One of the biggest military exercises since the end of the Cold War, carried out by Russia and involving troops from Belarus, put NATO (military alliance of the West) on alert.
The Zapad (Russian West) takes place every four years, predictably, in rotation from the Russian West Military District to the Southern, Central and Eastern. It involves 200,000 men this year, and it always includes the Belarusians — 10,000 now.
But the crisis surrounding the Minsk dictatorship, which since August 2020 has tightened political repression after protests against yet another rigged election, has changed the level of tension.
Western pressure on Aleksandr Lukachenko’s regime grew, and Belarus even intercepted an Irish commercial airliner to arrest a dissident on board.
Eastern European countries in NATO bolstered their defenses, and tensions escalated further when the European Union accused Belarus of using illegal immigrants as weapons, allowing the Lithuanian and Polish borders to invade through its territory.
With all this, Vladimir Putin was able to advance one of his geopolitical dreams, that of seeing Belarus fully integrated into Russia, as in Soviet and Tsaric times. The main obstacle to this has always been Lukachenko, who has been in power since 1994.
With the dictator weakened, the Zapad-2021 became yet another instrument of Russian involvement. On Sunday, Lukachenko confirmed that he will buy $1 billion worth of Russian weapons, likely advanced S-400 anti-aircraft defense systems, one of NATO’s terrors.
More importantly, there is the expectation among Russian observers like Konstantin Frolov, a political analyst who works for an investment bank in Moscow, that some of the 2,500 Kremlin soldiers on Belarusian soil will stay there — as well as perhaps some of their systems of security. weapons.
In other years, like the controversial 2017 edition of Zapad, Lukachenko resisted this. But the political climate has changed.
The scale of the exercises, which is often relativized by analysts and exaggerated by politicians, is nevertheless enormous, and their design, designed to scare even the West.
There are 9 training camps in Russia, 5 in Belarus and actions in the Baltic Sea, a region that concentrates 40% of the 2,900 incidents between Russians and Westerners between 2019 and 2020, according to a survey by a pair of American military researchers.
In Lukachenko’s country, the total number of soldiers will be 12,800, a smart number: it is just below the 13,000 that require the presence of observers from the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe), an entity of which Moscow and Minsk are part .
In all simulations, the Kremlin reports that it limits the number of military personnel involved in each action to 6,400. NATO complained on Friday, saying it undermines transparency, while governments like Poland’s protested the war on the border.
So far, the biggest post-Cold War exercise has been Vostok (East)-2018, with 300,000 men, although analysts have questioned that scope as equivalent to a third of Russian forces.
More measurably, NATO’s biggest exercise in the period was in 2018, with 40,000 soldiers spread across Europe. The alliance has visibly increased its number of attrition point maneuvers like the Black Sea.
In Zapad, from September 10th to 12th, an attack from the west was simulated. From the 13th to the 16th, it is the turn of the counterattack and the retaking of territories. It’s self-explanatory. An obvious focus, in a real war, would be the so-called Suwalki corridor, the 65 km border between Lithuania and Poland that separates Belarus from the western Russian territory of Kaliningrad on the Baltic.
80 planes, 760 tanks, thousands of armored vehicles, 15 ships and diverse systems such as the S-400 and Iskander-M ballistic missiles are involved.
More importantly, the capacity for reaction, mobilization and the use of new technologies in the field are tested, in addition to the imagery shots from tanks, helicopters, fighter jets and warships that guarantee external propaganda.
It’s never publicized, but analysts say there’s a more secretive final phase of the exercise, simulating tactical nuclear strikes to decide the war — without a strategic escalation, the kind of planet-killing one might happen in real life.
The Kremlin always uses its annual mega-exercise politically. Last year, it mobilized 80,000 men for the Caucasus-2020 amid the crisis between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and tested weapons such as the Kalibr cruise missile.
China, with which it carried out unprecedented military maneuvers last month because it involved joint use of weapons, is a regular participant in exercises close to its sphere of influence, such as Vostok.
This year, tension is higher than usual in Europe also due to the crisis between Russia and Ukraine. In April, Putin sent 150,000 troops for exercises near the Ukrainian borders to dissuade Kiev from trying to militarily retake pro-Russian areas ruled by rebels since 2014.
Relations between neighbors have been abysmal since that year, when a coup toppled the pro-Kremlin government in Ukraine, prompting Russia to annex Crimea. This year, Putin announced 20 new military bases aimed at the West, accusing NATO of provocation.