For international observers, military exercises are a key litmus test of a country’s strengths and weaknesses. Likewise, they reflect that country’s view to the strategies of its supposed opponents. In that sense, this year’s Zapad (“West”) exercises conducted in Russia and Belarus were no different. They revealed Russia’s perceptions of the way the NATO will fight, given the still relatively unlikely event of war between the two. Likewise, the exercises remained highly scripted as in the past, and the scenarios involved were largely the same. But, there were a number of key differences as well. For example, Zapad 2021 featured a much greater multinational component than before, with seven countries represented, including India. The increase in foreign participants demonstrates a growing military diplomacy component to the exercises. Likewise, preparations for the exercises began earlier in the spring, testing key military logistics capabilities, and a there was a Russian military presence on the ground in Belarus as early as July. Further, these exercises were much larger in scope in terms of both manpower and equipment than the more sensationalized 2017 exercises. But, perhaps the most important difference between 2017’s Zapad exercises and this year’s iteration is the geopolitical situation for Belarus and the changes in force integration that have resulted from Minsk’s new position.
With President Aleksandr Lukashenka’s regime in Minsk backed into survival mode, now unable to toe the line between Russia and the West, Belarus is more willing to host larger Russian contingents than before, and is being pushed towards ever greater political and economic integration with Russia in keeping with the Union State Treaty. As a result, Zapad 2021 featured a far greater focus than before on integrating Belarusian forces into Russian-led structures. Previously, the Zapad exercises were labeled as unilateral “strategic command-staff exercises,” but this year, they were framed as “joint strategic exercises” with Belarus, reflecting that change in integration. Likewise, interoperability between Belarusian and Russian forces was a key focus of this year’s exercises, and a number of joint-training centers have been established for Russo-Belarusian military cooperation on Belarusian soil since late 2020. Notably, Russia seems to view itself at a disadvantage compared to NATO in the air domain, and much of the joint training and military upgrades in Belarus are related to that perceived deficiency.
Air defense capabilities are a key component to nearly all the notable joint-training centers being established in Belarus, from Baranovichi to Hrodna. Agreements between Belarus and Russia regarding combined air controls and training centers have moved forward since late last year, and in early September, ahead of the timeframe for the exercises, Russia deployed S-300 missile defense systems and several Su-30 fighters to Hrodna, near the border with Poland and Lithuania. These systems should not, however, be viewed purely defensively. They can perform offensive functions, and indeed, Russian military strategy prefers a sort of “pre-emptive defense,” wherein Moscow seeks to coerce its opponents into backing down by inflicting heavy costs up front. This strategy has often been referred to as “escalate to de-escalate,” and reflects the offensive nature of the Russian defensive posture.
Locating these assets at Hrodna presents another challenge for NATO in the Baltic theater. Hrodna is only 15 km (9 mi) east of the Polish border and 30 km (19 mi) south of the Lithuanian border, very close NATO’s strategic nightmare, the Suwałki Gap. As the only land corridor between the Baltics and the rest of NATO, the narrow Suwałki Gap (which forms the border between Poland and Lithuania) is crucial to the strategic calculus of both NATO and Russia. Placing these air defense systems at Hrodna gives Russia greater capacity to close off the Suwałki Gap, denying access to the Baltics by land and complementing Russia’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) posture in air and maritime domains as well.
New developments in the air domain do not end there. In addition to serving as a tool for greater force integration and interoperability, joint exercises between Russia and Belarus since late 2020 have also focused on and served as the impetus for modernizing the Belarusian air force. These upgrades have included deliveries of Su-30 fighters to the Belarusian air force, as well as S-400 ground-based air defense systems. Because of their long range, the S-400 systems should not be viewed purely defensively either, just like the Su-30s and S-300s. The new S-400 systems in Belarus could easily be used offensively against targets in Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland in the event of armed conflict, and would likely be used in such a capacity.
As Belarus becomes an international pariah and is forced more and more into the fold of Moscow, it is inexorably pushed towards greater political, economic, and military integration with Russia. Where once Lukashenka resisted the idea of Russian military presence on Belarusian soil, he is now open to the establishment of joint bases. While the Russian presence is, for the time being, not a permanent one, greater force integration and interoperability between Russian and Belarusian forces will have long-term effects. Furthermore, by way of the Union State treaty or some other political intrigue, there are no guarantees that Russian forces will only be present on a temporary basis for even the foreseeable future. Indeed, if the Kremlin wants to establish a permanent Russian military presence in Belarus, there is not much Lukashenka can do any more to stop it. As a result, Belarus easily becomes an even more crucial component for the Kremlin’s strategic calculus, and indeed, Moscow is clearly working towards turning Belarus into a military asset rather than a liability.
What then, does all this mean? Does Russia seek to seal off the Suwałki Gap and invade the Baltics? Not so fast. As BSF President Olevs Nikers points out, it would be easy for Russia to seal off the Suwałki Gap from Belarus, but war between Russia and NATO remains unlikely. Some perspective is needed here: Russia’s actions should not be taken purely offensively or defensively. Russia has long sought to create buffer zones between itself and its perceived enemies. Belarus sits at the doorstep of the so-called “Smolensk Gate,” a historic invasion route from the Northern European Plain towards Moscow. Controlling Belarus, then, provides a larger buffer to the Russian heartland. Likewise, since Russian strategy prefers a form of “pre-emptive defense,” control of Belarus provides a greater means to quickly establish Russian control over other areas, sealing those off from NATO. In other words, if Russia did decide to go on offense and attack the Baltics, control over Belarus would be an ace for the Kremlin. That, of course, is not very reassuring.
Ultimately, one key message is clear. Recent developments regarding force integration and interoperability, as well as modernization of the Belarusian air force and the placement of key Russian air defense systems at Hrodna are clear indicators that Russia seeks to establish the capacity to seal off the Suwałki Gap and take offensive action on the Baltics if it deems necessary. This capacity could serve a dual purpose: first, to deter perceived NATO aggression, and second, to eliminate targets in the Baltics and Poland in a first strike escalation to coerce NATO to capitulation. As a result, NATO must then prepare for such a scenario, understanding that whether Russia intends to use its new capacity or not, it does intend to be able to. If it does, the consequences for NATO will be grave, and for the Baltics, fatal.
Cover Photo: Service members bearing the flags of Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan marching during ceremonies at Obuz-Lesnovsky in Western Belarus. Credit