Sep 20, 2013 | 10:04 GMT

4 mins read

In Zapad Exercises, Russia Flexes its Military Strength

Russia Flexes its Military Strength

The upcoming joint military drills between Russia and Belarus will be Moscow's latest demonstration to its periphery and to the West that it remains a viable power in the region. The two countries will conduct their Zapad exercises from Sept. 20-26, the first time since such drills have been held since 2009. These exercises are significant from both a military and political perspective, and are occurring at a time when tensions are rising between Russia and Belarus on one side and Poland and the Baltic states on the other. The Zapad drills, combined with NATO's Steadfast Jazz drills to be held in the Baltic states in November, highlight the security and military pressures in the region, which have steadily grown in recent years.

The last Zapad exercises were held in September 2009 and involved a total of 15,000 Russian soldiers and navy servicemen, as well as 6,500 Belarusian troops. The equipment deployed included tanks, armored fighting vehicles, and artillery, along with about 100 combat planes and helicopters and 20 warships. The Zapad exercises simulated an invasion of Poland in response to Belarus being attacked by Poland and Lithuania. This included the simulation of a tactical nuclear strike on Warsaw by Russian and Belarusian forces.

These exercises occurred in the context of a resurgent Russia, which just one year before had defeated former Soviet state and NATO ally Georgia in a five-day war. At that time, Russia was feeling strong and wanted to demonstrate its ability to project power in the region, while at the same time test the army's new organizational structure amid military reforms and increase coordination between the Russian and Belarusian militaries. The location of the exercises was particularly notable because they were conducted in the middle of the North European Plain, the traditional invasion route to and from Russia. Moreover, the target states of the exercise — Poland and the Baltic states — were the most resistant to Russian influence and most supportive of increased commitment from the European Union and NATO in the region, which Moscow wished to undermine. 

Since those exercises, Russia has continued with its resurgence in many parts of its former Soviet periphery, increasing its economic and security position in countries like Belarus, Armenia, and much of Central Asia. However, Poland and the Baltics have resisted Russian influence and maintained their assertive stance against Moscow. These countries (especially Poland and Lithuania) have made the most headway in establishing energy diversification from Russia, and they have also increased regional security cooperation with the Nordic states.

These dynamics have spurred many tensions in the region on political, economic and security matters. Poland and Lithuania have been the most supportive of bringing countries in Russia's periphery closer to the European Union and away from Moscow's orbit, especially via the Eastern Partnership program. They have also supported opposition forces in Belarus against the regime of President Aleksandr Lukashenko, including a controversial teddy bear drop stunt that was conducted by a Swedish public relations firm.

For its part, Russia has increased security cooperation with Belarus, while conducting overflights that frequently have been reported to penetrate the airspace of Baltic and Nordic countries. More recently, Russia has established plans to open an air base in the Belarusian city of Lida, just 40 kilometers (about 25 miles) from the Lithuanian border, which shows that security cooperation between Belarus and Russia remains strong despite occasional economic disputes. Russia has also supported energy projects in Belarus to offset Lithuania's energy diversification plans, including the construction of a nuclear plant in Belarus only 50 kilometers from Lithuania's capital of Vilnius.

It is these factors that likely led Russia to return to the Zapad military exercise format with Belarus this year. Like the previous exercises, the Zapad 2013 exercises will be held in numerous sites within the territory of Belarus and several western and northern regions of Russia near the Baltic Sea. The exercise is slated to involve nearly 13,000 military personnel, including 10,000 Belarusian forces, 2,500 Russian forces, and some personnel from other former Soviet states such as Armenia and Tajikistan. Similar to previous exercises, the equipment will include armored vehicles, tanks, artillery units, planes and helicopters. The stated goal of the drills is to address the "deterioration of relations between states due to inter-ethnic, and ethno-religious controversies, and territorial claims," which could very well entail another simulated invasion of one or several countries in the region.

Like the previous exercises, Zapad 2013 has both practical and symbolic motivations. Over the past year, Russia has greatly increased military drills and snap inspections across the country, seeking to improve the readiness of its forces, and Zapad is part of that effort. But these drills are also intended to send another message to Poland and the Baltic states, which will hold their own regional exercises with NATO in November — likely motivated by the Zapad drills. Moreover, these exercises will take on added significance due to Russia's strong position as a result of its negotiations with the United States over Syria, with countries on Moscow's periphery already wary of the U.S. commitment to stand up to Russia in the region. Consequently, many states in the region and beyond will be watching the Zapad drills closely. 

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