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Zapad 2021: A roar from the East?

This September alarm bells will again ring louder on the Eastern flank of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and in other capitals of the alliance. Russia’s Zapad 2021 exercise, meaning ‘West 2021’, is set to take place from 10th to 16th September across the territories of Russia and Belarus. Russia’s military exercises always provide a window into Russian military capabilities, tactics and broader strategic intentions. However, this year the quadrennial Zapad 2021 exercise is of particular importance not only because it shows-off the Russian military and has potential for escalation but also due to a significantly different geopolitical context.  

Although some information is publicly available, much is not known about the exact scale and size of the exercise. Russia claims that Zapad 2021 falls below a treaty threshold of 13,000 soldiers that would require observer teams from other European nations to take part, pointing to 12,700 troops. NATO experts believe that the numbers involved are much higher, some estimating them to be at around 60,000-70,000 troops. Yet, the exercise’s size is not all that matters.

Together with Belarus and other participants such as the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Kyrgyzstan and India, Russia will aim to projects its military power by showcasing its military equipment and test its ‘grey zone’ warfare capabilities, combining both conventional and non-conventional means, such as cyber and electronic warfare and spreading disinformation.

The last exercise in Russia’s Western Military District took place in 2017 and some observers feared that the Kremlin could use it to stage a provocation against Poland or the Baltic states, retain a military presence in Belarus, or launch a fresh assault on Ukraine. And although these concerns did not materialise four years ago, 2021 might be different. 

To start off with, over the past year Belarus’ authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko went rogue. Not only did he detain or force into exile anyone who opposed his rule and outlandishly hijack a commercial aeroplane, but he also flooded NATO neighbours with illegal migrants in response to the imposed sanctions from the Euro-Atlantic democracies. As a result, these countries have been dealing with an unseen rise in the number of migrants continuously crossing their border, forcing them to announce a state of emergency. 

The increasingly opportunistic regime in Belarus and its intimate relationship with Russia suggest that this year’s exercise may be used not only to permanently station significantly more Russian forces and equipment in the country, but also to create opportunities for the Kremlin to justify ‘peacekeeping’ and ‘assistance’ operations to support its rogue ally. 

Then there is Ukraine, which has suffered from the Russian invasion and the occupation of Crimea for the past seven years. The recent Russian military build-up with over 100,000 troops stationed next to Ukraine’s border back in April caused alarm in European capitals. Although the troops were ordered to withdraw within weeks resulting in a feeling of relief, Ukraine claims that significant numbers of Russian forces and equipment still remain in the border area. 

Finally, the recent dramatic developments in Afghanistan have understandably drawn away the free world’s attention from the region. It is crucial to anticipate and to be ready to efficiently respond to potential ‘grey zone’ threats associated with a military exercise of Zapad’s scale. Increased attention on Afghanistan might send the wrong signal and embolden Russia to engage in provocations below the threshold of traditional warfare. For example, Lukashenko’s weaponisation of migrants, the ceasefire violations in Ukraine and even Russia’s recent attempt to negatively frame the movement of HMS Defender in the Black Sea serve as good examples of grey zone warfare.

NATO allies know all too well how Russia can use military exercises as a pretext to invade neighbours. The invasion of Georgia and Ukraine both followed a series of Russian military exercises. And although in recent years NATO has woken up to the threat posed by Russia, resulting in multinational trip-wire forces stationed in the Baltic states and Poland, the military imbalance and clear grey zone warfare creates unease. Zapad 2021 once again reminds us that the security of the European continent is becoming increasingly volatile and cannot be taken for granted.

To be able to counter intimidation and aggression from Russia, free and open countries should recognise the need for a stronger focus on their ability to deter revisionist powers and defend their allies and partners. The United Kingdom (UK) clearly sees Russia as a challenger to European security and recognises the need to counter it. A coalition of European countries in the East – including Poland, the Baltic states, as well as Ukraine – are willing to pioneer a significantly more robust approach to deter the Kremlin. The UK should signal its support for them to help them prevent a potential Russian destabilisation. At the end of the day, the safety of the frontline states on the Eastern flank of NATO is vital to British security.

Viktorija Starych-Samuolienė is Co-founder and Director of Strategy at the Council on Geostrategy.

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