The Russian military begins its largest military exercise of the year today with the start of Zapad-21. This exercise, the latest in a cycle of quadrennial Russian exercises will test the readiness and combat power of the Western Military District. The WMD is home to many of Russia’s better-equipped and trained land and air units. This year’s Zapad comes at a time of heightened tensions between Russia and it Western neighbors. As a general rule, Zapad exercises draw increased scrutiny and attention from Poland, Ukraine, the Baltic States and NATO. It will take place in a number of ranges and training areas in Russia and Belarus and include forces from these two nations. The Belarusian Ministry of Defense has announced that Zapad-21 will include 13,000 troops from Belarus and Russia. However, as is generally the case, this number is a low figure. There appear to be far more Russian troops presently in Belarus than the official count. As a rule, troop numbers are manipulated to keep Zapad-21 within the guidelines called for in the Vienna Document. Any military exercise including more that 13,000 troops requires observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to attend.
The general concern among Russia’s western neighbors, as well as NATO, is that an exercise the size of Zapad could be used as cover for military action. To be fair, this is not a recent worry. Its origins go all the way back to the Cold War when NATO officers suspected major exercise would act as a prelude to a Soviet/Warsaw Pact invasion of Western Europe. Given the major Russian military buildup and exercises near the Ukrainian frontier earlier this year, Western concern is understandable. However, given the current picture of the world situation, Zapad is not expected to serve as a prelude to Russian military intervention in Ukraine, or Eastern Europe in the near future.