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Contemporary military focuses of Zapad 2021 and NATO’s response

Contemporary military focuses of Zapad 2021 and NATO's response


By Khalisa Huseynova


Zapad (“West”) is Russia’s traditional large-scale military exercise. Its main goal is to improve the practical skills of commanders and staff for strategic operations with Russian coalition forces concerning its Western strategic orientation. Initially, Zapad was conducted among former Warsaw Pact countries. Today, it is carried out among the Regional Group of Force for Russia and Belarus.

The situation of the region in 2021, however, is entirely different compared to previous years. In this article, I will analyze the leading contemporary military focuses of Zapad 2021 and provide recommendations on how NATO can improve its enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) program in light of these changes.



Before going deeper into the theme of this article, it is first necessary to provide brief background information about Russia’s Zapad exercises. In post-Soviet history, the Zapad exercises were first conducted in June 1999, right after NATO’s operation against Slobodan Milosevic’s regime in Yugoslavia. This operation shocked Russian authorities, as they feared that the similarities between these two regimes could lead to the same scenario in Russia.

In 2008, Russia started to increase its pressure on Georgia and prepared military operations against the country in order to obstruct its pro-Western political and economic course. A warning sign for Russia came from the United States Navy, which was deployed to the Black Sea. During the Russian invasion of Georgia, the Russian government realized the ineffectiveness of its armed forces, even though its defense budget had been increasing since 2000.[i] Such circumstances led to comprehensive military reforms from 2008 to 2012 in order to improve the capabilities of the Russian armed forces. The 2009 and 2013 iterations of Zapad exercises with Belarus were used to check the capabilities and the success of this reform and preserve Russia’s dominance over post-Soviet states and enhance its bargaining position with the West.

Today, the Zapad 2021 exercises have evolved from this context, because the political situation has changed significantly in Belarus. In the following sections, we will focus on the main contemporary military focuses of Zapad 2021 and provide recommendations for NATO and its Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) program.


Contemporary military focuses of Zapad 2021

Based on Moscow’s initiative, the Zapad exercise focused on a single operational-strategic background. Belarusian Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin stated that “the exercise scenario will involve potential escalation of the military-political situation against the ‘conditional state’.”[ii] Additionally, the military exercise involved the use of joint assault forces to conduct urban warfare. This specific type of exercise is quite rare as the field area is very difficult for training.  

Among the types of military tactics that were conducted during the exercises were those involving counterinsurgencies (i.e., any “military or political action taken against the activities of guerrillas or revolutionaries” that can be considered war by a state against a non-state adversary[iii]) and attacks against an enemy defending from within a city. Because the number of troops and military techniques used were by far the highest this year, most of the training period was primarily focused on urban warfare, as these two missions are very different and require different military capabilities, tactics, and considerations.[iv] Additionally, according to the Moscow Times, “this year troops were deployed two months in advance of the exercise to their assigned training ranges, which made the entire affair even more scripted than in previous years, as troops drilled in the events they were expected to execute in September.”[v]

Another military focus of this exercise was the rehearsal of the hidden deployment of troops, which is directly associated with the continued force buildup close to Ukraine. According to the Western OSK/MD commander, Colonel General Aleksandr Zhuravlev, during the Zapad 2021 exercise framework, several scenarios were to be played out. Among these scenarios was the covert deployment of force groupings as well as the role of battalion tactical groups during “non-standard” actions to repel enemy air and ground strikes.[vi] Zhuravlev also emphasized that “the forces involved in Zapad 2021 would be “trying to avoid stereotypes and develop ‘unconventional thinking’, using ‘non-standard’ methods among officers solving and performing the set tasks.”[vii]

