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How Russia used the military exercise "Zapad-2021" to achieve political goals

Zapad
©EPA-EFE/SERGEI SAVOSTYANOV /KREMLIN POOL/SPUTNIK POOL  |   Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and russian defence Minister sergei Shoigu watch the main stage of the Zapad-2021 joint military drills held by Russia and Belarus, at Mulino training ground in Nizhny Novgorod region, Russia, 13 September 2021.

"Zapad-2021" was an impressive military exercise, in which about 200 thousand people took part. 12,500 troops demonstrated their combat skills at the “Obuz-Lisnovsky” training ground in Belarus, and a fifth of those were Russian. The main events of the exercises took place in Russia, especially at the Mulino training ground, which was visited by Vladimir Putin.

It is significant that Putin and Lukashenko did not appear as a military-political duet at one of the training grounds. This is all the more interesting since the start of the exercises on September 10 was preceded by a three-hour meeting between Putin and Lukashenko. After that, it was announced that 28 roadmaps for the creation of the Union State would be approved. The signing of documents on deepening integration has been announced for the autumn of this year. I would like to emphasize that we are not talking about a common currency and supranational bodies, as the relevant roadmaps for those have not been agreed yet.

It is worth noting that Lukashenko, against the background of the Zapad-2021 exercises, made demonstrative concessions to Russia, which he avoided for many years. Russian fighters were deployed to the airbase near Baranovichi. A joint combat training center has been announced, with Russian pilots on alert. On the western border of Belarus, according to Lukashenko, the Russian S-400 air defense system will be deployed. He also announced the need to cover the border with Ukraine with air defense systems, thereby contradicting his previous rhetoric.

The most important in the context of European security is Lukashenka's statement on the forthcoming purchase of Russian weapons - aircraft, helicopters, air defense systems - in the amount of $ 1 billion. Considering that the gold and foreign exchange reserves of Belarus amount to 7.4 billion dollars, such spending of funds does not seem very rational. It cannot be ruled out that we are talking about the transfer of Russian equipment to the territory of Belarus, probably with Russian military specialists who may be dressed in the uniform of the Armed Forces of Belarus. The new version of the "little green men'' with the insignia of a foreign army will have a real impact on European security.

The Zapad series of exercises started in 2017, basically going on the footsteps of Soviet era war games. From the very beginning, these exercises brought into spotlight questions about the vulnerability of the so-called Sawalki gap – a strip of Polish land caught, on the one hand, between Belarus and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, and on the other between the NATO mainland and the Alliance’s Baltic members –, and about the ability of Russian troops from the territory of Belarus to strike at neighboring states like Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. Zapad also caused increased anxiety in Ukraine, which in 2014 was a victim of Russian hybrid aggression with the use of a military component. The thousand-kilometer border of Ukraine and Belarus was perceived in the media as a possible new arc of tension. Four years later, these questions are increasingly relevant and the vulnerabilities they disclose are increasingly worrisome, and yet nothing happened in this period, NATO didn’t even consolidate its border with Belarus, as it became apparent in the summer of 2021, when Minsk used illegal migrants to pressure its neighbors. The Alliance simply seems to lack any significant plans to counter o possible Russian hybrid offensive against its own members.

If we talk about hybrid factors around the exercises "Zapad", it is worth using a retrospective. On August 24, 2017, FSB officers abducted and deported 19-year-old Pavel Hryb to Ukraine in Gomel, Belarus. A citizen of Ukraine was abducted on the territory of a neighboring state to spoil Ukrainian-Belarusian relations. He was accused in Russia of preparing a terrorist act against a school. Hryb was exchanged in September 2019, and he returned to Ukraine.

Today, relations between Belarus and Ukraine have deteriorated significantly in connection with the events that took place after the 2020 presidential election. At the same time, Kyiv continues to avoid imposing sectoral sanctions against Belarus, similar to those imposed by EU countries.

The "Zapad-2021" exercise was preceded by another emergency – the forced landing in Minsk on May 23, 2021 of a RyanAir airline en route from Athens to Vilnius. The purpose of the hybrid use of ICAO security rules in the interests of the Belarusian authorities was to capture opposition journalist Roman Protasevich, who was involved in the NEXTA telegram channel. The result of this step was not only the satisfaction of Alexander Lukashenko's ego, but also the sharp deterioration of Belarus' relations with the EU and the United States. Against this background, Russia looks almost like the only ally of Belarus.

Thus, Zapad 2021 had a multi-purpose - it was a show of force for Russia's perceived adversaries, NATO, especially in the Baltic region, and Ukraine. Secondly, it helped Moscow advance its objectives in the Belarus.

The timing of the Zapad-2021 exercises (September 10-15) demonstrates that it was important for the Kremlin to ensure the return of military personnel to their places of permanent deployment to participate in the elections to the State Duma. Its formation and confirmation of its legitimacy by the West looks like a priority for Putin. He prefers to use force to intimidate the West rather than direct aggression. And his interest, among other things, lies in the appearance in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) of newly elected Russian Duma members, whose biographies include war crimes in Donbass.

Today, the instrument for strengthening the Kremlin's position is the price of natural gas, which is breaking price records on European markets. The Kremlin is selling the specter of a cold winter to European citizens, hoping that they will begin to put pressure on their governments to bring the NordStream2 gas pipeline into operation as soon as possible. I would like to note that the completion of the construction of the second stage of the Russian-German project is accompanied by massive information support. Along with using fakes on a global scale and discrediting Ukraine, Putin is betting on hybrid aggression. Unfortunately, the reaction of the world community since 2014 demonstrates that  he played a winning hand in a situation where Russia's resources are limited.


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  • The Russian-Belarusian exercise "Zapad-2021" has become the object of increased attention from the neighbors of the two countries. But this event on the military-political map of Europe was only used as a distraction by the Kremlin.
  • It is worth noting that Lukashenko, against the background of the Zapad-2021 exercises, made demonstrative concessions to Russia, which he avoided for many years. Russian fighters were deployed to the airbase near Baranovichi. A joint combat training center has been announced, with Russian pilots on alert. On the western border of Belarus, according to Lukashenko, the Russian S-400 air defense system will be deployed. He also announced the need to cover the border with Ukraine with air defense systems, thereby contradicting his previous rhetoric.
  • The Zapad series of exercises started in 2017, basically going on the footsteps of Soviet era war games. From the very beginning, these exercises brought into spotlight questions about the vulnerability of the so-called Sawalki gap – a strip of Polish land caught, on the one hand, between Belarus and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, and on the other between the NATO mainland and the Alliance’s Baltic members –, and about the ability of Russian troops from the territory of Belarus to strike at neighboring states like Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. Zapad also caused increased anxiety in Ukraine, which in 2014 was a victim of Russian hybrid aggression with the use of a military component.
  • Zapad 2021 had a multi-purpose - it was a show of force for Russia's perceived adversaries, NATO, especially in the Baltic region, and Ukraine. Secondly, it helped Moscow advance its objectives in the Belarus.
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