Parallel to the recent escalation in Ukraine, the army in Belarus has entered the mobilization of its armed forces and begun to erect fortifications. Additionally, a border zone has been set up with Russia at critical sections. It also has been reported that coordination for the deployment of Russian paratroopers is going on.
As has been stated earlier, Russia is planning to transfer its 1st Guards Tank Army for “field” tests to western Belarus, the official date had been given with September 2017. In regard to recent Russian war tactics it has to be kept in mind that Russian regular units always have been used as back-up forces – after the adversary already had been weakened by “hybrid” forces.
Previous “Zapad”-exercises were directed to Scandinavia, the Baltic states and Poland (see for example here for a discussion of Zapad-2013). Edward Lucas wrote in June 2015: “A snap drill in Kaliningrad in December caught NATO completely by surprise. Much larger exercises inMarch, involving probably 33,000 troops, took place in response to a notional Western attempt to create a ‘Maidan’ uprising in Moscow. The scenario included the speedy seizure of northern Norway,the Åland islands (demilitarized Finnish territory, populated by Swedish-speakers), the Swedish island of Gotland and the Danish island of Bornholm. If carried out successfully, control of those territorieswould make it all but impossible for NATO allies to reinforce the Baltic states.”
Additionally, there has been information on possible “Maidan”-like protests in Minsk.
As of mid-February 2017 the situation can be described as a larger military mobilization – both in Russia and Belarus. The mobilization in Belarus has been officially sold as having the purpose of territorial defense. But it has to be reminded here that Belarus can be considered an “extension” of the Russian western military district given the Russian influences (some have claimed the majority of officers was feeling they would belong to Russia; also the higher command of the army has a Russian background).
As of 8 February Russian railway units (officially Smolensk and Rjazan) have been alerted; also the Russian long-range military transport aircraft (i.e. paratrooper transport) has been checked.
As of 14 February the mobilization in the Russian western military district includes fuel supply transports, reserve call-ups, naval bases, artillery units (according to official reports 10.000 men with 2000 units of equipment, including “Iskander”-units), paratrooper checks etc – the total number of mobilized in this region can be around 100.000 men – see here for updates.
As of 1 March there are again combined paratrooper exercises near the border of Estonia (Pskov Oblast, officially around a thousand men from Russia and Belarus). Also, coodination meetings have been taking place in Sochi (under the cover of military winter games last week; Lukashenka also participating). Near St. Petersburg, ground helicopter crew tests have started, plus Minsk saw a “rehearsal” for the police day (while Russian speznaz/paratroopers had been reported to have been present in the city in order to organize upcoming “exercises”).
The drills in Belarus were to continue in the first week of March, including reservists. Plus, Russia not only tested paratroopers from Belarus and Russia (according to official reports some 600 men and three military vehicles “jumped” in a coordinated move). Additionally, some dozen ships went out to the Baltic Sea for an artillery test (and later returned to Kaliningrad); while other artillery units trained at Luga (some 50km east of the border with Estonia).
As of mid-March it can be stated that the last weeks have seen massive airborne training (Orenburg, Rjazan and other locations). As of now, some paratroopers are already on the move (e.g. Pskov units officially to Dzankoj at the administrative border with Crimea). Also it had been officially stated that paratroopers from Tula are expected western Belarus in the next few weeks (or days). It can be suggested that other units are moving as well.
Moreover, there have been reports in the last days that suggested the presence of Russian speznaz at the recent protest locations in Belarus.
Finland in the last weeks has speeded up training against hybrid scenarios of Russian warfare – Russia for its part this week will be massively present with its airforce, officially more than 50 teams of its tactical aviation, some hundred km from the Finnish border (Lagoda area; among other shipments into the region).
Update 21 March: As suspected Lukashenka echos the Moscow-line and claims that armed “militants” have been arrested, supported by Lithuania and Poland; also blaming Ukraine of training them militarily. In the meantime, Ukraine has stepped up security at its border with Belarus. Activities in and around Kaliningrad continue to be high; an unusual high number of US reconaissance flights has been taking place in the last two weeks. On 20 March, the Swedish parliament had an evacuation (war) exercise, the first since 1997. Also, nuclear bunkers on Gotland will be prepared for use. On 23 March, there was information on another iodine-leak – the first having been communicated in January – measured near the Kola Peninsula. This could suggest Russian testing of “modified” nuclear weapons to be used in possible future war operations in order to spread maximum public (media) panic; but actual damage not being sufficient to provoke a full-scale nuclear war.
Update 24 March: There has been information of additional units of Russian paratroopers (Ivanovo) being transported to Belarus. Lukashenka has continued to push the western detabilization narrative amid further arrests (some 300 persons from the opposition already arrested). Both the country’s armed forces and police have entered an enhanced stage of readiness.
Update 12 April: Protests in Belarus have calmed down, while authorities accused some 30 persons of creating an “illegal armed group“. Belsat reported that Tula-paratroopers had arrived to Brest on 11 April: “Representatives of the 38th Independent Guards Airborne Brigade of the Belarusian army and a company from Russia’s 106th Guards Airborne Division are taking part in the exercise at Brestski training ground near the Belarusian city of Brest.” The Russian defense ministry on 10 April mentioned the presence (of the infamous as for their participation in the summer 2014 invasion in Ukraine) 76th Pskov division at Brest; officially to coordinate “Slavjanskoe bratstvo-2017”. Brest sits at the border with Poland, at a crucial strategic location.