According to The Moscow Times, the Zapad 2021 exercises tested repelling and parrying a massed NATO aerospace attack during the initial period of war, i.e., amassed missile-aviation strike (MRAU) as termed by the Russian military. During these exercises, Russia used its air defense, tactical aviation, and electronic warfare units, and Russia’s Aerospace Forces and ground-based missile units launched counterstrikes using long-range precision-guided weapons.[viii] During the exercises the Russian military command prioritized numerous parachute and heliborne operations, including increasingly larger parachute assaults, mechanized equipment, and even battalion-level exercises at night. Although Russian forces are still behind Western countries in their capacity to operate at night, the exercises showed that this gap is slowly closing. The Zapad 2021 exercises also showcased Russia’s ability to conduct airborne operations. As claimed in the Moscow Times, “large air assault operations employing helicopters in transport and attack roles illustrate the increased level of tactical mobility of Russia’s airborne units and their utility as supporting or flanking formations.”[ix]

More importantly, the Zapad 2021 exercises showed that Moscow considers NATO’s more advanced airpower and long-range precision strikes a “formidable force multiplier.”[x] The mix of defensive and offensive capabilities used during the Zapad 2021 military exercises showcased the military’s new strategic tactics as well as a “clear shift in Russian thinking away from strategic ground offensives and directly towards long-range strikes against critically important economic and military targets to degrade a state’s ability or will to sustain a conflict.”[xi]


The NATO Alliance and its response to the Zapad 2021 military exercises

As seen in the media coverage as well as from the official statements of NATO representatives, the main concern over Russia’s military exercise was the lack of transparency in the number of troops and military exercises involved in Zapad 2021. On 3 September 2021, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg criticized the exercises and told Reuters that “Russia should behave in a predictable and transparent way.”[xii] In 2017, although Minsk chose to partake in the exercises, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko claimed that he was not interested in joining Vladimir Putin’s conflict with Western countries. Therefore, he tried to bring transparency to the exercises by reassuring Western neighbors that the drills would not bring any danger to the territorial integrity of neighbouring countries. Lukashenko invited observers from seven countries (Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Sweden, and Norway), along with the representatives of the UN, the OSCE, NATO, and the Red Cross, to monitor the portion of Zapad 2017 exercises that took place on Belarusian territory. Additionally, he also assured Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic states that he would not allow Belarusian territory to be used to attack or intimidate them.[xiii]

However, after the 2020 Belarusian presidential elections crisis and protests, as well as Belarus’s hijacking of Ryanair flight 4978 and the kidnapping of journalist Roman Pratasevich in May 2021, Lukashenko became a persona non grata in the West. In his most recent show of loyalty to the Kremlin, Lukashenko has threatened to disrupt trade supply chains between Europe and Asia and weaponized illegal migrants against Lithuania. One of the main joint actions by Russia and Belarus that needs to be taken into consideration by NATO is the announcement of plans to establish three permanent joint military training centers in Russia’s Nizhny Novgorod city and Kaliningrad regions as well as in Belarus’s western Grodno region, which borders NATO members Poland and Lithuania.[xiv] Additionally, it has become clear that Lukashenko is ready to let Russia build a new airbase on Belarusian territory. In the scenario that the building of these three military centers in Nizhny Novgorod, Kaliningrad, and the Grodno region of Belarus are realized, the direct response that the NATO Alliance can make is to focus on strengthening its commands in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, as well as to focus on further military development with Ukraine.

Another critical point that needs to be taken into consideration is the cyber attacks and cyber weapons used during these exercises. During the Zapad 2017 military exercises, at least one Ally and two partner nations raised concerns over a new type of electronic or cyberweapon deployed during the exercises as this affected their communications infrastructure—specifically telephones.[xv] The cyber-attacks that citizens of NATO allies and partner countries experienced back in 2017 show that the cyber security sphere still needs further development. One solution to this can be creating temporary cyber security centers that are similar to the ones operating during such military training as Zapad and analyzing the specific cyberattacks and the nature of those attacks that have been faced by the neighbouring NATO states. This will help the already existing centers to cope with more intensive work. Such temporary centers can be implemented in NATO member states where building more robust cyber security systems is still ongoing.



