ZAPAD 2021 is scheduled for 10-16 September. ZAPAD (the Russian word for “west”) is a quadrennial component of annual joint strategic exercises (SSU – sovmestnyye strategicheskiye ucheniya) which rotate between Eastern, Central, Southern, and Western (Zapadnyy) Military Districts (MD). Northern Fleet, officially designated the fifth military district on 1 January 2021, is not yet integrated into the annual strategic exercise rotation but participated concurrently in ZAPAD 2017 and will again this year.
In December 2020, Defense Minister General Sergey Shoygu referred to ZAPAD 2021 as a “Russian-Belarusian strategic exercise,” noting it will be the culminating event in a year of more than 4,800 exercises. The combined-arms events in ZAPAD will take place on training ranges in Western Russia and in Belarus; as expected, Russian ground forces conducted mobilization drills in late-spring and began arriving by rail in Belarus in July.
ZAPAD 2021 will consist of two phases: a three-day defensive phase against an attack from the west, followed by a four-day counterattack to regain lost territory. Conflict escalation featuring non-strategic nuclear and strategic conventional weapon escalation will likely be exercised, as well as conflict termination. These annual Russian strategic exercises generally test a military district’s ability to operate in its assigned strategic direction, evaluate mobilization and operation by supporting military districts, and assess the competency of command elements up through the General Staff to carry out strategic operations. ZAPAD 2021 also offers a sandbox to test and evaluate new doctrine, tactics, and weapon systems.
The geostrategic context within which ZAPAD unfolds is complex and dynamic. Ties between Minsk and Moscow have strengthened in the years since ZAPAD 2017, while relations between the Russian-Belarus union and the rest of Europe are, at best, tense. Belarussian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has attempted to refocus attention away from his internal struggles by, among other things, “weaponizing” migrants from the Middle East against the West, in particular Lithuania. Indications that ethnic Russians are a part of the refugee mix attempting entry into Lithuania suggests Moscow’s complicity in creating a crisis with Vilnius.
For its part, the Northern Fleet entered a preparatory phase of training in early August. Drills included command and staff training down to the unit level, with nearly 10,000 personnel, 30 surface vessels and submarines, along with naval infantry, air, and air defense units conducting coordinated defensive exercises in the Barents and White Seas. Some Northern Fleet units, such as naval infantry, will deploy to Western MDs in supporting roles while large naval formations will remain in the Barents for defensive and offensive operations, possibly to include submarine launched ballistic missile launches (either simulated or as part of a service test protocol).
In mid-August, Northern and Baltic Fleet naval infantry units, likely including the Kaliningrad-based 336th Naval Infantry Brigade, conducted coordinated training in the Kaliningrad region to include afloat embarkation and amphibious assault drills, likely in preparation for ZAPAD. The Baltic Fleet, headquartered in the city of Kaliningrad and subordinated to the Western MD, is a multiservice command characterized by smaller naval units and complimented by more capable shore-based elements to include the 11th Army Corps and the 44th Air Defense Division, which was first to receive S-400 surface-to-air batteries outside of Moscow in 2012, a reflection of the priority Moscow has placed on the Baltic Fleet’s role in contributing to layered defense for the Western MD.
Further, Kaliningrad plays prominently when considering one of NATO’s most important strategic geographic features, the Suwałki Corridor—the 65-kilometer border between Poland and Lithuania and the land bridge between the Baltic states and greater Europe. From Moscow’s perspective, the corridor is also all what separates Belarus from Kaliningrad. Notably then, the qualitative and quantitative “deployment of Russian land forces in Kaliningrad is perfectly consistent with a hybrid or ‘stab, grab, and hold’ operation against the Suwałki Corridor.”
Large-scale exercises such as ZAPAD 2021 raise concerns in NATO and Scandinavia with respect to potential hidden agendas by Moscow against western interests, the heightened risk of escalation after an incident at sea or in the air, and as well, the side-effects of live events such as GPS jamming of civilian aircraft in Norwegian and Finish airspace during ZAPAD 2017. Moscow routinely skirts confidence and security building measures (CSBM) such as those agreed to in the OSCE Vienna Document by under-reporting troop counts or by simply conducting snap exercises which are not covered by Vienna. Rather than being transparent, Russia instead uses large exercises to intimidate.
Moscow’s messaging during ZAPAD and on its margins will include information operation themes targeted at international (focused on the EU and NATO) and domestic audiences. The level of perceived threat and intimidation from this messaging and from military movements may differ between NATO nations, and as such it will likely prompt differing responses. For example, a 2015 Russian snap exercise of Northern Fleet and WMD military units in the Barents and Baltic Seas quickly grew into a national drill. Moscow likely executed the snap readiness drill in response to the previously announced Norwegian Joint Viking and U.S. Dragon Ride exercises.
ZAPAD 2021 offers a complex set of problems for sea-service leaders in the European theater. A final more nuanced point is worth considering, particularly within the context of tensions further heightened by recent events in Afghanistan. Opposing forces operating in reaction to, and in proximity with, each other, may serve as catalyst for a security dilemma: a steady reduction in security caused by actions taken by states to increase their security in response to an opponent’s own heightened defensive measures. A research team recently documented 2,900 incidents between NATO and Russian military units between 2013 and 2020. Eighty-five percent were air-to-air, with 40 percent occurring in and around the Baltic Sea. As NATO increases its operations tempo in response to larger, more muscular Russian exercises, both sides will need to constantly self-assess and communicate with each other to prevent an unintended escalation to conflict.
1. Министерство обороны Rossiyskoy Federatsii, “Ministr oborony Rossii provel tematicheskiy konferents-zvonok,” December 4, 2020.
3. Jonas Kjellén, “The Russian Baltic Fleet, Organisation and Role within the Armed Forces in 2020,” Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI), FOI-R-5119-SE, February 2021, p. 46
4. LTG (Ret.) Ben Hodges, Janusz Bugajski, Peter B. Doran, “Securing the Suwałki Corridor – Strategy, Statecraft, Deterrence, and Defense,” Center for European Policy Analysis, July 2018, p. 39
5. OSCE Vienna Document 2011, https://www.osce.org/fsc/86597
6. John Herz first described the notion of a security dilemma in 1950 in “Idealist Internationalism and the Security Dilemma,” World Politics, Vol.2, No.2, January 1950, pp. 157-180