Ukraine´s winter offensive, Belarus and Zapad 2021 and the third front in Georgia
In the winter of this year, Ukraine will begin extensive war preparations. The Ukrainian army chief Ruslan Khomchak explains that street and house-to-house fights in urban surroundings are part of the training program of the entire Ukrainian army this spring (Junge Welt, 3/3/21). Violations of the ceasefire agreements on the demarcation line occur regularly anyway, and according to an OSCE report, there is also the increasing forward deployment of heavy weapons, which had been moved back in accordance with an agreement in the Minsk format. At the same time, the Ukrainian side evidently spreads indiscretions in a targeted manner, which also refer to the option of a large-scale military attack on the ‚People’s Republics‘. These include pictures of transport trains with tanks and rocket launchers at stations in the hinterland of the front. (Junge Welt, 3/12/21) At the end of March, Ukraine’s new military doctrine will be published with the ultimate goal of restoring its territorial integrity within state borders.  In addition, Army Chief Khomchak announced that his armed forces had been fully prepared for combat: ‚We have experience in warfare in eastern Ukraine‘. In addition, he assured us, the Commander in Chief has no problem giving orders or making decisions. (de.rt.com, April 1, 21) Then maneuvers will begin in the south of the country … On Monday, Ukraine also demonstratively mobilized territorial defense reservists in the southern districts along the Black Sea coast. (Junge Welt, 7.4.21)
Russia registers these events in Ukraine for what they are: Preparations to activate the war situation, and answers them with a demonstration of its own: It sends an armed force of around 100,000 men, equipped with the most modern military equipment, into the crisis area, in a Speed that makes Western military professionals the highest praise. The leadership in Kiev and its protective powers should be shown as drastically as possible what a geopolitical confrontation with Russian power would look like. Russia also argues higher legal titles: Putin will not allow a Srebrenica in Donbass. His protection now also applies to fellow citizens there, after large parts of the population have been given Russian passports. After all, Russia and interested third parties do not leave the Ukrainian leadership in the dark about the price of a possible military adventure in south-east Ukraine: „Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said anyone who tries to unleash a new war in Donbass will destroy Ukraine.“ (FAZ, 3.4.21)
Public Reporting on the Crisis: The Art of Ignoring Away
The warlike confrontation in the east of Ukraine and in the Black Sea is treated with a remarkably uniform selective perception by the organs of the German public. In the true sense of the word, it only knows one acting subject who conjures up the crisis: “Russia provokes with troop transfers to the Crimea and near the Ukrainian border. What plan is Moscow pursuing with this? „(FAZ, 8.4.21) The Ukraine has nothing to do with the cause, it is once again completely the victim, this time of a threatening Russian deployment. And with this preparation of the situation, in that the experts for information deny the Russian appearance by consistently ignoring the Ukrainian war preparations and the corresponding war howls in Kiev, they open up every freedom to invent and imagine the darkest Russian intentions.
The FAZ picks them up from old NATO warriors: „Experienced generals are alarmed: … Philip Breedlove is alarmed, very alarmed when he looks at the Russian deployment on the borders with Ukraine: ‚We are now seeing for the first time the strategic‘ facilitators‘ that Moscow needs for an invasion: artillery batteries, Equipment for electronic warfare, logistics units, paramedics. ”They weren’t there a week ago, says the former Air Force general, who until 2016 was the commander in chief of NATO and all American troops in Europe. He does not know what is going on in the head of the Russian President. Maybe Vladimir Putin wants to politically intimidate Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. ‚Or it is the kind of force that Russia used to invade Crimea in 2014 and later in Donbass.‘
Ben Hodges goes even further. ‚After everything we’ve seen in the last few days, I no longer have the slightest doubt that we will see an escalation in violence,‘ says the Army General, who led the American land forces in Europe until 2017 … It is alarming that Russia has designated three zones for military exercises off the Crimean peninsula – not, as usual, for a very limited period of time, but until the end of October. Foreign warships and other state ships are not allowed to pass the Kerch Strait during this period, Moscow has decreed … For President Putin, the military deployment opens up at least three strategic options. First: He has set up a threatening backdrop to intimidate Kiev … The second option: … ‚Putin could de facto join the two Donbass regions to Russia or at least keep them as a bargaining chip in order to continue massively influencing Ukraine’s politics influence and destabilize them, ’says Heinrich Brauss, NATO’s top defense planner until 2018 … The third option is a regional attack on (new) Ukrainian territory. Former Generals Brauss, Breedlove and Hodges are more likely to expect this in the south of Ukraine than in the east. Putin can try first of all to bring the Crimean water supply under Russian control. To do this, he could use paratroopers from the Crimea, flanked by electronic warfare. In 2014 the Russians managed to conquer Crimea in one stroke … Hodges believes the Kremlin’s territorial hunger is even greater. „The main prize would be to conquer the entire coast as far as Odessa,“ says the former army general. „(FAZ, April 21, 21)
Putin’s malevolence has its limits only in the imagination of our military. The FAZ presents their expert information about what Putin – not: actually staged, but: – could aim. You can do a lot with artillery and medics, maybe a small invasion, but maybe, others believe, a really big one. In any case, you have no doubts about your own assumptions, which are based on the established knowledge that the Russian bear with its territorial hunger – after all, you know him! – could be ready for bigger adventures anytime and anywhere. Such expertise reveals nothing about the reason and purpose of the Russian appearance, but distinguishes all the more clearly between the aggressor and the peaceful victim. The stupidity of the aggressive nature of the Russian is hammered into the audience with a nationwide self-alignment as an explanation of the front in the east, so that even a halfway impartial view of the affair has no chance. But what good should it be for when the national enemy image is so bombproof. Contrary to the concentrated competence of the generals, none of their oh-so-serious assumptions came true. The situation is simply different.