To conclude this article, it needs to be taken into consideration that while it is doubtful that Zapad 2021 was a Trojan horse exercise to set the stage for the Russian invasion of one of its neighbors, the size (200,000 personnel, over 750 armored and multiple launch rocket system pieces, and close to 100 aircraft involved[xvi]), scale, and duration of the exercise show that Russia aims to increase its political pressure and interests—not only in Belarus but also to create long-lasting military relations with other states that are also participating in these exercises. Another crucial element of these exercises is the massive propaganda tool it provides the Kremlin, as Zapad 2021 has been portrayed as a defensive exercise in response to the NATO Steadfast Defender 2021 exercise and increased U.S. and NATO military presence in Poland.

Finally, perhaps the most critical aspect of these exercises is that Russia has been testing ways to find the quickest means to develop its military capabilities in terms of technology (e.g., the cyberattacks seen in 2017 could become more extensive and more damaging) as the geopolitical situation around its territory is changing.


About the author

Khalisa Huseynova is a political researcher with five years of experience in the security field. She holds a BA in Political Science from APA, earned qualification degrees in Religion, Conflict and Peace from Harvard Divinity School, Global Diplomacy from SOAS University of London, and EU Law and Economics from the Riga Graduate School of Law. She is the founder of “Guide to education magic” educational program and “Sciences in sight” research platform. Currently, she works as a Senior Strategic and Partnership Officer at the African Youth Advocacy Network in Kenya. Her scientific works have been presented at different conferences including the International Conference on Sustainable Development Goals and the 2nd International Forum of the Caucasus Studies Scholar, among others. She was nominated for “Influencer of the year” at the Eurasian Innovation Awards in October 2019. In July 2020 she was awarded with the Diana Award for her mentoring program “Guide to the education magic.” In February 2020, she received a research grant to study “Women and World War II in Soviet Azerbaijan” from The Heinrich Boll Foundation.




[i] Pavel Luzin, “The political logic of Zapad exercises,” European Leadership Network, 15 September 2017, https://www.europeanleadershipnetwork.org/commentary/the-political-logic....

[iii] Rose Mary Sheldon, “Introduction,” Small Wars & Insurgencies 31, no. 5 (2020): 931–955. doi:10.1080/09592318.2020.1764713

[iv] John Spencer, “THE CITY IS NOT NEUTRAL: WHY URBAN WARFARE IS SO HARD,” 3 April 2020, Modern War Institute.

[v] Michael Kofman, “Zapad 2021: What We Learned From Russia's Massive Military Drills,” The Moscow Times, September 23, 2021, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2021/09/23/zapad-2021-what-we-learned-fro....

[vi] “Rossiya otrabotayet skrytoye razvortyvaniye voysk na ucheniyakh «Zapad-2021»,” Top War, June 11, 2021, https://topwar.ru/183925-rossija-otrabotaet-skrytoe-razvertyvanie-vojsk-....

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Kofman, “Zapad 2021: What We Learned.”

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Robin Emmott, “NATO calls on Russia to be transparent with military exercises,” Reuters. September 3rd,2021. https://www.reuters.com/world/nato-calls-russia-be-transparent-with-mili...

[xiii] Brian Whitmore, “Concerns mount over Russia-Belarus military exercises,” Atlantic Council, July 28, 2021, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/ukrainealert/concerns-mount-over-r....

[xiv] Interfax, “RF i Belorussiya sozdadut tri sovmestnykh tsentra po podgotovke voyennykh,” March 2021, https://www.interfax.ru/world/754743.

[xv] Press point by the NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg following the meeting of the NATO-Russia Council, NATO, October 2017, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/opinions_147976.htm.

[xvi] “Russia, Belarus Launch Massive Military Drills as NATO Watches,” The Moscow Times, 10 September 2021, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2021/09/10/russia-belarus-launch-massive-....

Image: https://www.reuters.com/world/russia-belarus-begin-active-phase-huge-war...


This publication was co-sponsored by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.     

Monday, 18 October, 2021 - 14:45