Zapad 2021 – Day 1 (September 10)

The first part of the exercise usually involves practicing components of active defense, deflecting a massed missile-aviation attack, and engaging a superior ground force. There are flanking movements, airborne raids, counterattacks. Much of the opening day consisted of ground formations practicing maneuver defense against a superior force, airborne units conducting a night paradrop w/equipment, air defense and tactical aviation working in concert to repel an aerospace attack, and ships getting underway from their bases. Kaliningrad had a significant exercise, and there were a number of combined arms events at Mulino, along with training ranges in Belarus. Interesting support activities, setting up communications network, deploying medical units, engineers building command posts, firing positions, fortifications, etc. There are strong hints that tactical missile strikes are soon to come, and a mixed type artillery group will be formed to conduct coordinated fires later in the exercise.

Working with Konrad Muzyka to put some of this together – less information available on training activities than during past years.

Western MD tactical aviation (6th Air and Air Defense Army), began combat air patrols at forward airbases in Ryazan and Tambov regions, Su-35S and Su-30SM crews. The Su-35s involved is possibly the 790th Fighter Aviation Regiment. This development was a part of a larger deployment of combat aircraft and helicopters to operational airfields. This involved the entire range of Russian combat and logistics airframes including Su-35S, Su-30SM, MiG-31BM, Su-34, Mi-8s, Mi-35s, Ka-52s, and Mi-28Ns. Once deployed, they will practice delivering massive airstrikes on command posts and infrastructure of the “enemy”, repelling a massed missile airstrike using air bombs, guided and unguided air missiles, as well as cannons.

Kaliningrad – an exercise involving a BTG with considerable artillery support, with engineers first preparing fortifications and reserve firing positions. The main force conducted maneuver defense using BMP-3s, setting ambushes, and counterattacking the opposing formations. Tank detachments practiced luring enemy units into an ambush and retreating to prepared firing positions. Special attention paid to maintaining communications in a contested electronic environment, assuming the opponent was using EW against the unit. This exercise featured 1000 troops, 70 pieces of equipment, including T-73B3, BMP-2/3, 2s3 Akatsiya, BM-21 Grad, BM-27 Uragan, Tunguska-M1. Looks like Su-24s involved as well.

Anti-tank unit firing ATGMs in Kaliningrad

At Mulino, VKS air defense units composed of S-400 and Pantsir-S1 setup air defenses for the ground force formations. Once they reached the designated areas near Nizhny Novgorod, they repulsed a massive air strike of a mock enemy. More than 50 targets were detected in the entire range of heights and speeds. The exercise only involved electronic launches. Another detachment of air defense units is in Ashuluk, Astrakhan. This range is going to be used as part of the exercise even though it is not listed. Their job is to work with tactical aviation in repelling air attack, intercept cruise missiles (simulated with target imitators), and deal with enemy drones.

Armor units at Mulino (20th CAA) trained engaging enemy forces in defensive battle, using smokescreens T-72B3s withdrew under enemy fire, and repositioned their main force along echeloned lines. Description suggests Russian armor practicing maneuver defense, engaging to degrade forces, withdrawing to avoid being pinned, and repositioning again along new defensive lines to reengage at 1500km (pretty short range for a tank). There was some staple language regarding “nonstandard” approaches in tactics, creating new methods for training and preparations. They’re continuing the discussion on using new forms for training tank, motor rifle, and engineering units.

Military police subunits destroyed a sabotage and reconnaissance group of the mock enemy during its attempt to attack the command post of the 6th Combined Arms Army (6th CAA) (WMD). Simulated enemies, here played by WMD Spetsnaz, attempted to infiltrate the command post, mine its key facilities, and disrupt the operation of the communications system. So far there has been little information about the presence of units belonging to the 6th CAA in Zapad. At the Mulino Training Range, only one BTG from the 138th MRB is present.

VDV Airborne

Some 600 paras (one full BTG) and an unclear number of equipment (BMD variants, and Nona artillery – its a bit murky on how many) from the 76th Air Assault Division (possibly the 104th Air Assault Regiment). This was supposedly the Russian VDV’s first battalion sized night airdrop, using NVG equipment. Their task is to seize an enemy airbase, then defend it against counterattack during daytime. Supposedly they made a 100km march to Strugi Krasnye Training Range. The exercise description is a bit unclear, the vehicle numbers, distance to range, and troop numbers don’t quite add up. The 76th Air Assault Division is quite busy. It has three BTGs forward-deployed, one in the Kaliningrad Oblast and two in Belarus (Brest and Baranovichi). The BTG is Brest is without heavy equipment. 