A strategy of a special kind
It was the Ukrainian leadership under Zelenskyi who came up with the idea of taking steps towards a military escalation. And the logic behind the event can also be seen in the new military doctrine. In the leading circles in Ukraine, of course, they do not fool themselves about the caliber of opponents they are facing with the Russian Federation: a world power equipped with nuclear weapons. However, the strategic planners are not deterred by this, but rather openly design their strategy of warfare in several waves:
“Working in the first wave of repelling and deterring armed aggression against Ukraine … to prevent its advance into the territory of Ukraine and to prevent further escalation of the military conflict; Use in the second wave of defense and deterrence of armed aggression against the Ukrainian military reserve to strengthen the defense forces and ensure mobilization in the state, use of resistance in the case of temporary occupation of certain areas of the state; Use of additional military units … at the expense of mobilization resources and mobilization reserves … in the third wave of defense and deterrence of armed aggression against Ukraine, cessation of armed aggression with the support of the international community on conditions favorable to Ukraine … restoration control over compliance with the state border regime of Ukraine and reintegration of the temporarily occupied territories in the reconstruction period after the end of hostilities. „(A. Jermak,“ Strategy of Military Security of Ukraine „, ibid.)
With this wave planning it is frankly admitted that the deployment of the Ukrainian forces is not much more than to offer the war opponent in a wear and tear struggle to the last reservist, until – until the support of the international community as deus ex machina is on hand to win the war for Ukraine: cessation of armed aggression on favorable terms for Ukraine. The strategy consists simply in the calculation, in a hopeless situation against the miles superior Russian forces through the ruthless sacrifice of everything that can hold a weapon, to force the world power or the Western war alliance to intervene:
„The success of the strategy depends on … political, economic and military support for Ukraine by the international community in the geopolitical confrontation with the Russian Federation.“ (A. Jermak, „Strategy of the Military Security of Ukraine“, ibid.) In attempting to involve his protecting powers in a conflict on such a level, Zelensky is already running the risk that after the war there will not be much more of his entire Ukraine than a Chernobyl-like area. A head of state has to be in a very special position to force his nation into such adventurous calculations. A failed state takes flight to the front The Zelensky government is in a rather hopeless bind between the unyielding demands of its protecting powers and the state of its state, which does not allow the implementation of these demands, but does not offer any alternatives either. 
A failed state takes flight to the front The Zelensky government is in a rather hopeless bind between the unyielding demands of its protecting powers and the state of its state, which does not allow the implementation of these demands, but does not offer any alternatives either.  The government and its parliamentary majority, the “Servants of the People” party, are rapidly losing approval. None of the promises that Zelenskyj brought to a full political majority in the country year and day ago – peace in the East, defusing language laws, repairing economic damage and brisk growth – has not come true. Conversely, growth is still only taking place in terms of debts and the number of emigrants, because the western patrons persistently insist on „reforms“, that is, on the destruction of all traditional economic ties with Russia, on the dismantling of state economic structures and, at the same time, on the Fight against “corruption”, the containment of the power of the “oligarchs”, the few hand-counted who were able to enrich themselves from the inheritance of real socialism and whose business more or less makes up the national economy. The country is and will remain on the IMF’s drip and must earn every single tranche of the promised and extortionately withheld loans with the required self-destructive willingness to reform. The state apparatus, which cannot finance itself from this economic basis, is increasingly dismantling, regions and sub-batches compete for different means of survival.
On the diplomatic front, Germany and France refuse Zelenskyi the revision of the Minsk Agreement, insist that Ukraine also take at least certain steps towards their obligations, and thus put Zelenskyi in a hopeless situation because such steps are taken at home by one part of the nation be seen as concessions to the “aggressor state”. The situation in the east turns out to be a grueling war and a wear and tear of state funds, while the friends in the west always do not provide enough support. The political contradictions in the nation are not pacified, but radicalize themselves in the face of this situation and are carried out by militant associations out of their own power and on their own account, while the government, mandated by the protecting powers, to fight the enemies of the state line within to feel the shrinking range of their power – in the fight against activists of various stripes and against the state sub-units, which are increasingly evading control from Kiev in order to cope with their various emergencies. In this ensemble of various, hopeless predicaments , the head of the Ukrainians evidently fell for the liberation blow of suddenly getting rid of the urgent problems of his nation with a real war.
