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Russia plans to use war games this week with Belarus to deepen its control over its neighbour’s armed forces and increase its military capabilities on the borders of Nato member states, western defence officials have warned.
The seven-day Zapad-2021 exercise, which began on Friday, involves tens of thousands of troops from both countries and conventional and strategic weapons tests to simulate conflict with a western enemy, and comes amid increased pressure from the Kremlin for deeper integration with Minsk.
“Zapad fits into a broader pattern: a more assertive Russia, significantly increasing its military capabilities and its military presence near our borders,” said Jens Stoltenberg, Nato secretary-general.
The exercise, which in recent decades has taken place every four years, comes a few months after Russia, without warning, amassed about 100,000 troops, tanks, aircraft and ships close to the border with Ukraine. Moscow said it was a surprise exercise to test troops’ preparedness, but a large proportion of that military hardware still remains close to the frontier, alarming western capitals that view it as a permanent build-up of force.
Russian president Vladimir Putin has called for deeper political, economic and defence co-operation with Belarus in recent years, and has provided various packages of financial aid to the country’s embattled leader Alexander Lukashenko over the past year.
Western military officials say that the Kremlin’s increased leverage over Minsk, combined with ever-deepening interoperability of the two countries’ defence equipment and joint training, effectively moves Russia’s military capabilities 650km further west, to the border with Poland.
“Russia’s hope is that they can close all those gaps which certainly exist in terms of command and control . . . That’s in part what this whole [Zapad] thing is built around,” a senior western intelligence official told the FT.
“It is clear that the integration that the Russian side seeks . . . is one that gives them far greater control over the whole [military] dynamic,” said the official. “It is a steady ratchet.”
A major red flag for western militaries would be if any Russian troops or equipment “stay forever, if they are permanently integrated”, the official added. “If the exercise ends, and the forces don’t go home, that matters . . . similar to the situation this summer around Ukraine: what are the leave-behinds?”
Both Putin and Lukashenko have said that the drills are not aimed at any foreign enemy, but are justified due to what they say is heightened Nato military activity along their borders. In May and June 28,000 troops from Nato states took part in the alliance’s Defender Europe exercises in 16 countries in southern and eastern Europe, drawing Kremlin ire.
Kalle Laanet, Estonia’s defence minister, said that this year’s version of the quadrennial exercise was notable due to the “huge number” of shipments of heavy equipment to Belarus, alongside the deployment of Russian troops in five different Belarusian regions.
“The increasingly autocratic Belarus is, by all means, the Kremlin’s vassal. Alexander Lukashenko cannot any longer refuse proposals from his saviour, Vladimir Putin,” Laanet said on Saturday in a statement to the country’s state-run news agency.
The Zapad war games, which will conclude on Thursday, have involved remote-controlled Platform-M combat robots armed with grenade launchers and a machine gun, in what Russian news agencies reported was the first time they had been used.