On 8/9 April, the Russian defense ministry had boasted to have trained some additional 5000 paratroopers in the “winter training period” – and that until 17 May some 50.000 men would be parachuted. In this regard we have seen busy preparations of the Russian airforce in the last weeks. On 11 April it was communicated that the western military disctrict’s units will be mobilized, including all regions (and possibly also Belarus); amongst additional activities of the Baltic Fleet.
As of 30 April 2017 there have been more regular western reconaissance missions in regard to the Baltic region (also with focus on Poland / Germany), with little available official Russian information on undergoing trainings (e.g. there has been no official information on a large number of men having been parachuted since the beginning of April).
Shortly ahead of 9th May, there has been significant military movement in Kaliningrad (see for example here for equipment of the Baltic Fleet); it also has been held that ships scheduled to take place in the St. Petersburg parade left in order to take over positions at Kronstadt and Baltiysk (opposite of the Polish port of Gdynia). Ukrainian observers claim Russia has been masking mobilization efforts as preparations for 9th May parades.
Update 5 June 2017: Russia has since several week not held a larger snap drill exercise (at least not openly) – some obervers have interpreted this as a concentration on larger upcoming events, on of which will be “Zapad-2017”. Official Russian sources have reported on another airborne exercise near the Polish(Ukrainian) border, Pskov paratroopers reportedly arriving by train, and the delivery of T-72B3 tanks to Belarus. In a recent interview Ukrainian parliamentarian deputy and military analyst Dmytro Tymchuk has held that “little green men” can be expected any time in Belarus.
7 June 2017: The Russian defense minister announced that Russian Aerospace Forces have arrived at Baranovichi (some 150km from Polish and Lithuanian borders), possibly air defense and anti-missile forces with their material (some six Il-76 planes).
At the end of June 2017 it can be stated there has been usual little (official) activity in the western military district since the beginning of the summer training season. Seemingly, efforts have been taken to maintain vehicles etc. The official announcement for the next bigger event is a lager VDV ‘exercise’ with several 10.000 men near the border with Estonia and Finland starting in the next few days. The latter (coincidently?) have been shown again as part of the Russian Empire this week on Russian military TV Zvezda. The last two, three weeks indeed have seen another round of the “west is going to attack us” rhetoric (including the comparison of NATO to Nazi Germany).
16 July 2017: In the first half of July, there has been some western reporting on the upcoming exercise, offering little information in order to assess the upcoming events. Information Resistance has just noted that the number of Russian troops at the border with Belarus/Ukraine is assessed to be some 23.000 men; 5000 men have already underwent training in Belarus. According to information (Ukrainian military intelligence) authorities in Belarus have begun to clear sensitive areas around the announced training areas etc. Also, Natalya Radina from Charter 97 in Belarus had pointed to the fact that the interior minister (a native from Ukraine’s Luhansk region) has called for the creation of militia in order to fight “crime” which might be a cover operation for the creation of pro-Russian armed forces as seen in the beginning of 2014 in Ukraine.
As for Russian military exercises it can be noted that (the above announced) large paratrooper exercises have not taken place or in a reduced scope. Instead, there has been another round of landing exercises and a high activity of the Russian Baltic Sea Fleet (officially training for a St. Petersburg parade), including ships of the Russian Northern Fleet. Currently, a few dozen Russian warships and submarines concentrate in the area – also, three Chinese ships have joined them in order to underline the Chinese-Russian alliance against the US (western combined military forces).
It now is more and more discussed that the “Zapad-2017” might be a fake set-up (which would be just to the liking of the Russian leadership) – either in terms of the official timetable given or in regard to its purpose, for example leaving Russian troops and material in Belarus after the drill (see here for example; this is not entirely new as such a possibility has been already mentioned some months earlier by representatives from Ukraine or the Baltic states). Some also have brought up the version that it might be a cover for a “real” Russian military offensive against Ukraine. In regard to real Russian military activities and drills, an aggressive move against northern Europe also cannot be ruled out before, during or after “Zapad-2017”. Also, Ukrainian Defense Minister Polorak pointed at this option finding on 21 July: “They could be used to launch an aggression against not only Ukraine but also against any other country of Europe that shares a border with Russia.” From the military training pattern of the Russian army since 2015 it indeed cannot be ruled out that Russia – and in the worst case also its allies in the Near and Far East – are going to strike simultaneously. This presumably also would have the advantage of surprising and paralyzing the western world that has relied on the US for political and military guidance so far. Most of the decision-makers in the US, the Republican Party responsible in particular at this point of time are a school book example for the degradation of the global elite and seem to prefer cash and personal interests over the security of their own countries, in the case of the US however of the entire world.
The new US envoy to Ukraine, Volker, just admitted (what analysts have pointed to since early 2015) that Russia has more tanks in Ukraine than all western European armies combined. In combination with the recent information that the new Russian railway line Rostov-Voronezh bypassing Ukrainian territory is more or less operationable, this gives way to some more reflections: As Russia faces numerous mine fields and trenches in the western direction (Luhansk/Donetsk region) – how are they going to use those tanks efficiently? A reasonable decision would be to send them both south (Mariupol-direction, land-brigde Crimea operation) and north (either going for Kyiv or in a more complicated operation via Belarus further west). This could also explain the more than 4.000 railway carriages, Russia has allegedly prepared for “Zapad”.
For the time being, Russia spreads information on mobilizing troops into the Ukrainian direction (so far some 36.000 Russian troops have been brought into combat-readiness within transport distance from Ukraine, excluding VDV troops so far), and rather plays down its ongoing military preparations taking place in the western military district (notably the Kaliningrad and Leningrad region).