It could have been so nice: As the spearhead of the struggle of the democracies against the authoritarian regimes, he would finally have received the unreserved support from his partners, militarily, politically and economically, in order to cope with the agonizing, unrealizable calls for „reform & fight against corruption“ and with Remove the devastating junctions that accompany them from the agenda and instead pour extensive loans and military aid. Faced with the threat from outside, the divided nation would have stood as one man behind their leadership in overwhelming unity; the militant nationalists would have been well served with the ultimate goal of doing away with separatism …
But the USA and NATO are deciding a détente on Ukraine
The Russian reaction to the warfare in Ukraine, in the form of extensive maneuvers in the south and west of the Russian Federation, has brought Ukraine, as hoped, the condemnation of the Russian aggression by the American president. The first phone call between Biden and Selenskyj takes place. In it, according to Washington, Biden affirmed „America’s unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s ongoing aggression in Donbass and Crimea“. (FAZ, 3.4.21) But Biden’s guarantee of assistance leads again to the insistent call not to let up in reforms, which should not be understood as directly encouraging the Ukrainian war course.  The Ukrainian Foreign Minister travels to Brussels for a special meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission – “Kiev convened them under Article 15 of the 1997 partnership agreement. It provides for a consultation mechanism in the event of a crisis „if Ukraine detects a direct threat to its territorial integrity, political independence or security“. ‚That moment has come,‘ said Foreign Minister Kuleba. Russia is working with all its might to undermine our defense capability ‘, said Kuleba.“ (FAZ, 14.4.21)
He makes use of the partnership agreement with NATO as if Ukraine were already a member and the current situation is an alliance that obliges all members to show solidarity and, above all, to provide military support – and reaps the unanimous rejection of the NATO partners. France and Germany, the guarantee powers of the Minsk Agreement, explicitly demand restraint and immediate de-escalation on all sides (FAZ, 6.4.21), and the NATO-Ukraine Commission gives Ukraine a very unwelcome praise for its alleged “restraint”: the allies commend Ukraine for the reluctance it shows in the face of Russia’s provocations. A high-ranking representative of the American State Department had already said this on Monday. (FAZ, April 14, 21) A swift admission to the alliance is not promised,  just as little as armament that corresponds to the Ukrainian wishes for high-tech weapons that are essential for the war effort.
Letting yourself be drawn into the war by Ukrainian revanchism is out of the question for America. Therefore, in addition to the purely rhetorical backing for the war protagonists in Kiev and their diplomatic sedation, there is also an express gesture to Russia: The US is foregoing two Aegis destroyers that were previously dispatched to the Black Sea. The services for which America has planned Ukraine and its military do not at all coincide with the goals of the current president in his political struggle for survival: militarily harass Russia with a permanent threat of invasion in Donbass, tie up considerable Russian forces, that is what the USA wants ; but the approximately $ 2 billion that have been put into the Ukrainian military over the past seven years is money well spent. But the USA wants to continue to shape its confrontation with Russia itself: firstly with the seemingly endless arsenal of civil warfare, which inspires the US government with the good hope of weakening its big rival at will; and secondly, with the further development of their military capabilities to disempower the Kremlin in scenarios of their choice – with significant participation also from the esteemed ally Ukraine: seven maneuvers alone will take place on Ukrainian soil in the current year, including the major maneuver „Defender-Europe 21“ in the Black Sea . But the world power wants to decide on the emergency and when it will start according to its needs. Germany, France and the EU also have ample moral support for Ukraine on offer. They share the finding that Russia is making it increasingly impossible for the West to coexist with it, and is happy to take the opportunity to play up a bit and tell the world power in the East where it should and where not to send its troops. But like the USA, they are by no means willing to let Selenskyj dictate the agenda:
“The Russian troops on the Ukrainian border must be withdrawn, Ukraine, Germany and France said together. The guest from Kiev had previously put pressure on Macron at lunch in the Elysée Palace in Paris to campaign for Ukraine to join the EU and NATO. In view of the threatening Russian backdrop, it was time to ’step up our speed and invite us in,‘ said Selenskyj to the Le Figaro newspaper before the encounter. The Elysée Palace decided not to hold a joint press conference in order not to have to react to the demand. ”(FAZ, April 17, 21) The fronts remain The Russian military leadership is taking into account the foreseeable remaining need for convincing means of power in the region to safeguard national interests by permanently stationing a powerful small army in eastern Ukraine, through logistical arrangements for its rapid expansion if necessary and the development of the necessary infrastructure.
