On August 5, 2021, the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) hosted a virtual event entitled “Zapad 2021: Implications for Defense & Military Mobility in Europe.” 

Zapad, the Russian word for west, is the quadrennial Russian war game played in the western parts of the Russian Federation. Its 2021 iteration is set to begin this September to showcase new technology and test military capabilities to repel an invasion by NATO. The scenario of previous Zapad war games also cast Russia as the victim of aggression by the West.

Panelists included Ben Hodges, George Zambellas, Egle Murauskaite, and Alex Tiersky, with moderation by Lauren Speranza.

Zapad 2021 will follow the recent Biden-Putin summit and unrest in Belarus. Zambellas began by stating that the military exercise is of particular importance this year due to an increase of global attention on Belarus and a number of human rights abuses that have been exposed in the media, including the spectacle of Belarusian athletes refusing to return home from the Tokyo Olympics. Zapad intends to test the Russian military’s integration of Belarusian forces, so the context within Belarus is important to understanding Russia’s intentions for the event.

Hodges added that it is difficult to define a clear beginning to Zapad 2021, as Russia already has forces stationed on the Black Sea and spends a significant amount of money on military power in the region year-round. Murauskaite stated that the relationships between Belarus and the West and between Belarus and Russia have changed over the past several years, because Belarus is no longer simply an observer to the Russian military exercises. Instead, Belarus has actively encouraged Russia to bring in new military technology that will remain in the country indefinitely. Tiersky followed by noting that Russia is part of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which ought to increase transparency around military demonstrations. However, Zapad 2017 lacked transparency despite Russia’s OSCE membership and Russia recently boycotted a meeting that other OSCE member states hoped would dispel their fears of a lack of transparency for the upcoming exercise.

Hodges went on to explain that the exercise will be an opportunity for Russia to move ammunition and fuel into Belarus. The Russian military has a unique ability to move tools and technology in bulk, so the West must attempt to closely watch what enters Belarus and how quickly Russia can move its troops, though this will be difficult to accurately observe. Further, Hodges suggested U.S. and NATO troops conduct their own exercises moving from Poland into Ukraine to better prepare to counter Russian power in the region. Tiersky added that the U.S. must put out the message that it is watching Zapad, but is not panicking about Russian military capability. The West must address Russia’s lack of transparency going forward and must also be united against Russian practices, but it is crucial to lead by example and remain calm in the face of Russian power. Murauskaite concluded by saying that the West must look inward to mitigate its domestic problems, as Russia consistently works to exploit tensions within other countries. The military practices Hodges put forth are important, but nonmilitary resources must be used internally to most effectively counter Russia.

Watch the full event here: https://cepa.org/event/zapad-2021-implications-for-defense-military-mobility-in-europe/

By PAC Policy Intern Caroline Nowak

Caroline Nowak is a student at Tufts University pursuing International Relations and Russian and East European Studies.

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