about the exercise is the observation of the Russian troops transported to the region logistically. Railway logistics, one of the most important parts of Russia’s logistics activities, was followed up before the exercise. As a result of this tracks, an activity was observed that could dispatch much more than the stated number of military personnel and ammunition. This situation made us think about the possibility that the exercise could be a preparation for an operation. Although the mentioned shipment is an important argument, it is not a sufficient indicator for the operation to take place. However, it is not easy to predict what could happen as a result of the tension that may be experienced in the drill combined with these factors.[23]

Countries in the region, especially Ukraine and Poland, perceive ZAPAD-2021 and other Russian exercises as a risk that could turn into potential invasion attempts. These concerns are based on past experiences. Therefore, it is not empty and unimportant. However, it is not a problem that Moscow sees as an acute problem in the current situation.

When evaluated in terms of Ukraine and Europe, the Russian Army’s capture of Crimea in 2014 after the ZAPAD-2013 Exercise is enough to explain the current concern. For this reason, the expectation of an operation in Donbas and its surroundings explains the reason why Ukraine and Russia stand ready. After the Vostok 2014 Exercise, Russia’s involvement in Syria in 2015 proves the possibility of the exercises turning into a real operation.

As can be understood, Russia’s exercises enabled it to intervene quickly in Ukraine and Syria. The most worrying issue is that the Russian troops remain in the exercise area after the exercise. As it will be remembered, after the Caucasus Exercise in 2008, 40,000 Russian soldiers remained on the Georgian border and on August 7, 2008, the operation began in Georgia. As a result of international pressure, the Russian Army was stopped in Tbilisi.

On the other hand, with the same logic, despite the expectation of a new invasion attempt after the ZAPAD VOSTOK, TSENTR and KAVKAZ exercises, one of which is held every year, these thoughts have failed many times. Therefore, it will not be known clearly whether Russia is preparing for any invasion in ZAPAD-2021. In this case, if an operation against Donbas is not encountered, the ZAPAD-2021 Exercise can be read as an attempt to increase the determination and deterrence of the Vladimir Putin administration in the region rather than a new intervention by Russia. In addition, the fact that the countries of the region are worried based on past experiences ensures that Moscow creates a climate of fear during the exercise times, without any real operational activities. This is on advantage of Russia politically.

Trying to spread the idea that the people of Crimea want Russia, reminding them of a common history and Russian identity, supporting the actions of small groups, using data flow systems as the primary factor in military operations, and creating a climate of fear through exercises… In fact, the common point of many factors that seem to be independent from each other is Russia. It is the article titled “The Value of Science in Foresight” by Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff, published in 2013.

“Hybrid warfare” techniques, known as the “Gerasimov Doctrine”, is a war concept that cannot be seen at first glance, enabling the support of non-military rather military targets. In summary, to think that Gerasimov, who is believed to have a large share in Russia’s political and military line, directly affected Russian political life; To say that he is behind the intimidation, operations, perception studies and similar activities may be a comment that focuses on the ignored issues. However, the most efficient way to read the future of the policy implemented by the Putin administration is to focus on the background of the developments.[24]

[1] “100,000 Troops Will Engage in Russia’s Zapad-2017 War Games”, Washington Post,, (Accessed Date: 29.08.2021).

[2] “В Белоруссии указали на оборонительный характер учений «Запад-2021»”, Известия (Izvestiya),, (Accessed Date: 29.08.2021).

[3] Emrah Kaya, “Çok Kutupluluğa Geçişte Dönüm Noktası: Zapad/Interaction-2021 Tatbikatı”, ANKASAM,, (Accessed Date: 29.08.2021).

[4] “China-Russia military drill expected to focus on security in Central Asia”, SCMP,, (Accessed Date: 29.08.2021).

[5] “Belarus, Rusya’dan yeni savaş uçakları alacak”, Star,, (Accessed Date: 29.08.2021).

 [6] “Belarus’ta ‘Slav Kardeşliği-2020’ uluslararası askeri tatbikatı düzenlenecek”, Anadolu Ajansı,, (Accessed Date: 26.08.2021).

[7] “Поляки не смогли определиться, боятся они вторжения России или нет”, RIA Novosti,, (Accessed Date: 27.08.2021).

[8] “NATO Chief Flags Baltic Tensions Ahead of Zapad Military Drill”, Defence News,, (Accessed Date: 26.08.2021).

[9] “Military Exercises Zapad-2021: Who, When and Where”, Inform Napalm,, (Accessed Date: 27.08.2021).

[10] “Russian Defence Minister Summed up Zapad 2017 Exercise”, Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation,, (Accessed Date: 29.08.2021).

[11] “Белоруссия пригласила Казахстан поучаствовать в учениях “Запад-2021””, Radio Sputnik,, (Accessed Date: 29.08.2021).

[12] “Vienna Document 2011”, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe,, (Accessed Date: 27.08.2021).

[13] Dave Johnson, “ZAPAD 2017 ve Avrupa-Atlantik Güvenliği”, NATO,, (Accessed Date: 27.08.2021).

[14] Konrad Muzyka”, Zapad-2021 Strategic-Operational Exercise – Part 5 (Belarusian units in Russia)”, Rochan Consulting,, (Accessed Date: 29.08.2021).

[15] Arseni Sivitski, “Zapad-2017: Belarus between Its Ally Obligations&Regional Security Commitments”, Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies,, (Accessed Date: 01.09.2021).

[16] “В Белоруссии раскрыли детали учений “Запад-2021””, Novosti,, (Accessed Date: 01.09.2021).

[17] “Обновленную   авиацию   Балтийского   флота   опробуют   на   учениях  «Запад-2021»”,  Izvestiya,, (Accessed Date: 01.09.2021)

[18] “В Германии начато расследование из-за появления на улицах плакатов 72-летней давности “, Ruptly Russia,, (Accessed Date: 29.08.2021).

[19] “Премьера «Терминатора»: боевые машины испытают на учениях «Запад-2021»”, Izvestiya,, (Accessed Date: 01.09.2021).

[20] “Шойгу заявил об оборонительном характере учений «Запад-2021»”, Izvestiya,, (Accessed Date: 31.08.2021).

[21] “Karadeniz’de “Sea Breeze 2021” Tatbikatı Sona Erdi” TRT Haber,, (Accessed Date: 26.08.2021).

[22] “BALTOPS 2021 Maritime-Focused Exercise in the Baltic Region Has Kicked Off”, Naval News,, (Accessed Date: 28.08.2021).

[23] Konrad Muzyka, “Russia Goes to War: Exercises, Signaling, War Scares, and Military Confrontations”, CSIS,, (Accessed Date: 28.08.2021).

Utkuhan Yıldırım attained his undergraduate degree at Karabük University, Department of Political Science and Public Administration. Continuing his master's degree at Karabuk University Graduate Education Institute, Department of Regional Studies, Yıldırım is interested in diplomacy crisis management, decision making theories, and international organisations. Speaking English at an advanced level, Yıldırım contributes to the endeavors of ANKASAM.