The Russian Defense Minister openly states that one expects a lot more than desperate offensives from the Ukrainian neighbor: „… that it is NATO that is massively building up its military presence along the Russian borders and that Russia is merely reacting to it …“ In the last three years the North Atlantic bloc has increased its military activities near the Russian border. The American armed forces are being strengthened in Poland and the Baltic countries, the American concept of ‚four thirties‘ has been adopted and implemented. According to this, the NATO allies have 30 battalions, 30 air squadrons and combat ships in continuous readiness and ready for action within a maximum of 30 days. As Schoigu further explained, the western bloc has also „doubled the intensity of aerial reconnaissance compared to last year“ and „increased the intensity of maritime reconnaissance by one and a half times“. He also referred to the massive military exercises in Europe, which are intended to strengthen the ability of the “allies” to react to Russian “aggression”.
Every year NATO organizes up to forty large operational exercises in Europe with a clearly anti-Russian orientation. This spring, the joint NATO forces began the largest exercise in the last 30 years, Defender-Europe 2021. The American armed forces are now being relocated from the continental part of North America across the Atlantic to Europe. There is a movement of forces in Europe towards the Russian border. The main forces are concentrated in the Black Sea region and the Baltic States. A total of 40,000 soldiers and 15,000 units of military equipment, including strategic aviation, will be stationed near our territory ‘.” (De.rt.com, April 14, 21) The Western powers immediately exploit the fact that sizable Russian forces remain near the Ukrainian border as another item in their register of sins they keep about Russia. And Great Britain sends – following its venerable tradition „Britannia, rule the waves“ – for the purpose of a military provocation a destroyer into the sovereign zone around the Crimea claimed by Russia. One will probably be able to demonstrate how one sees the legal situation there. By definition, it is Russia that is “destabilizing” the situation, while the “leading democracies” only ever “defend” international law, even with their provocative advances. However, they belong in authorized hands.
( Gegenstandpunkt 3-2021)
In the mean time Selezky and other Ukrainian politicans think about how to overcome the deadlock in the Minsk peace deal which they see as a deadlock for their own purposes. One idea is to abolish the Mins format and renoagtiate the whole thing. A contribution in the Moscow Times thinks that the UK could be the driver of such an initiative:
“Are the Minsk II Peace Accords Worth Preserving?
It is time to recognize that the Minsk process has run its course — and may if anything be blocking any more meaningful dialogue.
Updated: June 2, 2021
Is a peace plan that seems to be going nowhere better than no peace plan at all? Is it more dangerous to face grim facts or to pretend to believe comforting fictions? When applied to the Minsk peace process over the Donbass conflict, these seemingly philosophical quandaries have a weekly toll in blood and treasure.
The Minsk peace process is hardly looking in good shape.
Just as it is often said that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire, so too this is no longer anchored in Minsk — as Kiev has said that it cannot trust Lukashenko to be an honest broker — nor has it ensured peace, nor can it really be said to be ‘“processing.”
To be sure, it had its day and its moment. Two of them, in fact. They were, to be blunt, never likely to be the basis for any lasting resolution of the conflict, just a way of forestalling escalation (above all, Russian escalation).
The first Minsk Protocol of 2014 and then the 2015 Minsk II package led to short-lived and patchy ceasefires and above all managed to forestall Russian escalations that could have triggered full-scale war. They also brought some small-scale remedies, from prisoner exchanges to monitoring by the Organisation for Security Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
That was more than six years ago, though. In many ways it says it all that the OSCE’s role is essentially to provide as complete as possible a daily list of breaches of the ceasefire, of crossing points over the line of contact arbitrarily closed, of tanks and heavy weapons spotted close to the frontline, in contravention of the deal. Much of this has to be gathered by remote monitoring and by drone — when the drones aren’t jammed by Russian electronic warfare systems.
Let it go
Last week, the Council on Geostrategy, a new thinktank devoted to exploring the prospects for a global Britain in a post-Brexit era, published a piece in which I advanced a deliberately provocative suggestion, that we ought to recognize that:
„The trouble is that Minsk is not only dead, it is a rotting corpse slumped over the conference table. It is not only failing to bring peace to the Donbass, it prevents potential new negotiations, or even an honest conversation about the conflict.“
It is not that I want to see a resumption of full-scale hostilities: quite the opposite. Rather, I do not believe it is a moribund, six-year old document that constrains any of the sides in this toxic conflict.
Instead of the inchoate collection of militias of 2014-15, Ukraine now has increasingly confident 250,000-strong armed forces.
The rebel forces could not prevail against them; frankly, they could not even in the early years of the war, which was why Moscow had periodically to send in its regulars to prevent a government victory. At the same time, Russia can still defeat Ukraine on the battlefield, but only if it is prepared to show its hand openly and throw in the scale of forces needed – and also accept the substantial losses this would mean. This is a balance of terror.
Not least for the people on both sides of the line of contact, and especially in the pseudo-states. Subject to arbitrary local thug-states, deprived of their Ukrainian social benefits, facing economic hardship and rising levels of coronavirus, their lives have been left hostage to an illusory — delusory — peace process that simply isn’t going anywhere.
