Russia plans to use war games this week with Belarus to deepen control over its neighbor’s armed forces and increase military capabilities at the borders of NATO member states, Western defense officials have warned.
The seven-day Zapad-2021 exercise, which began on Friday, involves tens of thousands of troops from both countries and testing conventional and strategic weapons to simulate conflict with a Western enemy, and comes amid pressure increased Kremlin for deeper integration with Minsk.
“Zapad is part of a larger scheme: a more assertive Russia, considerably increasing its military capacities and its military presence near our borders”, declared Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary General of NATO.
The exercise, which for the past decades has been held every four years, comes months after Russia, without warning, amassed around 100,000 troops, tanks, planes and ships near the border with Ukraine. Moscow said it was a surprise exercise to test troop readiness, but much of this military hardware still remains near the border, alarming Western capitals who see it as a permanent build-up of force.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has called for deeper political, economic and defense cooperation with Belarus in recent years and has provided various financial aid programs to the country’s beleaguered leader Alexander Lukashenko over the past year.
Western military officials say the Kremlin’s increased influence over Minsk, combined with the ever-deepening interoperability of the two countries’ defense equipment and joint training, is effectively shifting Russia’s military capabilities 650 km away. west, to the border with Poland.
“Russia’s hope is that she can fill all these gaps that certainly exist in terms of command and control. . . This is partly what all this [Zapad] everything is built around, ”a senior Western intelligence official told FT.
“It is clear that the integration that the Russian side is looking for. . . is the one that gives them much greater control over the whole [military] dynamic, ”the official said. “It’s a stable ratchet.”
A major red flag for Western armies would be that Russian troops or equipment “remain forever, if they are permanently integrated,” the official added. “If the exercise ends and the forces don’t return home, that matters. . . similar to the situation this summer around Ukraine: what are the dropouts?
Putin and Lukashenko said the exercises did not target any foreign enemies, but were justified because of what they say is increased NATO military activity along their borders. In May and June, 28,000 NATO state troops participated in the alliance’s Defender Europe exercises in 16 southern and eastern European countries, drawing the wrath of the Kremlin.
Kalle Laanet, Estonian Defense Minister, said this year’s version of the quadrennial exercise was remarkable because of the “huge number” of heavy equipment shipments to Belarus, alongside the deployment of Russian troops in five different regions of Belarus.
“The increasingly autocratic Belarus is, by all means, the vassal of the Kremlin. Alexander Loukachenko can no longer refuse the proposals of his savior, Vladimir Poutine, ”Laanet said on Saturday in a statement to the country’s official press agency.
The Zapad War Games, which will end on Thursday, involved Platform-M remote-controlled combat robots armed with grenade launchers and a machine gun, in what Russian news agencies reported to be the first time they were used.