Report

Moscow Expands Its Military Footprint on NATO’s Borders

Russia has been wargaming with Belarus. Sometimes, that’s a prelude.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu inspect the Zapad joint military drills in Russia's Nizhny Novgorod region on Sept. 13. Alexey Druzhinin / Sputnik / AFP via Getty Images

Russia is conducting one of its largest military exercises since the Cold War in Belarus, along the eastern flank of NATO, as relations between Moscow and the West have reached their lowest ebbs in decades.

The joint war games with Belarus, known as Zapad, are held every four years. But this year, the military relationship between the two countries is being closely studied, as Belarus has been drawn closer into Russia’s orbit over the past year. Embattled Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko has been ostracized by the West after a violent crackdown on protests following elections in August 2020, widely believed to be rigged. Among those studying: Russian President Vladimir Putin, who watched drills in the Nizhny Novgorod region east of Moscow despite reportedly being in isolation due to COVID-19 cases among his close contacts.

Neighboring Poland declared a state of emergency along its eastern border with Belarus last week ahead of the military exercises. Baltic states Latvia and Lithuania have also declared states of emergencies as all three countries have seen a huge increase in the number of migrants from the Middle East and North Africa looking to cross into the European Union from Belarus—thought to have been deliberately sent to the border by Lukashenko. Then, on Sunday, Lukashenko added to tensions by announcing that Belarus would buy $1 billion worth of Russian military equipment over the next four years.

Russia is conducting one of its largest military exercises since the Cold War in Belarus, along the eastern flank of NATO, as relations between Moscow and the West have reached their lowest ebbs in decades.

The joint war games with Belarus, known as Zapad, are held every four years. But this year, the military relationship between the two countries is being closely studied, as Belarus has been drawn closer into Russia’s orbit over the past year. Embattled Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko has been ostracized by the West after a violent crackdown on protests following elections in August 2020, widely believed to be rigged. Among those studying: Russian President Vladimir Putin, who watched drills in the Nizhny Novgorod region east of Moscow despite reportedly being in isolation due to COVID-19 cases among his close contacts.

Neighboring Poland declared a state of emergency along its eastern border with Belarus last week ahead of the military exercises. Baltic states Latvia and Lithuania have also declared states of emergencies as all three countries have seen a huge increase in the number of migrants from the Middle East and North Africa looking to cross into the European Union from Belarus—thought to have been deliberately sent to the border by Lukashenko. Then, on Sunday, Lukashenko added to tensions by announcing that Belarus would buy $1 billion worth of Russian military equipment over the next four years.

The exercises offer the first in-depth look at the growing integration of Russia and Belarus, which has accelerated since the political upheavals in Belarus last year. Russia has long sought to expand its military footprint in its western neighbor and is capitalizing on the Belarusian president’s isolation to gradually build up its presence in the country and on the borders of NATO. Earlier this month, Russia deployed Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jets to Belarus.

The deployments have put U.S. allies in Eastern Europe on edge. On Monday, foreign and defense ministers from Poland and the Baltic states met in the Latvian capital, Riga, to discuss their shared border crises and the Zapad exercises. ​​“While each country has the right to conduct military exercises, limited transparency, wider context of the maneuvers, and the accompanying hybrid activities raise our concerns,” Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau said after the meeting.

A series of exercises have been underway since July, culminating in six days of live-fire drills in locations across Belarus and in western Russia which are expected to wrap up on Thursday. The Russian Ministry of Defense said that 200,000 personnel are expected to take part, including a handful of troops from Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Armenia, and India. Analysts say it can be hard to get an accurate headcount, as Russia has sought to obfuscate the size of the drills to bypass its obligations under the Vienna Document, a confidence-building agreement among the countries of the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe that requires countries to report the size of military exercises and host observers for large drills.

For Western military planners, the exercise offers a chance to study Russian tactical innovation, force integration, and the kinds of scenarios the Russian military trains against. The skies along Belarus’s borders with the European Union have been crowded with flights from Western nations gathering intelligence. For Russia’s generals, the exercises offer the opportunity to test military readiness and new operational concepts and technology.

“There is significant emphasis on demonstrating new technologies and equipment or new combat training models,” said Ruslan Pukhov, the director of the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a nongovernmental Moscow-based think tank.

In exercises on Tuesday, Uran-9 and Nerekhta unmanned ground vehicles—robot tanks—were deployed in combat formations for the first time. Zapad also offers the Russian military the opportunity to show off its coercive credibility, said Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military with the think tank CNA.

“They demonstrated that they have concepts of operation to counter how they think the United States prefers to fight,” he said.

Russian and participating forces simulated a response to an attack on Belarus by fictional states dubbed Pomoria, Nyaris, and the Polar Republic, thought to represent Lithuania and Poland. The Russian armed forces operate on the assumption that in the event of a war with NATO, the Western alliance will have military superiority.

“They practice degrading or attriting an opponent’s initial attack by avoiding themselves being decisively engaged and retreating to prepared positions, luring enemy forces into large fire pockets where they have concentrated artillery,” Kofman said.

Russia has in the past used military exercises as a way to rehearse planned invasions of neighboring states, including the 2008 war with Georgia and the annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014. Ahead of the 2017 Zapad exercise, the first in western Russia since the annexation, some experts feared that it could be used to mask an invasion of Belarus or even the Baltic states. At the time, Belarus’s leader was trying to court the West and break free of Moscow’s embrace by releasing political prisoners and presiding over a relative easing of repression. Since the crackdown began in August 2020, Lukashenko’s thaw with the West has refrozen.

“Belarus is now very keen to demonstrate Russian military presence and support for the regime, which is in survival mode,” Kofman said. Earlier this year, the two countries agreed to establish a joint air force and air defense training center in the Belarusian city of Grodno, just 9 miles from the border with Poland.

Both Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler invaded Russia through what is now modern-day Belarus, and the country has long been seen by the Kremlin as an important buffer between Russia and the West; the road to Moscow goes through Minsk. But while Russia has long been vocal about its desire to establish an air base in Belarus, doing so would likely be seen as a provocation by NATO, and it could be unpopular with the Belarusian public, Kofman said. Instead, Russia seems to be creeping forward, much as China has done in the Western Pacific, to keep potential opponents off-balance.

“They are taking a salami-slicing approach, so as to not have one big public turning point like the opening of the base. Instead, they’re having a steady and gradual increase of Russian military presence,” Kofman said.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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