On June 15, 2021, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) hosted a virtual event entitled “Zapad 2021 and the Future of Russia’s Force Presence in Belarus.” Zapad, the Russian word for “west,” is a military exercise held every four years and the event’s panelists analyzed Zapad’s importance for Russia and Belarus, as well as the West. The discussion featured Lieutenant General Ben Hodges and Michael Kofman, moderated by Heather A. Conley.
Panelists began by describing Zapad as one of many military exercises that Russia has used for many years and is a tradition that has continued on from the Soviet era. Its objective is to test the military’s capabilities, new procedures, and technological advancements. Kofman described it as a “stress test for the Russian military system” and a way for Russia to improve the way it mobilizes and organizes forces. Rather than routine or standard procedures, Zapad focuses on innovation and is intended to be a significant challenge for military forces. Hodges noted that Russia is not transparent about Zapad, but it is still important that the West observes it as it is useful to understand what the Russian military is capable of. Further, Hodges stated that the timing of Zapad 2021 is particularly important as it will follow President Biden and President Putin’s meeting in Geneva at the NATO summit.
Hodges added that this exercise stresses every aspect of the military and is impressive because of the amount of coordination needed to conduct sustained air and land operations over the course of several months. He also suggested that the U.S. and its allies practice defensive exercises in a similar fashion, such as unloading at ports, because of the amount of coordination that is required for such large-scale endeavors. Additionally, the U.S. must pay attention to the rhetoric surrounding Zapad 2021; given the context of unrest in Belarus and Crimea, Zapad 2021 is potentially a distraction for other Russian objectives in the region. Hodges also called for an increase in sharing intelligence with U.S. allies in and outside of NATO, stating that European states know more about Russia than the U.S. does due to proximity and shared language and culture. It is crucial to bridge this communication gap, especially with states that are not members of NATO.
When asked to compare Zapad 2021 with its previous iteration in 2021, Hodges described changes in Belarus, saying that in 2017 President Lukashenko pushed back against the Kremlin. Kofman added that in 2021, Belarus is far from an unwitting participant and that Lukashenko wants Russian troops present in Belarus. For Russia, Zapad and other routine military exercises have been a way for it to maintain its presence in Belarus, but at this stage, Lukashenko is encouraging Russia and Russia no longer needs any special cause to permanently keep troops in Belarus. Hodges added that this follows Belarus’s recent hijacking of the Ryanair flight, which was done with the approval of the Kremlin. Lukashenko wants to demonstrate his alliance to Russia, as well as intimidate the large portion of the Belarusian population that is demanding regime change.
Conley concluded by stating that Zapad 2021 will test whether President Biden gets the stable relationship with Russia that he is looking for, or whether it will reveal more complexities that make this stability more difficult.
Watch the full event here: https://www.csis.org/events/zapad-2021-and-future-russias-force-presence-belarus
By PAC Policy Intern Caroline Nowak
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Caroline Nowak is a student at Tufts University pursuing International Relations and Russian and East European Studies.