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Russia and Belarus launch joint maneuvers

Vladimir Dorokhov
September 10, 2021

Ten countries will participate in strategic military exercises in Russia and Belarus. Neighboring countries have announced similar exercises. Observers say there is a return to a familiar Cold War routine.

A multiple rocket launcher system
The last so-called Zapad (West) war games were in 2017Image: Reuters/Vayar military information agency/Belarussian Defence Ministry

The "Zapad 2021" (West 2021) strategic exercises are set to kick off on September 10 in four training grounds in Belarus and nine in Russia. Some 200,000 soldiers will be participating in total. According to information from Minsk, only 12,800 soldiers, including 2,500 from Russia and 50 from Kazakhstan, will be involved in the first part, which is taking place on Belarusian territory.

So far, the Collective Rapid Reaction Force (CRRF) of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) have conducted military exercises in Russia and Belarus every two years. The "West" exercises last took place in 2017.

This year, forces from Armenia, Kazakhstan, India, Kirgisztan, Mongolia, Serbia and Sri Lanka will also participate in the second part on Russian soil. China, Vietnam, Myanmar, Pakistan and Uzbekistan will send observers.

Russian War Games in Belarus

Unprecedented scale

It is the unprecedented scale of the maneuvers that is different this time, said Siarhei Bohdan from the Friedrich Meinecke Institute of History at the Free University of Berlin. "The maneuvers, over which Minsk used to have an influence, are becoming a display for a huge Russian military show," he told DW.

On the other hand, he added, the fact that the Kazakh military was taking part was also an achievement for Minsk. "I think that Belarus would have wanted Kazakhstan and other countries to take part more. But this was the maximum, considering its serious political isolation." 

Russian troops at a military aerodrome
Some say the buildup of tension is reminiscent of the Cold WarImage: REUTERS

Dzianis Melyantsou of the Minsk Dialogue Council on International Relations explained to DW that the first part of the maneuver, taking place in Belarus, traditionally concentrated on defending the Russian-Belarusian "union state." This time, he said, however, fewer personnel and arms had been allocated than four years ago. He said that in the second part, Moscow sought to demonstrate "it has enough allies and can form a coalition against the West."

Military expert Vasili Kashin from the Higher School of Economics in Moscow was certain that this year's exercises were to test the operational readiness of the entire command of the Russian armed forces in case of a major conflict. "If relations between Russia and the West were more constructive, the maneuvers would look very different — and there would be many more observers," he told DW. 

Scenario of crisis and conflict

The "West 2021" maneuvers are officially premised on a scenario of crisis and conflict associated with the "increasing activities of illegal armed groups, separatist and international terror organizations with external support."

According to Siarhei Bohdan, this scenario was already rehearsed for in previous joint maneuvers. Vasili Kashin also believes that the exercises are taking place so that the militaries would be better prepared against terrorist attacks. But he added that the reference to "external support" is a sign of grave international divisions.

"Russia and the West both accuse each other of subversive activities. That reasoning simply reflects the poor state of relations between Moscow and NATO states."

Sea Breeze: On board the USS Ross

Is Moscow waging a hybrid war?

During the previous "West 2017" maneuvers, European observers feared that some Russian troops would remain in Belarus. According to Melyantsou, the reason for this fear was the tense relations between Russia and Ukraine.

There has been similar speculation this year, with some critics accusing Moscow and Minsk of waging a hybrid war: a combination of traditional military operations, cyberattacks and propaganda against the EU. He added that this, in turn, was linked to Belarus' isolation and the sanctions imposed by the West after the crackdown on mass protests against Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko in the wake of his winning presidential elections largely understood to have been rigged. He said that Lukashenko's fueling of a refugee crisis on Belarus' borders with Lithuania and Poland was a further reason.

Migrants as 'hybrid weapon'

Kashin pointed out that the time before and after the protests were two very different periods with regard to Belarusian foreign policy. "Minsk knows that it has few chances of returning to what is known as multi-vector foreign policy. For a long time, Lukashenko was able to sit on two chairs at once — but then he had to decide, which he did." He said that the Belarusian ruler now wanted to show off a new scale of military interaction with Russia.  

With reference to the reaction of the regional neighbors to the "West 2021" maneuvers, Siarhei Bohdan explained that "joint efforts 2021" maneuvers would be held at the end of September on all the Ukrainian military's training grounds, as well as in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov.

He pointed out that the armies of a dozen NATO states would participate, along with partners. "The parties are extending their maneuvers, intensifying their offensive components and even provoking each other," he added, predicting a "progressive militarization of the region, with consequences for the security and stability of the entire continent and the world."

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Belarusian counterpart Alexander LukashenkoImage: Alexei Nikolsky/TASS//picture alliance

Nobody wants to go too far

Four years ago, Melyantsou recalled, Minsk had demonstratively contradicted Moscow and moved the maneuvers to training grounds far from the state borders, demanding greater transparency with as many observers as possible. Yet at the same time, Bohdan explained, in recent years the West has accused Belarus of aggravating the situation and helping to prepare a Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Despite all the problems, Kashin thinks that the situation should not be overdramatized. "Before the meeting between Biden and Putin in Geneva in June, there was a period of extremely dangerous tension over Ukraine," he said.

"There were troop concentrations, large-scale exercises and the tone was unseemly. The summit did not change that fundamentally, but it did bring some relief."

He concluded that by conducting maneuvers almost simultaneously, the opposing sides were showing that they were ready to defend their own interests — but he was certain that nobody wanted to go too far, either. "This already looks like the Cold War routine."

This article was translated from Russian and German.