The problem is that neither side will give way on a fundamental point. Moscow argues that Kiev must grant the rebels special status now that elections have been held. Kiev denounces these elections as shams, and says it needs first to have its authority to the regions restored. Neither will or can give ground.
My suggestion was thus that it was time to recognize that the Minsk process had run its course — and may if anything be blocking any more meaningful dialogue.
Ukraine, Russia and the pseudo-states cannot be the ones to say this first, lest they lay themselves open to being denounced as warmongers and dealbreakers.
Besides, both Germany and France injudiciously threw their weight behind Minsk II and still stand as its bankrupt guarantors. If they are not willing to start this conversation, I suggested, maybe it could be the U.K.?
Better than nothing?
The responses, both public and private, were interesting. Some sought, predictably enough, to paint one side or the other as the villains of the peace. This may be satisfying, but it is exactly the kind of zero-sum politics that perpetuates the current volatile status quo. Others sought to salvage the reputations of Paris or Berlin, which is another problem, as both countries are unwilling to admit they may have done long-term harm in the name of short-term good.
A more thoughtful line of argument was best exemplified by Russian scholar Sergei Utkin of the Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO), who felt it was a “surprisingly adventurous and potentially disastrous proposal.” In an exchange we held on Twitter, he argued that
„If negotiations fail in an ongoing conflict, arms speak (and they can do it much louder than at the current imperfect ceasefire). Keeping things at the negotiations table is important even if no progress is achieved in years — a balance, albeit shaky, is valuable.“
This is a perfectly defensible and honorable position.
To do away with a peace process when there is nothing ready to take its place is a scary move. Yet it also rests ultimately on the assumption that it is Minsk II, not the day-by-day realities on the ground, that prevents escalation. As the fears over spring’s build-up of Russian forces demonstrate, it is hard to take that guarantee as read.
The trouble is that the status quo is too bearable for all the players.
Kiev has little real incentive to reintegrate a restive and now war-ravaged badlands. Moscow is having to subsidize the Donbass, but better that than acknowledge defeat and lose what little traction it may have on Ukraine.
The warlords of the pseudo-states can enrich themselves and avoid trial. And while the West may get an occasional scare, such as during the spring’s Russian build-up of forces, it can generally reassure itself with the antiseptic language of ‘frozen conflicts’ and unresolved disputes.’
It is arguably rather less tolerable on the ground. Ordinary Ukrainians in the pseudo-states face unemployment, hardship, and vicious crackdowns when they try to protest or unionize. Water supplies are becoming contaminated and whole industries dying, all of which also poses massive challenges for any future reintegration. As Brian Milakovsky has recently argued in Krytyka,
„The time has passed when we could leave the resolution of economic and infrastructure issues to be naturally resolved when the elusive comprehensive political settlement is negotiated in Minsk, or any other platform.“
I would note, after all, that all the voices I heard from inside the Donbass, as well as many in both Kiev and Moscow, admitted Minsk was both unworkable and unrepairable.
Ukrainian president Zelenskyy has called for movement, arguing that “we can change the Minsk format, adjust it. Or we can use some other format,” but there seems little scope for the former, as the disagreement is nor about format but goals and political will.
Instead, something needs to be done to break the logjam. Dispensing with the tired mantra that “Minsk is the only deal on the table” and instead clearing the table. There is no reason why prisoner exchanges, family reunion rights, OSCE monitoring and the rest cannot be maintained outside a single, overarching document. And maybe, this would provide the incentive and opportunity for something new.
But this is one of those cases where the tolerable is the enemy of the better. What may work in Moscow, Paris and Berlin may not work so well in Kiev — and be positively oppressive in Donetsk and Luhansk, Perevalsk and Ilovaisk.
While the Russian deployment on the Ukrainian border might have been a reaction to the quoted war prepaerations for a winter offensive by the Ukrainian government, the Russian Zapad drill with Belarus and other countries with 299 999 troops were outstanding as NATO during their regular drills mostly only deploys 40 000 troops. Hoewever a good analysis of the Zapad 21 maneuveur can be read in The Moscow Times:
“Zapad 2021: What We Learned From Russia’s Massive Military Drills
Zapad is not just military theater, it affirms that years of defense modernization and reform have made the Russian military a force with increased capability, readiness, and mobility.
Sep. 23, 2021
On Sept. 16 Russia concluded its Joint Strategic Exercise, Zapad-2021, a large military training event focused on the Western Military District and Belarus.
Zapad is traditionally a command-staff exercise which takes place every four years, centered on what the Russian General Staff terms the Western strategic direction. Such exercises rotate between Russia’s Military Districts, Zapad, Vostok, Tsentr, and Kavkaz. They are not just training events, but serve important signaling functions as prominent display of military capabilities and the willingness to employ it.
There is also a growing military diplomacy component to the exercises, with foreign forces participating in joint training events as part of a coalition.