76th nighttime drop

A battalion from the 137th Airborne Regiment of the 106th Airborne Division is getting ready to conduct a full battalion airdrop with 30 BMD-4Ms. This is the first time the battalion will conduct such a drop. Altogether 15 Il-76 MD transport aircraft are involved in the operation. They will fly from Dyagilevo in the Ryazan Region to Ulyanovsk-Vostochny and then back to Zhitovo landing site in the Ryazan region when the drop will occur.

106th Division next on deck

Elements of the 98th Airborne Division along with a Belarusian SOF unit (unclear which – perhaps 5th Spetsnaz Brigade?) concluded a three-day special forces exercise. They practiced joint reconnaissance operations in unfamiliar terrain or destroyed objects of a conditional enemy. They also did joint jumps including over a town. Specifically, after the jump, they bypassed obstacles, installed anti-tank mines and seized designated areas. Operations were done in full gear. The active phase of the exercise finished on 9th September. Units are now ‘restoring their combat capability and are awaiting further instructions’. They may be utilized again soon. Altogether 40 Belarusians and 350 Russians were involved in this exercise.

VDV units practice setting up surveillance equipment

Supporting activities

Signal and electronic warfare units belonging to the Western Military District deployed digital communication systems, automated C2 systems, satellite uplinks. The system is supposedly concealed from enemy electronic warfare, and defended against enemy drones. Emphasis placed on 4 echelons: mil district command, joint formation, combined arms formation, battalion level. About 1500 personnel involved, 600 pieces of equipment, communications stations R-160-0.5 and digital complexes P-240I-4 Pereselenets.

Military topographers at Mulino training range created 3D topographical models of the battlespace to enable navigation systems. They used geodesic-navigational systems PNGK-1 and topographic systems PtsTS, to build a 3D model of the battlefield. Meanwhile military training specialists (about 200) have setup a complex target environment, with 15,000 targets, echeloned across Mulino training range at a depth of up to 20km.

Engineers belonging to 20th CAA setup fixed field and mobile command points, with camouflage and fortifications. These were dugout with excavators, then power supply provided using ED-1000 and ED-100 generators. Medical detachments have also been deployed, including МОСН units (special purpose medical detachments). CBRN specialists belonging to 1st Guards Tank Army conducted measurements and surveilled the environment using new RKhM-6 equipment. As has often been the case, there is a strong role for aerosol camouflage units, using TDA-M smokescreens to create an aerosol masking for movement of ground forces.

Drone units operating Orlan-10s, the workhorse of Russian drone reconnaissance

Training events in Belarus

Baranovichi Air Base – Russian Su-30SMs from the 14th Fighter Aviation Regiment based in Khalino airfield in Kursk began joint combat duty with their Belarusian counterparts. Belarus keeps some Mig-29s and up to four Su-30SMs at this base.

Brest Training Range – Elements of the Russian 15th MRR of the 2nd MRD Division conducted a river crossing operation over Mukhovets River, east of Brest. Some 10-13 BMP-2s were involved, suggests a company-level operation. A subunit from the Belarusian 6th Mechanized Brigade could have also been engaged in this exercise. Other elements of the 6th Mechanized Brigade conducted maneuver defense with a reinforced mechanized battalion against a superior enemy force. Under cover of air and artillery strikes, the servicemen reached the main defensive line. Reportedly they also exercises new forms and methods of combating unmanned aerial vehicles.

Sizable counterattack being practiced by T-80Us (1st GTA, 4th Division) and VDV BMDs, at Baranovichi in Belarus

The 174th Domanovsky Air and Air Defense Forces Training Ground – Belarusian elements of the 38th Airborne Assault Brigade conducted reconnaissance in wooded areas, discovering the OPFOR base. An airborne assault company carried out a raid on the base eliminating and capturing some forces. 

The remaining elements of the conditional illegal armed group tried to break through one of the blocking lines using a UAV to reconnoiter escape routes. Opposing forces pushed forward in combat vehicles, but were destroyed by Belarusian units. In the meantime, an air defense platoon engaged light aircraft and helicopters of the opposing forces with MANPADS and Zu-23-2 anti-aircraft guns.

