Laanet: Zapad 2021 escalates highly tense international security situation

Minister of Defense Kalle Laanet (Reform).
Minister of Defense Kalle Laanet (Reform). Source: Ministry of Defense

The large-scale Russian and Belarusian Exercise Zapad started on Friday. Estonian Minister of Defense Kalle Laanet (Reform) has issued the following statement to ERR News in response to the escalation of an already-tense international security situation.

The drawdown of American and other Allied troops from Afghanistan was initially intended to be finished not later than September 11, the 20th anniversary of the hideous attack by al-Qaeda against the US that marked the beginning of the so-called global war on terrorism.

That is also the second day of the active phase of Zapad 2021, the quadrennial strategic military exercise conducted by Russia and Belarus in their entire western (and NATO's eastern) flank from the Arctic to the Black Sea. 

The unprecedented, massive evacuation of military personnel and civilians, western and Afghan, rescheduled for the end of August, became dramatic. Even the Taliban was – most probably – surprised by the fast fall of Afghanistan's government and armed forces.

The drawdown from Afghanistan has some notable political consequences. Countries in the surrounding region, in particular, but also Russia and China, are concerned about renewed terrorism (the so-called Islamic State Khorasan), and the spread of Islamic fundamentalism and instability.

Europe, too, is concerned about possible new waves of irregular migration and the flow of opium/heroin. Russia and China not only accuse the US and its Allies of leaving Afghanistan, which is now increasingly "their" problem. Moscow and Beijing argue that America would eventually leave them, too, in the cold.  

The present deployment of U.S. and U.K. aircraft carrier groups (together with naval vessels of the Netherlands and Canada) to Japan, in order to counter China's assertive behavior in the Indo-Pacific region, as well as the recent meeting between the US president Joe Biden and Ukraine's president Volodymyr Zelensky at the White House demonstrate the contrary. 

The increasingly autocratic Belarus is, by all means, Kremlin's vassal. Alexander Lukashenko cannot refuse any longer his savior Vladimir Putin's proposals (i.e. decisions). On the other hand, Kyiv stands firmly against Moscow's policy which clearly has the goal of equally transforming Ukraine into a Russian vassal state.

In April, Russia amassed with permanent units about 80,000 troops on Ukraine's borders and in occupied Crimea causing concern of preparations for renewed aggression. It has pulled back most of the deployed personnel but left behind virtually most of the military equipment that will highly likely be used during the active phase of Zapad 2021 and/or thereafter.

In addition, a huge number of train echelons are scheduled for the transportation of heavy equipment, mostly from Russia to Belarus. It is appropriate to depict Zapad 2021 differently from the exercises that took place in 2013 and 2017. The military presence of Russian troops in Belarus is one of the main differences, as there will be Russian troops arriving in five areas across the country – in Minsk, Viciebsk, Mahiliou, Brest and Hrodna. 

Furthermore, Russia and Belarus have agreed to establish three joint combat training centers within the framework of their Strategic Partnership Program for 2021-2025 – one in the Grodno region of Belarus, for air and air-defense forces, and two in Russia, for training of special forces in the Kaliningrad Oblast and of land forces in Nizhny Novgorod.

The picture is nevertheless not complete without considering the utmost provocative behavior of Belarus against its western NATO and EU neighbors. Dictator Lukashenko is, of course, frustrated and angered by the West's response to the grossly faked elections in August 2020, and his policy of terror and repression against the people of Belarus. But hijacking an EU flight and using migration as a hybrid operation on the EU border certainly go beyond reasonable presumptions that these acts could have been performed without Russia's consent. 

With nearly 4,000 irregular migrants already in Lithuania, Lukashenko's unpredictable and opportunistic actions could potentially lead to undesired escalation, provocations and incidents on the EU's borders.

Massive irregular migration across Europe's southern rim has been a catalyst of political changes, including the rise of populist right wing parties and movements. Its weaponized form used as a hybrid warfare tool against NATO's eastern flank nations is a new phase of escalation of tensions by the Kremlin's proxy. The Iraqi government, under pressure from the EU and the U.S., temporarily stopped the commercial flights from Baghdad to Minsk that brought thousands of "tourists" to the borders of Lithuania, Latvia and Poland.  

Hybrid attacks aimed at destabilizing and weakening perceived adversaries play a crucial role in political and military doctrines that are actively practiced by Russia and Belarus on Russia's behalf. Subduing Ukraine is surely the main prize sought by Putin, alongside the significant strengthening of Russia's military posture in Belarus, which would serve this purpose, as well.  

Russia and Belarus notably pursue a policy of conducting major military exercises in NATO's vicinity in a totally obscure and confusing fashion. The west, including Estonia, has demonstrated openness. Just this week we hosted arms control experts from 25 OSCE countries at our Tapa military base, in the framework of the Vienna Document visit. Lack of transparency and selective use of the existing confidence-building measures by Russia and Belarus raises major concerns with regard to Zapad 2021.  

It is important for the West to follow not only the exercise but also further developments in the Russian Federation's western military district closely.

NATO has drawn lessons from Russia's aggression against Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (since 2014) that swiftly followed major military exercises. In response, the Alliance has built up credible deterrence and defense, it pursues a policy of reducing tensions and avoiding escalation. Russian and Belarusian increased military presence, as well as aggressive and non-transparent military activities, deliberately contest regional stability and do not promote mutual trust and good neighborly relations.

The NATO Allies have therefore no other option than to maintain vigilance and readiness to defend themselves, as well as to demonstrate the willingness and ability to support their partners, especially Ukraine.


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Editor: Helen Wright, Andrew Whyte

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