Overview: Zapad-2021

This post will briefly provide an exercise overview, and some coverage of preceding events on September 6-9. Special thanks to Konrad Muzyka (Rochan Consulting) for helping me collect some of the activities, and contribute to the writeups. We teamed up for Kavkaz-2020, which worked out well, and will try to repeat that here for Zapad-2021. Unfortunately, so far there’s been less coverage of this exercise available in the Russian press and official MoD releases than in previous years.

Official Russian MoD graphic

Zapad-2021 Overview

Technically this is a Strategic Command-Staff Exercise (СКШУ), but it has been re-designated a Joint Strategic Exercise (ССУ), most likely because it involves Belarus and a number of other countries. According to the Russian MoD the total exercise participant count is 200k, but no more than 6400 under any single operational command which is their supposed loophole under the Vienna Document. Belarus has claimed that its component taking place on Belarusian soil will be a total of 12,800, with 2,500 Russian troops involved. In Russia there are at least 9 training ranges and an additional 5 in Belarus, plus a training sector most likely around Grodno. Northern Fleet seems excluded from the described scope of activity, but clearly has a component in this exercise and is starting major activities on the same day. However, the real numbers of Russian forces involved in Belarus appear quite larger as units have been deploying there since July. Actual size of the exercise seems to vary depending on who is talking about it. Zvezda featured a map which shows 15 Russian training ranges, as opposed to the officially released 9. That’s not including Northern Fleet participation.

A further 2,000 coalition forces from 7 countries also participating, most probably at Mulino. Seems India, Pakistan, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, Sri Lanka are involved with small contingents. These coalition elements began training on September 6, Russia is supplying the exercise equipment. Earlier in August a joint exercise with China in China’s northwest called Interaction2021 was relabeled as part of the overall Zapad-2021 series of events. Russian forces deployed to China for that event in early August. Technically Zapad has been taking place for several months since forces have been deploying in July to various training ranges.

Because of the time scope its not possible to cover all the days of events preceding September 10, and some of the associated events playing out in other districts, so choices have to be made – will be keeping this largely to Western Military District, Belarus, and some activities of Northern Fleet JSC.

Opening ceremony – Mulino

Exercise scenario

A Western coalition comprised of three states/forces seeks to wrest Belarus (Polesie) away from its alliance with Russia (Central Federation) by force, conduct regime change in Minsk, and annex Western parts of the country. Western coalition consists of Nyaris, Pomorie, and Polar Republic. These seem to represent Lithuania, Poland, also parts of Latvia, and likely NATO coalition forces deployed in Poland. They are opposed by the Northern Coalition composed of Russia and Belarus. After failing to achieve its objectives via indirect means, the Western coalition declares an ultimatum demanding complete withdrawal of Russian forces (Sept 1). Subsequently, they conduct missile and air strikes in Belarus/Russia (likely MRAU Sept 2-5), and then on Sept 6-10 they cross the border penetrating to a depth of 150km into Belarusian territory. Northern coalition forces defend their positions, a Regional Grouping of Forces (joint formation of Russian & Belarusian forces) attempts to repel the aerospace attack and mount a defense. Central Federation forces have deployed 11th tank and 51st Army into Belarus (11th probably representing 1st GTA, 30th represents 20th CAA), meanwhile 51st army is a stand in for 41st CAA. Whats the method here? Exercise army number -10 = actual army it represents.

General exercise map
Western Coalition strikes as illustrated

Timeline: Looks like preparatory drills at training ranges September 6-9, formal opening ceremonies have been held on Sept 9. During the first three days on Sept 10-12 the exercise focuses on deploying forces, logistics, and mounting defensive combat operations (usually parrying aerospace attack, deploying forces under fire, airborne flanking raids, counterattacks and strikes, etc.), then Sept 13-16 emphasis is on destroying the opponent (establishing fire cauldrons to degrade opponent forces, setting conditions for counteroffensive, then conducting a counteroffensive to restore status quo ante bellum, and attaining war termination). Exercise completes by September 16th, and by Sept. 30th Russian forces are supposed to return to their bases.

Briefing presented at Mulino training range
Capture from the briefing: note discussion of MRAU (Massed Missile-Aviation Strike) a frequently used term for the form a NATO aerospace attack will take in the initial period of war.

September 6-9: Brief round up

An Iskander-M battalion in Leningrad Oblast deploys to a training range, simulates electronic strikes against opponent command posts deep behind enemy lines, in coordination with drones (presumably for targeting), conducts reload drills.

Northern Fleet’s naval infantry (about 200 troops and 20xBTR-80) trained in loading equipment onto 3 Ropucha-class LSTs belonging to the Baltic Fleet in Baltiysk (Korolev, Kaliningrad, Minsk) , and 1 Ropucha-class LST that came down from the Northern Fleet (Olengorskiy Gorniyak).

At Mulino reconnaissance units practiced integration between KRUZ Strelets reconnaissance complex, using laser rangefinders, then relaying coordinates to Msta-SM2 self-propelled artillery (500 troops and 70 pieces of equipment involved). In a separate exercise Grad BM-21 batteries were used with MSTA-S SPA, and mortar units to destroy enemy targets at ranges up to 20km, along with practicing displacement and counterbattery fire. Orlan-10 drones and Strelets systems used for targeting. Heavy artillery like 203mm Malka also training at Mulino and Liada, along with BM-30 Smerch MLRS systems at a range of about 50km. They’re practicing coordinating the use of long range MLRS and 203mm artillery ahead of a planned employment of an artillery grouping of forces that essentially combines different types – as was seen last year during Kavkaz, the final event included simultaneous strikes by SRBM, long range MLRS, and artillery units.

Units belonging to one of the 6th CAA motor rifle brigades practiced a combined arms operation  – defensive battle against an attacking opponent, using T-73B3, BM-21 Grad, 2S1 Gvozdika, and Sani mortars. Motor rifle units in this fight were supported by Ka-52 helicopters from army aviation units, and Orlan-10 drones for ISR.

Other trainings of note: Engineer-sapper units in Voronezh and Belgorod practiced overcoming minefields, using KMT-7 counter-mine systems. At Mulino sappers used Uran-6 demining UGVs, and liberated a town together with military police. Light reconnaissance units conducted a 100km march using Tigr vehicles, to sever an opponent’s lines of communication and detect their formations using Eleron drones.

Engineer-sapper units in action

A separate training in Pskov features Mi-28N attack helicopters against an enemy command point (10 helicopters). Exercise appeared to be largely unguided rocket fire against fixed targets. Western MD tactical aviation was used to intercept enemy reconnaissance aircraft with Su-30SMs, in coordination with air defense systems and radar. In one briefing map they showed opponent forces fielding Global Hawks. There was a series of drills for Kaliningrad’s mixed aviation regiment with about 20 aircraft of different types, ranging from air combat for Su-30SM units, to strike missions for Mi-24s, and ASW for Ka-27s. S-400 ADS units belonging to the Baltic Fleet conducted air defense exercises uses Su-27s and Su-30SMs to imitate opponents, operating in a contested EW environment. At Luzhsky, Pantsir-S1 air defense units trained in repelling an aerospace attack by a squadron of enemy strike drones. PVO-SV units at Mulino (Strela-10, Osa, Tunguska-M, Igla) similarly practiced air defense, with Ka-52 and Mi-8 AMTSh helicopters serving as the opposing force. Also Western MD air defense units are deploying to Ashuluk, Astrakhan.

Additional media:

Opening ceremony

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