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Russia holds the largest military exercise in Europe for 40 years

The zapad (“west”) military exercise of 1981 was the largest and grandest exercise ever conducted by the Soviet Union, mustering as many as 150,000 troops from across the ussr and its alliance of satellite states, the Warsaw Pact. Cold-war nostalgics may be pleased to learn that this year’s iteration, which began on September 10th, might be larger still. Zapad-21 could involve up to 200,000 troops from Russia, Belarus and several other countries, if Russia’s defence ministry is to be believed, outnumbering even the very largest NATO exercises of recent times. That reflects both the frostiness of Russia’s ties with the West, and the strengthening of those with Belarus.

Whether Zapad-21 will in fact match the spectacle of 1981 is not entirely clear. In part, that is because Russia is caught between playing down the scale of its exercises, for diplomatic reasons, and embellishing them, to awe its enemies. The Vienna Document, a confidence-building measure agreed between Russia and the West in 1990, says that exercises with more than 13,000 troops must be reported and open to foreign observers. In recent years, Russia has simply insisted that what appear to be huge drills are in fact a series of distinct, smaller ones, and thus exempt.

The same chicanery is being used for Zapad-21. Belarus says that it will host 12,800 troops, conveniently short of the threshold. Russia has said that no more than 6,400 personnel will train on Russian soil. In the same breath, it repeated the figure of 200,000 troops. America has asked Russia to explain “the apparent discrepancy”, notes a spokesman for the State Department. The true figure is probably somewhere in between, though closer to the upper end. “Russian military leaders likely hope Western media will report exaggerated figures,” says Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian armed forces at CNA, a think-tank, “which help validate the scale and success of the exercise.” Although the exercise formally runs from September 10th to 16th, troops and equipment have been flooding into exercise areas for months and some may almost certainly stay behind afterwards, as they did after a big build-up of troops around Ukraine in the spring.

It is not only the size of Zapad-21 that worries the West, though. The exercise spans Russia and Belarus, with thousands of Russian troops in the latter (see map). And much as Zapad-81 occurred amid a political crisis in Poland, with growing protests against its then-communist government, the backdrop today is also turbulent. After losing an election in August 2020, Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’s dictator, cracked down violently on protests—and moved steadily closer to the Kremlin. On September 9th in Moscow Mr Lukashenko met Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, for the sixth time in the past year, and declared himself ready for “even closer military, political or…economic integration”. Mr Putin noted that Russian loans to Belarus between September and the end of 2022 would exceed $600m.

Zapad-21 reflects this bonhomie. Its premise is that Western aggressors—the fictional states of Njaris (mostly Lithuania), Pomorie and the Polar Republic (both Poland)—foment “illegal armed bands, separatist and international terrorist organisations” inside Belarus, and ultimately invade it. Russia and Belarus launch a daring counter-offensive to liberate the country. All of that echoes long-standing Russian fears of Western-backed “colour revolutions” in former Soviet territories; the upheaval in Belarus lends the war games contemporary resonance.

The early signs from the exercise are that Russian troops will be much farther west, and thus closer to Belarus’s border with Poland, than during past Zapad exercises, notes Mr Kofman. Some manoeuvres will take place around Brest, right on that border and just 200km from Warsaw. As the exercise began, Russia also sent an air-defence system to Grodno, where it had established a joint air-defence centre with Belarus in the spring. Grodno is close to the point where Belarus, Poland and Lithuania meet. This Zapad will also be the first to include Belarus’s reserve forces.

All of this has made Poland jittery. On September 6th Mateusz Morawiecki, Poland’s prime minister, explained why the government wanted to extend a state of emergency declared on the country’s border with Belarus the previous week. It was largely in response to a surge in refugees, encouraged by Belarus to put pressure on Poland and other neighbouring countries, but the looming drills played a role too, suggested Mr Morawiecki.

That Zapad-21 should provoke such a response may please the Kremlin. Although Russia’s military spending is dwarfed by America’s, and lags well behind China’s (see chart), its armed forces have undergone a dramatic transformation over the past 15 years. They have gone from a ragged and resource-starved post-Soviet outfit that performed poorly in a war against Georgia in 2008 to a leaner, nimbler and more lethal organisation with years of combat experience in Ukraine and Syria. The point of exercises like Zapad is not just to refine Russia’s readiness for a big war, and its ability to wage it alongside Belarus, but also to show off that progress to would-be opponents. Zapad-21 will include not just the traditional land, air and naval offensives—as far north as the Arctic—but also the Uran-9 ground combat robot and the largest-ever electronic warfare drills.

The exercise is an opportunity for military diplomacy, too, underscoring that Russia may be a pariah in the West but has friends elsewhere. Several hundred troops from Armenia, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Pakistan and Sri Lanka are taking part, some borrowing Russian tanks. China is not attending, but held a large drill with Russia in its north-western Ningxia region last month.

Belarus has become the closest friend of all. Mr Lukashenko used to be wary of allowing too domineering a Russian presence in his country, but has been forced to rely on Russia’s help to quell the democracy movement. In the past, it was Belarus that presented itself as a staunch protector of Russia’s western flank. Now, says Anna Maria Dyner of the Polish Institute of International Affairs, “we have a situation in which it’s rather Russia that is trying to defend Belarus…the emphasis on who defends whom is different from 2017”, the year the last Zapad was held.

Useful as Mr Lukashenko’s insecurity has been to Mr Putin, however, it could become a liability. Russia, although keen on muscle-flexing, does not want to be dragged into a conflict. “For the first time, there is a real risk of unintended armed incidents on the Belarusian border,” warns Artyom Shraibman of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, a think-tank, “not because either side plans to attack the other, but because of expectations of mutual provocations, and tendencies to interpret each other’s actions in the most hostile light possible.” Mr Lukashenko is so twitchy, and so angry with his European neighbours, that it is not hard to imagine an accidental flare-up.

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