Given the ongoing confrontation between Russia and NATO, intensifying military activity on the part of both sides in Europe, and enduring apprehensions among bordering NATO member states, this exercise in particular draws considerable attention. Zapad-2017 proved the subject of sensational media coverage, although nothing particularly nefarious took pace, and the exercise itself was quite smaller than Zapad-2013 or the earlier 2009 iteration. In 2021, this exercise returned to much larger scale and duration.
What’s different in 2021 when compared to 2017?
Zapad-2021 featured largely the same scenario, a coalition of NATO states intervening in Belarus to conduct regime change and wrest a part of the country away.
It is a meeting engagement between Russian forces in Belarus and a NATO coalition, which expands into a regional war, with strikes against Belarus and the Russian homeland.
This year troops deployed two months in advance of the exercise to their assigned training ranges, which made the entire affair even more scripted than before, as troops drilled in the events they were expected to execute in September.
The exercise itself was larger than 2017, with Russian forces deploying to Western regions of Belarus. Its scope was substantial, involving at least 15 training ranges in Russia, and 6 in Belarus, not including the activities of the Northern Fleet Joint Strategic Command.
Russian-Belarusian exercises were far more robust, practicing interoperability as part of a Regional Grouping of Forces, a joint operational-strategic formation that is activated during a time of military threat.
Prior to 2020, Belarus had always been hesitant to host large Russian formations, hoping to hedge relations between Moscow and Western nations. That act is clearly over, as Minsk has been in regime survival mode, more firmly ensconced in Russia’s economic and security sphere of influence than ever before.
The exercise was therefore much more of a joint Russian-Belarusian event, designed to demonstrate Russian capability and willingness to defend its interests in that country. The coalition force participants, while arguably token, now numbered seven countries, and perhaps 2000 troops. This is a significantly more visible multinational presence than in previous years.
The Russian military’s training regimen has evolved to a year-long set of exercises and events, maintaining relatively high levels of readiness. Fall may represent the peak, with larger exercises and qualification checks, but it is no longer the main training period for the Russian armed forces. Paradoxically, while Zapad featured a number of dynamic exercises, on the spectrum of training events it is by far the most scripted. Nonetheless, six days of action across two dozen training ranges offered plenty to look at.
So what were the Russian forces practicing at Zapad?
Zapad exercise scenarios play out the more operational and tactical level components of Russia’s military strategy, called active defense. These include repelling and parrying a massed NATO aerospace attack in the initial period of war, what the Russian military terms massed missile-aviation strike (MRAU).
These exercises feature Russia’s air defense, tactical aviation, and electronic warfare units all working in conjunction. Russia’s Aerospace Forces and ground based missile units conduct counterstrikes across the theater of military operations with long range precision guided weapons to disorganize opponent forces, striking command and control, and key supporting infrastructure.
The Russian airborne was on full display with numerous parachute and heliborne operations.
They continue to train in increasingly larger parachute assaults, with mechanized equipment, and even battalion level exercises conducted at night. Russian forces still lag Western counterparts in their ability to operate at night, but that gap is slowly narrowing. Large airborne operations convey the ability to use airborne units as a rapid reaction force, to conduct flanking raids, or to hold critical terrain until heavier ground force units arrive. Similarly, large air assault operations employing helicopters in transport and attack roles illustrate the increased tactical mobility of Russia’s airborne units and their utility as supporting or flanking formations.
The centerpiece of joint force exercises both in Russia and Belarus was maneuver defense.
A scenario whereby Russian ground forces, backed by tactical aviation, an attack helicopters, defend against a larger opposing force and then turn the tables into a counteroffensive. The thrust of this concept is lead formations engaging enemy forces, then retreating to prepared reserve lines to draw opponents into an envelopment. Then Russian forces leverage their advantage in artillery and mine warfare, concentrating artillery and rocket fire against enemy forces. Having successfully attrited the enemy force, Russian units then switch to a counteroffensive, with large combined arms assault.
Russian exercises offer useful insights about how the Russian General Staff envisions a potential regional or large-scale war with NATO.
The Russian military continues to be concerned about NATO’s tremendous advantage in airpower, and long-range precision strike capability, seeing it as a formidable force multiplier. The General Staff assumes it will be fielding the inferior force on the battlefield and will have to find ways to turn the tables, trading territory to preserve its forces. An emphasis on preserving the force is something particular to the modern Russian military.
This does not mean such exercises are defensive in nature — Russian concepts inherently feature offensive and defensive operations.
They require persistent engagement of opponents, such that the distinction between defensive and offensive is largely immaterial. The clearest shift in Russian thinking is away from strategic ground offensives and towards long-range strikes against critically important economic and military targets, seeking to degrade a state’s ability or will to sustain a conflict.
Zapad scenarios featured high concentrations of artillery fire.
