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).
27 July: This had to be expected. The Russian president during his visit of the small Finnish city of Savonlinna (near the Russian border) denied both the Petersburg Naval Parade (and according military activities) and the recent Russian-Chinese coordinated military activities should be interpreted as threats or a military bloc (Hitler-Stalin greeting?). Anyway, the last weeks have also seen significant preparations of the Chinese army that would allow for significant aggressive operations in East Asia. As for NATO deterrence there are no official major actions planned for August. So be prepared for possible surprises.
We also have increasing reports for the last two days on Russian troops moving near Ukrainian borders and on Crimea (as the southern military district has been alerted, officially with command and staff exercises). The western military district has been announced to have been alerted already (artillery, missile troops etc.). There are also reports from Belarus on troop movements (see here).
As of 1 August, the Baltic Fleet (and possibly other ships having been at the military parades in Kronstadt and Petersburg) are moving in the Baltic Sea, together with the Russian airforce. In fact, this day has seen intensive activities of the Russian military in the region. Besides, signal troops of the whole western military district have been officially alerted (including regions bordering with Ukraine). The Ukrainian Information Resistance also has pointed to Russian units being moved closer to Ukraine’s Kharkiv region.
Russia just has announced an “exercise” (undated) to take over (Russian) Baltic islands which can be interpreted as simulation to take over Bornholm, Gotland and Åland. The international situation is such at the moment that a Russian simulation could quickly turn into real.
As of 5 August, motorized rifle units of the Baltic Fleet, and engineering and medical troops of the western military district are out for exercises, competitions etc. The Russian defense ministry also has communicated a meeting of the military council of the western military district in St. Petersburg on 4 August.
Additionally, there has been an official announcement on S-400 and “Pantsir” “exercises” near the Finnish border, starting from 8 August. Ria also reports that heavy artillery units from Tambov have arrived in the Leningrad Oblast, some 50km east of Estonia’s border.
As of 8 August, there is more information on Russia moving troops to the frontier with Poland (e.g. “Uragans” in Brest); apparently three major Russian attack ships also continue to “loiter” in the Baltic Sea. Moreover, military units in the Leningrad Oblast have been alerted and are moving west; all this amongst a major paratrooper exercise (Pskov). More worringly, there also are credible pics and videos on the second echelon moving west (also in the Voronezh, Krasnodar – i.e. Ukrainian – direction).
As of mid-August it can be stated that the Russian training activity in the western military district remains intensive (see also for the high number of NATO interceptions in the first half of August). VDV-units are ready for any kind of operation. Moreover, on 15 August, the First Guards Tank Army has been alerted. Additionally, Russia has been testing its new digital battlespace.
On the propaganda front there are concerning developments: Ukraine has been falsely blamed for having supplied North Korea with rocket engines (this is for the foreign audience), and is presented (for the domestic audience) by Russian state TV as being responsible for a future nuclear armageddon (while Russia has been arming and partnering up with North Korea itself). This line of argument not only spares Russia from critique, but also presents Ukraine as evil and provides the necessary framework for future aggressive Russian steps against Ukraine.
As of 24 August it is clear that:
- Russia has again been lying on the purpose of “Zapad-17”. More than 5.500 (and possibly much more) logistic troops are currently preparing the Russian military (i.e. loading ships with weapons, getting ready railways etc. throughout the western military district). This means that the number of troops in a westward European move involved will be well over 100.000. Ukraine’s Turchynov has estimated that between 230.000 and 240.000 troops might be activated.
- As of today we also know that the above mentioned call-up of reservists has been activated. This might concern up to two million people (especially if Russia would seek a casus belli).
NATO reconaissance suggests that planes monitor movements of Kaliningrad-troops in regard to a possible Suwalki-gap move. Currently, VDV-units are concentrated at Pskov. There also have been aerosol fog tests in order to mask movements of the military (and possible loading). Also, the Russian Northern Fleet ships have been loaded with weapons.
