Russia and Belarus start giant Zapad military exercise on Nato’s eastern border
Russia’s defence ministry said up to 200,000 military personnel, 80 aircraft and helicopters, up to 15 ships and almost 300 tanks would take part in the Zapad-2021 exercises in western Russia and Belarus which run until next Thursday.
The opening ceremony for the four-yearly Zapad (meaning “west”) exercises was held at a Russian training ground in the Nizhny Novgorod region, approximately 400km east of Moscow. This year’s war games, spanning four training grounds in Belarus and nine in Russia, simulate an attack by western forces.
Forces from Armenia, Kazakhstan, India, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Serbia and Sri Lanka will also participate in the second part of Zapad in Russian territory. China, Vietnam, Myanmar, Pakistan and Uzbekistan are due to send observers.
European Union countries along the Belarusian border have heightened security precautions, partly due to the Afghan migrant crisis created by Minsk.
Vasili Kashin of the Higher School of Economics in Moscow said the exercises would test the operational readiness of the entire Russian armed forces for a major conflict. “If relations between Russia and the west were more constructive, the manoeuvres would look very different — and there would be many more observers,” Kashin told the DW media group.
Kashin said the exercises are also preparing against terrorist attacks but the reference to “external support” points to international animosity.
“Russia and the west both accuse each other of subversive activities. That reasoning simply reflects the poor state of relations between Moscow and Nato states,” he said.
Putin has been exploiting western sanctions on Belarus to pressure Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko into agreeing to integration projects that would boost bilateral political, military and economic ties, including a possible shared currency.
Ahead of his sixth meeting with Putin this year, Lukashenko said he hoped to buy Russian fighter jets and helicopters and prized S-400 air defence weapons. Belarus said Russia had deployed Su-30 fighters to Belarus to defend the borders with Nato members.
Mateusz Morawiecki, Poland’s prime minister, said the Zapad exercises would be the largest military exercises near its territory since the Cold War.
Putin and Lukashenko on Thursday agreed a US$630 million loan and to maintain low prices for gas and oil exports in response to European Union sanctions in response to last year’s Belarusian election.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin observes Zapad-2017. Picture credit: Wikimedia