The Russian military, while an increasingly capable joint force, is principally an artillery army with supporting motor rifle and tank maneuver formations. Russian ground forces use artillery to enable or deny maneuver, which means it forms the backbone of its army, and the Russian way of war places a heavy burden on logistics.
At Zapad the Russian military placed on display various remotely operated ground vehicles, which while not especially impressive, were part of a much larger focus on both fielding and countering various types of unmanned technologies.
While not a stress test, Zapad was an affirmation that years of procurement and defence modernization have made the Russian military a combat credible force, with increased readiness and mobility.
However, while Russia and Belarus work militarilyy closer together, signed a 1 billion $ arms deal the political and economic integration into one union still seems to make only small efforts. While Lukashenko`s power is in danger and eroding, he still tries to save the Belarussian independence and sovereignity:
“Have Moscow and Minsk Really Made a Breakthrough on Integration?
Putting too much pressure on Belarus right now could backfire and lead to unforeseen consequences. It would appear that Russia understands that, and is therefore playing the long game on integration.
Sep. 21, 2021
Moscow and Minsk have finally agreed on twenty-eight “union programs” on integration, after three years of difficult negotiations. The signing of the programs has prompted fresh talk of the erosion of Belarusian sovereignty and its creeping takeover by Russia. Both countries’ leaderships have tried to present the agreements as a breakthrough, but will they really change the course of the two nations’ integration?
There isn’t enough information available right now to be able to draw firm conclusions over precisely what decisions have been made and how they will be put into practice. It’s hard to tell from the published list of areas of integration how detailed the programs are, and what plans and timetables there are for their implementation. It’s likely that more concrete details will become known after the programs are given the final approval of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko in November at the state council of the Union State that the two countries together comprise. Still, the current list does provide some idea of where Russian-Belarusian integration is headed.
Firstly, the programs appear to be a compromise. Looking at the list, it does not look like the Kremlin has taken advantage of its ally’s weakness to push through its own agenda.
The main conflicts in the interests of the countries became clear several years ago, at the very start of the talks. For Moscow, important issues include tax and customs regulation: the ability to track the movement of goods across its territory. For Minsk, the terms of energy cooperation and access to the Russian market are what matters most. And just as Minsk resisted the introduction of a single tax code, Moscow constantly put off moving over to a single oil and gas market.
Both of these contentious areas appear in the list of agreed programs, complete with approximate dates, meaning that both sides have agreed to make concessions—though, of course, the timelines for implementing these concessions are entirely provisory, and could well go the same way as many other agreements between Russia and Belarus that never got off the ground.
Secondly, many of the programs look like general framework documents that will still need to be cemented and clarified with additional laws and agreements. The program on bringing monetary policies in line with one another, for example, envisages that the Russian and Belarusian central banks will reach an agreement on the principles and mechanisms for doing so by December 2022. What they will look like is not yet clear.
It’s a similar story with the single gas market. Moscow and Minsk have given themselves until December 1, 2023, to sign program addenda determining the principles upon which it will operate and be regulated. Considering the fraught history of the gas conflicts between the two countries, there is little cause for optimism in this regard.
Thirdly, it’s worth noting the issues that do not appear in the published list. There is no mention of a single currency, defense policy, state security, or supranational bodies. Political integration is ruled out entirely. In other words, anything that would impact on the foundations of state sovereignty has for now been removed from the equation. And though Lukashenko has said that it was Putin’s initiative to abandon the program on political integration, it’s obvious that it was the Belarusian side that insisted upon this.
This is all at odds with the popular belief that Lukashenko, weakened by mass protests and his isolation following last summer’s contested presidential election, would have to pay for the Kremlin’s help by surrendering aspects of Belarusian sovereignty. In their current form, the union programs contain little suggestion of dramatic integration. That means we are either underestimating Minsk’s negotiating position, or seeing a fundamental change in Moscow’s strategy—or both.
It’s likely that its disastrous experience with Ukraine has prompted the Russian leadership to rethink its approach, and to stockpile some strategic patience rather than try to break an obstinate partner by force. Ultimately, Minsk is in such a difficult situation right now that increased integration, including political integration, is only a question of time: something Moscow has plenty more of than Minsk.
On the other hand, procrastination is a tried and tested tactic for Lukashenko that has repeatedly proved effective when drastic changes on the international arena helped the Belarusian leader find new ways to hold on to power and shore up his country’s sovereignty. What if this time, for example, the flood of refugees from Afghanistan forces the EU to reconsider its relationship with Minsk, just as the Ukrainian crisis did back in 2014? Even in an apparently hopeless situation, therefore, Lukashenko will delay any handover of actual sovereignty to Moscow for as long as he possibly can.
In any case, Belarus’s geographical location, the structure of its economy, and the nature of its political system are pushing Minsk to diversify its trade flows and foreign relations as far as possible. Crude attempts to force Russian standards and behavior onto the Belarusian side are guaranteed to be met with resistance and antagonism, even amid Minsk’s current difficulties.
