Belarus, Russia to Stage European Defense Exercise

NATO is not alarmed by the deployment of hundreds of vehicles and thousands of soldiers.

Belarus and Russia are due to hold their joint Zapad (“West”) 2013 military exercise next week, a combined operational training involving nearly 13,000 personnel, 350 combat vehicles, including seventy tanks, over fifty artillery units, Multiple Launch Rocket Systems as well as over fifty aircraft and ships, including the Azov amphibious support vessel to rehearse and test rapid reaction capabilities across Belarus and Russia’s Western Military District. The majority of activity will be concentrated around Russia’s Kaliningrad Oblast and at six Belarusian firing ranges, along with limited naval components in the Baltic and Barents Seas.

This mobilization marks an upgrade from the last Russian-Belarusian exercise, Zapad 2009, which involved only two hundred vehicles. The 2009 exercise was centered around missile defense, including a controversial hypothetical nuclear strike on a neighboring country.

Interestingly, this year Russia will be supplying 2,500 personnel, a limited number when compared to Belarus’ expected deployment of 10,000. The simulation is to be focused on deterioration of state relationships from interethnic conflict, ethnoreligious problems and territorial claims thereof. These are all “hot topics” at the moment and parallels can not only be draw across the region but worldwide.

Belarusian armed forces activity will mostly be domestic yet their 103rd Independent Mobile Brigade is expected to deploy to Russia. Belarus’ defense minister, Yuri Zhadobin, reiterates that these defensive exercises “will confirm Belarus’ commitment to its obligations with Russia.” Russian army general Valery Gerasimov has been in Minsk to liaise with his Belarusian counterparts in preparation for the exercise. The first train cars of Russian soldiers arrived last week.

At least one stage of the exercise will also test the Collective Security Treaty Organization’s rapid reaction units. It is possible these units will include personnel from other CSTO states besides Belarus and Russia — Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Their participation is part of the Vzaimodeystviye (“Interaction”) 2013 exercise. For the last three years, CSTO forces have held exercises in Russia (2010), Tajikistan (2011) and Armenia (2012). This year, some three hundred CSTO rapid reaction force personnel is expected to be involved.

The Belarusian authorities have indicated that new and emerging defense technologies will be used during the event, including equipment that has not yet passed final operational deployment tests. Such hardware includes indigenously produced Belarusian electronic warfare systems, navigation, radar and unmanned aerial vehicles.

Unique to this year’s event is the Russian Ministry of Defense’s decision to invite American military experts to monitor the engagement. The Americans accepted the invitation “eagerly,” according to Russia’s defense minister Sergei Shoigu. By inviting international observers to attend Zapad 2013, he seeks to create an environment of transparency and a tool for building trust now and in the future.

American-Russian relations have been tested in recent weeks by the conflict in Syria, where Russia supports the regime of President Bashar Assad while the United States sympathize with the rebellion. Bilateral military cooperation, however, has seen an upturn over the last year, coinciding with Shoigu’s appointment last November. He seeks to expand cooperation beyond Russia’s key roles in international anti-piracy operations and training and logistics in Afghanistan, especially to improve dialogue and enhance relationships at the deputy defense minister level, even requesting regular videoconferences between the American and Russian defense departments.

While security leadership in neighboring NATO countries, especially Poland and Latvia, interpret Zapad 2013 as having a potentially aggressive character, the alliance as a whole has not made any political comments. NATO has similarly invited Russian observers to attend its Steadfast Jazz exercise in Poland and the Baltics this November. Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen does not view the Belarusian-Russian exercise as a threat. He, too, seeks to increase transparency on all sides, acknowledging that military trainings are necessary to test capabilities and remain vigilant but maintaining that exchange of information of plans is paramount if the former Cold War rivals are truly to improve mutual trust.