Additionally, Russia has been refueling fighter jets in Belarus on highways during larger airforce exercises. There also have been reports, private enterprises received lists of products they would have to supply in times of war (to be handed over to the respective agencies until end of July already). While bloggers now discuss that “Zapad” in reality is a rehearsal for WWIII – and has already begun some time ago – western politics, media and “experts” still pretend nothing is going on. As they are well aware of the limited defense capabilities of the west (and unfortunately NATO, too – if not using nuclear weapons), they perhaps are convinced that ignoring Russian preparations for war and later also actual warfare (see Ukraine or Syria) will allow them to continue with business as usual and to cut a deal with Russia and its allies. So far, this approach has largely worked out for them.
At the end of August both the Russian Northern and Baltic Fleet are into readiness exercises (some 40 and 70 ships/vessels respectively). There also have been reports of additional An-124 transport plane and railway transports to the Murmansk and Brjansk/Smolensk regions (border with Finland and Belarus respectively). Concerning the south-western direction, the Russian southern military district has also announced an airforce and air defense battle alert.
Russia has as well presented a map for the official Zapad-narrative, targeting an imaginary enemy in northern Belarus. Note that in shifting this map slightly to the north, this area more or less creates a corridor between Kaliningrad, Belarus and the Russian Leningrad region (no wonder that Russian troops assemble now massively near Pskov). This Zapad-scenario would mean to occupy significant parts of Lithuania and Latvia and a few kilometers of Poland (the Suwalki gap).
This however is only one part of the story. As there also has been forward deployment into the northern direction, at the time of writing the Russian Northern Fleet is moving in direction to Svalbard. Troops and material also continue to concentrate in the Olenegorsk, Petersburg, Seshcha, Voronezh and Rostov areas. The Ukrainian General Staff estimates that at least 230.000 combat-ready troops have been prepared, yet (130.000 in the northwestern Baltic-Poland and some 100.000 in the southwestern Ukrainian direction respectively).
In the first September days, VDV-units have been moved further west: the 98th division to Pechenga (border with Finland-Norway) and the 76th VDV division to Kaliningrad. Parts of both divisions took part in Russia’s summer offensive against Ukraine in 2014.
As of 9/10 September, Russian armed forces basically have moved their most important forces to their points of destination (also apparently the units&material concentrated at Seshcha have been moved further west through Belarus; Belarus is de facto occupied by Russian troops now). Other transports are still departing and moving, namely to the Murmansk and Kaliningrad regions. As for Ukraine, obsevers have noted a significant concentration of units in the Voronezh and Krasnodar/Rostov region respectively.
Additionally, there have been various distractions, notably Russia bringing up “peacekeepers” for Ukraine (see the “humanitarian convoys” of summer 2014). Meanwhile, Russian state TV has claimed south-west Ukraine as being Russian territory, and Russian media seem to push the “NATO is preparing for an offensive on Russia” narrative again while Russian officials deny “Zapad” will involve 100.000 troops. Moreover, there have been several incidents this weekend, such as a Russian soldier swimming into Lithuania, cars exploding at the Terespol/Brest broder crossing, Saakashvili (with all the media attention he likes) trying to enter Ukraine via Przemysl.
Interestingly, the official west still accepts the Russian lie (another lie) that “Zapad” concentrates on Belarus, while there has been larger interconnected military planning, training and deployment since at least 2015. The current picture fits well into those developments. Thus, Russia had deployed forward forces to the boder with Norway (Barents Sea), Finland, the Baltic states (VDV units being ready for jumps onto the well-known strategic Baltic island if necessary), Poland, Ukraine, but also into the southern Georgian and Azerbaijan direction. If the Russian leadership should decide for offensive operations, the greater goal of this plan could be to create strategic corridors (Suwalki gap, Crimea land brigde etc) and the naval domination of international and western waterways.
Shoigu during his conference call with the most important Russian army commanders implicitly confirmed that “Zapad” had considered all Russian military units intendend for future offensive operations (probably not only into the western and south-western, but also in the eastern and southern direction). Another round of drills in the last September days and first October weeks has been reserved in order to fix the most urgent problems revealed during the most recent drills.
For offensive operations to start, all that is missing is a Gliwice-like provocation.
In such a case it also seems that Russia and its allies intend to strike only once, big and quick.
What is even more worrying is that it has been more or less confirmed by the first Ocotber 2017 week that Russia (and probably China) are able to read and follow the electronic conversation of western decision-makers and thus are always a step ahead in their actions.