The United States and its NATO allies have ceded the geopolitical advantage to Russia for many years now. Two examples of this would be Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 and Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014. But the time is now ripe to seize the advantage back, and the joint Russia-Belarus Zapad-2021 military exercises, which are set to begin on Sept. 10, are the place to start.
It seems that the Biden administration’s stance when it comes to Russia is that the United States and NATO should avoid doing anything to upset Russian President Vladimir Putin. We saw examples of this when President Joe Biden dropped the U.S.’ opposition to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline—which was an economic gift to Russia—and Biden’s fairly unproductive meeting with Putin at the Geneva Summit in June.
The Biden administration and NATO have been hesitant to speak up about the upcoming Zapad war games, scheduled for mid-September. Held every four years, this year’s Zapad is expected to dwarf its 2017 predecessor.
The war games will occur against an increasingly tense backdrop of great power competition between Russia and the U.S. and Russia and NATO, and amidst Russia’s continuing pressure on Ukraine. In addition, Russia’s close ally, Belarus, which is participating in the war games, is going through a deterioration of relations with the West.
In real terms, we know little about what has been described as a stress test of Russian military forces, except that Zapad will be massive and largely opaque to the outside world.
Moscow will likely again play down the numbers involved in the exercise to support its refusal to live by its Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe obligations under the 2011 Vienna Document, which requires states conducting maneuvers involving more than 13,000 troops to provide advance notice to other countries and to be open to observers.
There are concerns that some in the Biden administration will want to restrict future NATO military exercises or increase the transparency of NATO operations to appease Moscow.
Zapad-2021 is scheduled for Sept. 10-16 and will involve Russia, Belarus, and to a much lesser extent, Kazakhstan, which will provide forces for the joint exercises in both Belarus and Russia.
Much of what we know of Zapad comes from Belarusian chief of defense staff and first deputy minister of defense, Maj. Gen. Viktor Gulevich. According to Gulevich during a press conference, the exercises are geared to gauge how Russian and Belarusian forces can operate together in case “opposing forces” pose a threat in the future. The opposing forces are described as “illegal armed groups, separatist and international terrorist organizations with external support.”
In other words, NATO.
Training exercises will center around the creation of a regional grouping of forces, maneuver warfare, command and control, air and sea defense, testing and proving new concepts of operations, and airborne assault.
The joint exercises are said to include approximately 12,800 troops on Belarusian territory, with both Belarus and Russia deploying 350 armored fighting vehicles, including 140 tanks, around 110 pieces of artillery, and more than 30 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters.
Gulevich said Belarus will deploy 400 troops and 30 items of military hardware to Russia, while Kazakhstan will provide 50 troops. It appears the remaining number of troops will come from Russia.
But recent estimates, based on remarks by Russian Maj. Gen. Yevgeny Ilyin, suggest that Zapad-2021 will involve some 200,000 personnel; 80 combat helicopters and aircraft; 760 vehicles, including 290 tanks; 240 artillery pieces, multi-launch rocket systems, and mortars; and 15 warships.
The numbers leave little doubt that this will be a massive test of Russian military power. The numbers are also well over the 13,000-troop threshold allowed by the 2011 Vienna Document.
In early August, more than 10,000 Chinese and Russian soldiers were involved in Zapad Interaction-2021 war games in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, which also showcased large numbers of equipment between the two countries.
During the same time period, some 10,000 Russian land, sea, and air forces of the Northern Fleet, including 30 warships and submarines, conducted deep strike, defensive, and amphibious operations in the Atlantic Ocean and the Barents and Norwegian Seas.
Additionally, there are still an estimated 80,000 Russian troops and their equipment still in place around Ukraine that have been in place since roughly March or April of this year, after a massive Russian buildup on the country’s borders.
More exercises are likely to be part of the typical Russian “shell game” approach to military exercises that seeks to hide their true size and capabilities, either by understating the forces involved or by holding several exercises around the same time and declaring them discrete operations that aren’t part of Zapad.
The fact that the Zapad exercises will be conducted in such proximity to Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland—all members of NATO—and Ukraine does pose a threat to these nations. Especially if Russia decides to go from war games to the offensive, as it did with Georgia in 2008.
Based on what we know and have seen from Russian operations in March and April around Ukraine, as well as with past Zapad operations and what has appeared in the press and other open-source outlets, we can likely expect from Zapad-2021 to see increased interoperability of Russian and Belarusian forces, the replacement of old equipment with new, forward deployments of Russian forces in Belarus that will remain post-Zapad-2021, a revamping of logistics hubs, electronic warfare, the integration of artificial intelligence, and hybrid warfare.
For the purpose of greater security and confidence-building in Europe, Russia should welcome foreign observers and increase its transparency about these exercises. But Moscow, unsurprisingly, has taken the opposite approach.
Russia has held the geopolitical advantage in Europe since its 2008 war with Georgia, and has continued to hold that initiative with the ongoing illegal occupation of Crimea and the war in the Donbas, while NATO has been left to ponder and try and deter Moscow’s next move in the region. Russia also continues to try to subvert both the European Union and NATO through political and hybrid warfare.
Frankly, this must change.
There are five measures that the Biden administration and NATO could take to push back on Putin and strengthen European security.
First and foremost, the United States acquiesced to Russia and to German interests over the Nord Stream 2 pipeline—something it did not do for its closest neighbor and ally Canada when it blocked the Keystone pipeline. The Biden administration could now push Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, the one NATO ally that has sway with Putin, to demand unfettered access for NATO observers to the Zapad war games.
The Biden administration could also enhance its role in the upcoming DEFENDER-Europe 20 rapid-enforcement exercise to approach the level of NATO’s robust REFORGER exercises, which were conducted during the Cold War. It can also enhance rapid-reinforcement exercises geared for NATO front-line countries, such as Poland, the Baltic States, and Romania.
Third, NATO could carry out rapid-reinforcement deployments to both Ukraine through Poland and Romania and Georgia through Turkey and/or the Black Sea.
Fourth, the Biden administration could push NATO countries to enhance their tripwire forces in the Baltic and Poland and in the Black Sea region. Russia reacted allergically to the peaceful presence of the British destroyer Defender in waters near the Crimea coast, and an enhanced naval presence in the Black Sea could push back on Moscow in an unexpected area of operations.
Lastly, the Biden administration could reverse the decision of the first Bush White House by forward-deploying theatre-level, nuclear-tipped cruise missiles on United States surface combatants and submarines.
These measures would have the impact of giving an aggressive pause to Russia’s advantage, providing comfort and enhanced security to European friends and allies, and wrestling the strategic initiative from Russia in Europe, where it has largely had a free hand since 2008.
Zapad-2021 provides an open opportunity for the Biden administration to exhibit a stronger stance on Russia, but it’s unlikely that Biden will take advantage. He’s too busy dealing with fires in other parts of the world.
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