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Even a Major Military Exercise Like Zapad Can’t Fix Some of the Biggest Security Challenges Facing Russia

Zapad-2021 was the largest Russian military exercise in the country’s most important strategic theater in recent memory. But the security challenges the country is facing from the Baltic to the Black Sea are even bigger, and no amount of military drills can fix them.

Published on September 21, 2021

The much-anticipated joint Russian-Belarusian military exercise called Zapad (which translates as west) concluded on September 16. The large-scale military drills, conducted in western Russia and Belarus, reportedly involved as many as 200,000 troops from Russia, Belarus, and several other countries participating in the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization. That number is probably inflated and includes all military personnel participating in the drills, parallel exercises, and logistics throughout the drill’s duration.

This exercise was larger than its earlier iterations—previous Zapad exercises in 2013 and 2017 involved between 50,000 and 75,000 troops. Zapad-2017 also took place in part on Belarussian territory and was built around the scenario of Belarus being destabilized by hostile agents supported and directed by the West. That scenario turned out to be prophetic as Belarus erupted in mass protests in response to the deeply compromised presidential election of August 2020, prompting fears of Russia intervening militarily to quell the unrest.

Alarm Bells Ringing in Europe

The size and scale of this year’s exercise—known as Zapad-2021, which involved ground, air, and naval units from the Kola Peninsula to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea—understandably have triggered alarms in Europe, especially in the frontline Baltic states and Poland. Their history with and proximity to Russia—combined with the Kremlin’s saber rattling—are more than enough to explain their unease.

Smaller and militarily weaker than their giant neighbor, they look to NATO for reassurance and security guarantees. But the alliance’s promise to defend them is never enough, given the constraints imposed by geography and unwieldy internal deliberation procedures together with the unthinkable prospect of an all-out war with Russia that those guarantees entail.

However, it pays to step back from the Zapad-2021 frenzy and put the exercise in the wider context of the situation along the NATO-Russia divide. The results will be far less reassuring for the Kremlin than some headlines might suggest, although it is not likely to reassure those allies who are most directly vulnerable to the Russian threat and who would bear the brunt of the Russian offensive should the unthinkable happen.

Russia’s Troublesome Western Border

Beginning with Belarus, which was the site of major Zapad-2021 activity, reports of closer ties between Moscow and Minsk fail to fully reflect the problem that Belarus has become for the Kremlin. The regime of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has survived the mass unrest in the aftermath of the deeply compromised 2020 presidential election—at the price of irredeemably becoming Europe’s outcast.

Aside from the reputational stain on the Kremlin, backing Lukashenko carries the risk of antagonizing Belarusian society, where Russia remains popular but is also widely seen as Lukashenko’s sole source of support. Should the Lukashenko regime again come under pressure from domestic opposition, the Kremlin would be tempted to intervene to avert another scenario similar to the Ukraine crisis of 2014. Such a turn of events would be fraught with unpredictable consequences—internal unrest in Belarus and a major escalation of tensions with NATO.

Should Russian leaders decide to move in militarily to pacify Belarus, undoubtedly under the guise of protecting its neighbor from NATO-sponsored unrest and the supposed threat of aggression, they would inevitably face the decision about the next step. This would entail seizing the 100-kilometer (about 60- mile) strip of land known as the Suwalki Gap, which runs along the Polish-Lithuanian border and separates Belarus from the Russian enclave called Kaliningrad. That would be the major, Rubicon-like line to cross, for such an assault on a NATO country would trigger Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty and probably the start of World War III.

But from the perspective of Russian military planners, such a move could well be unavoidable to prevent NATO from reinforcing the Baltics via the only available land bridge and from cutting off Kaliningrad from the Russian mainland. Weighing the risk of sparking World War III against backing Lukashenko, who is unpopular in both Moscow and Minsk, is hardly an enviable task.

Two Enclaves, Two Problems

As a military asset, Kaliningrad is a problem from hell for the Kremlin. The heavily militarized enclave, cut off from mainland Russia by Belarus and Lithuania, is both threatening to its NATO neighbors and threatened by them. In a crisis, a first mover—whether Russia or NATO—would weigh the risk of starting World War III against the operational benefits of securing the land bridge between the Baltics and the rest of NATO, on the one hand, and between Kaliningrad and (presumably) Russian-aligned Belarus, on the other. A first mover’s operational gain would carry with it unspeakable risks of an outright catastrophe.

The situation is hardly better for the Kremlin when it comes to the other enclave on its southern flank—Crimea. The peninsula, seized and annexed by Russia in 2014 in an undeclared war against Ukraine, is another heavily militarized region bristling at its Black Sea neighbors with all manner of air-, naval-, and land-based military assets.

But while threatening to its neighbors, Crimea is also a major point of vulnerability for Russia. The seizure of Crimea was successful as a land grab, but it has turned Ukraine into an adversary whose population is solid in its support for NATO and EU membership. The international community considers Crimea’s annexation to be illegal.

Crimea is only connected to Russia by one recently constructed bridge. In the event of a major military crisis, Russia probably would have to seize even more Ukrainian territory to secure a reliable land route to Crimea. That would in turn translate into a requirement to tie up significant Russian military assets along the 2,000-kilometer (around 1,250-mile) border with Ukraine.

Besides Ukraine, the environment around the Black Sea is decidedly hostile to Russia. Georgia’s defeat in the 2008 war with Russia did not diminish its enthusiasm for membership in NATO. Romania and Bulgaria are NATO members. Romania hosts a U.S. Aegis Ashore missile defense system as part of NATO missile defenses. Turkey is the critical NATO ally in the Black Sea region that controls access to the Mediterranean and—despite its on-again, off-again flirtations with Russia—has been making inroads in several former Soviet countries that Moscow has guarded jealously as its sphere of influence.

Russia has been building up its land, air, and naval forces in Crimea. Its anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities there have been deemed particularly threatening to its NATO neighbors. The recent incident involving the British destroyer HMS Defender crossing into the waters off Crimea—which Russia claims to be its territorial waters—demonstrated Russia’s neuralgic and insecure attitude toward its claim on Crimea.

However, there is a big difference between U.S. and British warships engaging in routine freedom of navigation operations in peacetime and a major NATO-Russia crisis, let alone outright NATO-Russia hostilities. It is hard to imagine that in such circumstances any warships of nonlittoral states would be sailing in the Black Sea, within the Crimea A2/AD bubble. U.S., British, and other nonlittoral states’ navies would be better off operating in the Eastern Mediterranean, where Russia is outnumbered and where their naval forces would be beyond the reach of most Russian A2/AD assets in Crimea and even in Syria—yet still capable of targeting both with their own weapons systems. The Russian Navy has been deploying other weapons systems that would threaten NATO sea- and land-based assets, and there is no need to make its mission easier.

Reaping the Benefits?

The two enclaves—Kaliningrad, formerly known as Konigsberg, which was seized by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II, and Crimea—while threatening their immediate neighbors, add little to Russia’s security. Their value is in their offensive potential—but that very potential poses risks to the Russian heartland that are beyond anything that can be corrected by Zapad-2021 or any other exercise.

Having disrupted the status quo in European security by annexing Crimea, abandoning the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty, and violating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the Kremlin has refocused NATO on the threat from the east, which prior to 2014 was largely ignored or glossed over. Russia is now facing the prospect, even if still remote, of U.S. intermediate-range land-based missiles returning to Europe.

With Zapad-2021, the Russian military has demonstrated that it can threaten Russia’s neighbors. But Zapad can do little to offset the real threats to Russia’s own security—most of which have been created by Russia itself.

Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.