Zapad 2021 ends peacefully, but east-west tensions continue to simmer

The massive, Russian-Belarusian Zapad 2021 operational-strategic war games are over. The scenario of this year’s iteration of Zapad (September 10th to 16th) envisaged an attack on the Russian-Belarusian union state by a hostile external force, which is represented as the fictional “polar republic”. The invaders were eventually defeated and driven back. A joint force of Russian paratroopers, Russian 1NS Guards Tank Army and Belarusian units, supported by Russian jets and anti-aircraft missiles, took part in the Zapad exercises in western Belarus in 2021: around 2,500 Russian and 10,300 Belarusian soldiers and a symbolic contingent of 50 men from Kazakhstan (see EDM, September 9 ). .

The Belarusian strong man Alyaksandr Lukashenka watched a demonstration of wargame pyrotechnics at an army test site near Baranovichi in the west of the country. Much of the West did not recognize Lukashenka as the legitimate president of Belarus after the controversial elections on August 9, 2020. And since then the Lukashenka regime has been struggling with increasingly punitive sanctions and a downright western boycott. Apparently, the Belarusian leader hoped Zapad could positively put his country in the political spotlight in 2021, demonstrate its military and strategic importance and break the wall of Western marginalization. Minsk invited observers from the member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to Baranovichi to observe the main Zapad events, but none came. Some observers came from China, allies of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and a handful of other countries. Russian President Vladimir Putin was noticeably absent – as were the Russian top executives. Moscow was represented by a two-star general, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, the former chief of the tiny southern Russian republic of Ingushetia and now a second-tier deputy defense minister responsible for combat readiness training. Yevkurov (58) cannot be promoted to a higher rank according to the applicable regulations because he never graduated from the real military school, the Academy of the General Staff. The snub against Baranovichi infuriated Lukashenka, who accused the NATO countries of deliberately ignoring the invitation: “That is your petty and crazy position.” In any case, according to Lukashenka, the NATO members certainly observed the great Zapad 2021 exercises from afar, making various espionage tools available: “They are constantly infiltrating and spying in Belarus” (Belta.by, September 12) .

While Lukashenka struggled to maintain its prominence in Baranovichi, Putin oversaw a much more pompous parallel Zapad 2021 main event over a thousand kilometers east in the garrison and polygon city of Mulino, Nizhny Novgorod Oblast. The highest Russian military leadership was present, along with thousands of soldiers and tanks. A Belarusian army battalion and symbolic contingents from Armenia, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia also took part; Staff officers from Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka; a lot of international and Russian journalists; as well as some foreign observers (mostly military attachés accredited in Moscow). Military attachés from the countries of the North Atlantic Alliance were just as eager to come to Mulino as observers. A Moscow-based diplomatic source told this author that Western embassies in Moscow received a preliminary invitation to prepare for a trip to Mulino on September 3, 2021, but it was soon withdrawn as a “mistake”. Therefore, not a single representative of the NATO member states was invited to Mulino, only envoys from formally neutral European countries: Austria, Serbia, Finland, Sweden and Switzerland (Interfax, September 13).

After the mulino wargame demonstration – complete with many pyrotechnic performances – Putin was completely isolated because “several dozen people in his personal environment” tested positive for COVID-19 (all of them were previously vaccinated). As a result, the Kremlin leader is currently ruling Russia and is only meeting people from afar as troops move to their home bases (TASS, September 16). According to the Russian Defense Ministry, around 200,000 soldiers took part in Zapad 2021. The official number of heavy equipment involved is less impressive: 760 heavy weapons, 15 ships and around 80 aircraft. In March and April 2021, the Russian armed forces were fully mobilized in a so-called “battle readiness test” and were concentrated in large numbers near the Ukrainian border. Russia’s first deputy defense minister and chief of staff, Army General Valery Gerasimov, told journalists at the time that more than 300,000 men, 35,000 heavy weapons, 180 ships and around 900 aircraft were used in the spring test of “battle readiness” (Militarynews .ru, April 29). Gerasimov’s figures do not seem entirely correct: the number of various heavy equipment listed is too large compared to the number of men allegedly mobilized; and those numbers are actually 10 to 20 times higher than the numbers officially announced for Zapad 2021. It could be that in April many thousands or tens of thousands of men were not officially “over 300,000” (Novaya Gazeta, 09/14).

The massive “combat readiness test” from March to April took place without warning; no foreign military or other observers were invited; and the entire incident received little coverage in the Russian press. The Zapad exercises in 2021 (although smaller in scope than the “combat readiness test”) were announced a year in advance, with extensive press trips organized for Western and other media. Nevertheless, Western military observers were deliberately forbidden to visit the fireworks in Mulino in the presence of Putin on September 12, which is a clear violation of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Vienna Document on confidence- and security-building measures. A Western diplomatic source in Moscow told this author that this deliberate public snub is a most ominous sign of how badly relations have deteriorated. Today, as at the height of the Cold War, Moscow and the West appear like mortal enemies on the verge of war.

Tatyana Shevtsova, Russia’s deputy defense minister in charge of finance, announced during Zapad 2021 that an “innovative” program to finance wartime troops through branch offices of the Treasury, the Bank of Russia and commercial banks will be tested. This system is designed to provide money to troops deployed in the field during the war, “including rubles and foreign currency” (Militarynews.ru, August 9). Shevtsova did not explain what foreign currencies would be provided. It might depend on where Russian soldiers want to go: euros or dollars, Polish zlotys or Norwegian kroner, Ukrainian hryvnia or Belarusian rubles. The fact that such a scheme was tested during these massive war games is another ominous sign. These announced preparations for wartime foreign currency payments to Russian troops believed to be operating deep in enemy territory could be part of a deliberate attempt to get Westerners to accept Russia’s military dominance and geopolitical ambitions.

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