Advanced elements of the Russian 76th Air Assault Division along with the leadership headquarters of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Belarus conducted reconnaissance of the Brest and Obuz-Lesnovsky (this is Baranovichi Training Range or the 230th Combined Arms Training Range) ranges, examined the sites for the forthcoming landing of the operational-tactical assault force. The Russian MoD states that during the active phase of Zapad paratroopers from Russia and Belarus will practice airborne assault including airdropping personnel and equipment, destroying a simulated enemy in the landing area, holding forward lines to ensure successful action of the main grouping of troops. This means that we can expect some airborne drops around Baranovichi and Brest in the coming days.

Also in Belarus, subunits of the regional military police department and the military automobile inspection of the Western Military District went on duty. Russian military police, together with units of the military commandant’s offices of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Belarus will ensure security and carry out round-the-clock patrolling and protection of exercise sites, command posts, as well as ensure the observance of law and order and military discipline in the areas where troops are stationed.

A training event roundup in this video

Northern Fleet

There are several Northern Fleet exercises under way which are billed as a separate set of activities involving 8,000 servicemen, 800 pieces of military equipment, 120 drones, and 50 ships. These exercises will take place in Murmansk region, Barents, Kara, and Laptev Seas, along Frantz-Josef Land and New Siberian Islands. They’re aimed at defending sea lines of communications like the northern sea route, protecting strategic economic infrastructure, and training to command an expeditionary Arctic group whose job is to destroy diversionary groups/terrorists (basically retake key objects captured by opposing forces). However, the Northern Fleet will also be involved in exercises with the Baltic Fleet, as part of Zapad-2021. Zapad and capstone training events within other military districts are not easily separated. The Northern Fleet’s announcement that it will begin practical exercises as part of training with this Arctic expeditionary group, is coincidentally on September 10th, when Zapad-2021 also formally begins. So, why include all this? Why not? It’s hard to see a Zapad exercise without any Northern Fleet component to it, and NF activity is always interesting.

So what’s does the Northern Fleet have in progress? A minesweeper exercise with units from the Kola Flotilla, enabling ships and submarines to leave their naval bases. A small naval group led by Udaloy-class Severomorsk, along with a Ropucha-class LST (Georgiy Pobedonosets), and tugboat (Pamir) has sailed down the Yenisei River to the port of Dudinka (arrived September 7th). There they conducted a training in retaking the port from a diversionary group (61st Naval Infantry BDE). Its interesting they call this expeditionary, because in truth the Northern Fleet does not have an easy time operating in the Central and Eastern Arctic. It’s one thing getting out of the Kola peninsula and out to the Barents, its another to operate along the length of the Arctic or northern sea route.

Naval Infantry practicing retaking key port facilities in distant Dudinka
Looks like live missile fire off of one of the Udaloys belonging to the Northern Fleet

Baltic Fleet

Some 15 combat and support ships left ports in Kaliningrad and Baltyisk, entering their designated operating areas in the Baltic Sea. There they will conduct anti-submarine warfare, air defense, counter-mine warfare, as well as firing missiles and artillery at targets. It is a mixed grouping of ships including LSTs, (suggesting prep for amphibious operations), corvettes (looks like all the Steregushchiy-class are out), anti-submarine ships, minesweepers, missile boats, a kilo-submarine, and auxiliaries.

Baltic Fleet deploying

Diesel-electric Kilo-class submarine (project 877 B-806 Dmitrov) served as OPFOR, firing 4 training torpedoes against targets which were meant to simulate the Baltic Fleet. The torpedoes were later recovered.

Video with B-806 Dmitrov training

Other nations’ forces training on Russian equipment

2 thoughts on “Zapad 2021 – Day 1 (September 10)

  1. First of all, thank you very much for these updates on Russian military exercises! It is very helpful for us that are studying the Russian Armed Forces. I was wondering if you could elaborate on what the concept of “maneuver defense” entails? What differentiate this concept from traditional Russian defensive tactics (still with mechanized forces)? Secondly, what is the substance of the “staple language of non-standard tactics”? With regards, Amund Osflaten.


  2. An interesting article that gives a good overview of the Russian mindset. Or at least it did for me.

    It’s interesting that I wrote a series of SF short stories based on a very similar idea of of a Russian civil war that begins with Belarus, supported by the Visegrad Baltic Alliance (an imaginary mash-up of the Visegrad Group and Baltic States.

    So colour me surprised that my stories were serendipitously on point. Amazing to find that my dilettante research led my humble musings.


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