The massive drills are a sign of deepening Russian-Belarusian defense ties at a time when the embattled government of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko faces mounting pressure from western sanctions.
by Mark Episkopos September 16, 2021
The Russian-Belarusian Zapad-2021 military exercises are nearing their conclusion. The closing ceremony of the drills was held earlier this week at the Mulino proving ground in Russia’s Nizhny Novgorod region. “The exercise Zapad-2021 showed that we have the ability to create major combined groups, plan combat operations in any directions, stop any aggression and carry out a resolute strike to produce a sobering effect on any enemy,” said Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, adding that that drills demonstrated over one year’s worth of joint training.
Zapad (Russian for “west”) is the latest entry in a cycle of four rotating, regional quadrennial Russian drills, preceded by Kavkaz (“caucasus”) 2020, Tsentr (“center”) 2019, and Vostok (“east”) 2018. Russian news sources report that the drills involved up to 200,000 troops, eighty fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, just under 800 vehicles including 290 tanks, 240 artillery pieces, and fifteen Naval vessels. Though nominally not aimed at any specific country, the underlying purpose of the Zapad drills was to test the ability of joint Russian-Belarusian forces to repel a large-scale North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) assault.
The exercises were held from September 10-16, but the planning for a transnational event of this scale must have begun well in advance. Russian President Vladimir Putin presided over parts of the exercise, arriving at Mulino on September 13 to watch Zapad-2021’s tank maneuvers component.
One of the highlights of the exercise was a “massive airstrike” that involved over sixty planes, including twelve Su-25 close air support craft, sixteen Su-30 multipurpose fighters, six Su-24 fighters, six Tu-22M3 strategic bombers, and an unspecified number of Su-24MR reconnaissance aircraft, supported by Su-35S fighters of Russia’s Western Military District. Each of the Tu-22M3 bombers present at the event dropped eight 1.5-ton bombs. Russia’s Defense Ministry reported that over fifty mock targets were destroyed over the course of the airstrike. The Ministry did not provide any additional details, including whether or not the strike force faced any simulated resistance or the composition of the mock enemy units.
The drills took place across training sites in Russia and Belarus. As many as 350 Russian and Belarusian troops, along with thirty vehicles, staged a landing at Belarus’ Brestsky proving ground to simulate an emergency aerial response to a mock enemy advance.
The drills showcased no shortage of new and recent Russian military hardware. Officials reported that the new Lastochka combat UAV was successfully tested at the Mulino range. The Defense Ministry added that “the Inokhodets and Forpost strike and reconnaissance drones, equipped with guided missiles, observation and targeting systems, were used for supporting the attacking forces for the first time.” Inokhodets-RU is a further development of Kronstadt Group’s Orion drone, boasting exponential improvements in payload capacity, cruise speed, and endurance. Forpost is a Russian license-produced copy of the Israeli IAI Searcher reconnaissance UAV. The drone present at the exercises could have been the Forpost-R, a homegrown Forpost variant that was possibly modified with strike capabilities.
The massive drills are a sign of deepening Russian-Belarusian defense ties at a time when the embattled government of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko faces mounting pressure from western sanctions. Lukashenko traveled to Moscow last week to sign an agreement to implement part of the integration provisions outlined in the 1999 Union State treaty, paving the way for a full national merger between Russia and Belarus.
Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for the National Interest.