Finally, some of the formal and symbolic aspects of the much-vaunted meeting between the two leaders confirm that the agreements are not so much of a breakthrough as routine affairs with a spin put on them. What were previously called “integration road maps” are now more modestly referred to as “union programs.” In other words, the focus is shifting from closer integration toward the routine functioning of the Union State. This has the additional benefit of not sparking panic or creating unrealistic expectations.
The fact that the programs were agreed on the eve of Russia’s parliamentary elections (September 17–19) also suggests an attempt to score a win at home, even if it was pure coincidence.
Still, it says a lot that the two sides agreed the integration documents at the highest level. It attests to the fact that Moscow is still seeking a separate, greater integration with Minsk, beyond membership of the Eurasian Economic Union. And that means Moscow believes it to be particularly important for Russian security, and even to some extent for its state and national identity.
At the same time, the large number of union programs that have been agreed does not change the fact that one fundamental issue of bilateral relations remains unresolved. Given the significance the Kremlin affords its neighbor (or, to be more precise, its territory) in terms of security, Moscow clearly needs its relationship with Minsk to be more than that of just military and political allies. It needs long-term guarantees of geopolitical loyalty.
The best kind of guarantee would be the presence of Russian military and political infrastructure inside Belarus. That is something that will be difficult to obtain under the current Belarusian system, but Russia is unlikely to give up. That means the issue will continue to spark tension and conflict in their bilateral relations.
Minsk’s isolation from the West and the transition of power that has already begun there will create a window of opportunity for the Kremlin and the temptation to fundamentally increase its political influence in the neighboring country. But putting too much pressure on Belarus right now could backfire and lead to unforeseen consequences. It would appear that Russia understands that, and is therefore playing the long game on integration, seeing it as a safer option.
This article was first published by the Carnegie Moscow Center.
However it seems as some political forces want to open a third front in Georgia beyond Ukraine and Belarus by sending former Georgian president Saakashvili who tried to draw the West and NATO in a confrontation with Russia in earier times to Georgia . He looks for a revival and attacks the Georgian government as Moscow´s puppets:
“Georgia: Saakashvili’s new coup
The reports about the former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili do not bode well. One he spread himself. The other his opponents. Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s leader of the “Rose Revolution” and president from 2004 to 2013, loves big performances. He succeeded in doing one on Friday: The 53-year-old hotspur drew the attention of his South Caucasian homeland with the news that he had returned to Georgia and drove his opponents before him, who claimed the opposite for hours and who were still in exile located in Ukraine. But then Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili announced on Friday evening that Saakashvili had been arrested and that his route from Ukraine to Georgia had been followed. All of this does not bode well for the already tense situation in Georgia, where important local elections are being held on Saturday. The ruling Georgian Dream party and Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) are so hateful that international actors regularly have to mediate; Western, of course, because there are enemies with Russia, which has troops stationed on a fifth of Georgia, and Saakashvili always portrays Georgia’s strong man, the Georgian dream founder and billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, as a Russian puppet.
Saakashvili left his homeland in 2013 when a number of criminal proceedings had been opened against him. The former president has now been sentenced to two terms in prison; He lost his Georgian citizenship and is now a Ukrainian citizen. In the Ukraine, where he had studied, Saakashvili was governor of Odessa and currently heads the National Reform Council. He often interfered in Georgian politics from exile, without much success: his UNM was unable to win against Ivanishvili’s superiority, and resentment about Saakashvili’s continued influence even split the UNM. Saakashvili announced earlier this week that he had bought a plane ticket from Kiev to Tbilisi this Saturday. Garibashvili announced that „this coward“ would be arrested immediately.
Saakashvili was called on by the European Parliament to refrain from returning so as not to worsen the situation in the country. On Friday morning Saakashvili amazed friends and foe alike with a video on Facebook: “Good morning Georgia, eight years have passed,” he said in front of a nocturnal backdrop, stated that he was in Batumi (a coastal town near the Turkish border) and called out to vote for the UNM in the elections. Saakashvili called on the Georgians to demonstrate on Sunday. The government initially asserted that Saakashvili had not crossed the border. The Georgian dream described the video as fake: It was recorded in Truskavets in western Ukraine, Saakashvili a “clown”. On the other hand, the UNM asserted that its founder was really back, even if you don’t know how he got there. In the evening, the new version of the government: „This process was under complete control,“ said Garibashvili, „the former president is now in a prison“.
 A. Jermak, Assistant to the President of Ukraine: “Military Security Strategy of Ukraine. Military Security – Comprehensive Defense “, confirmed by Decree of the President of Ukraine No. 121/2021 of March 25, 2021; the following quotations in own translation.
 In detail: Ukraine in the times of Corona – liberated from Russia, westernized to ruin, overrun by crises in GegenStandpunkt 2-20
 The major concessions to Russia required by the Minsk Agreement would have sparked a backlash on the part of the nationalist Ukrainian opposition, which could have cost him [Zelensky] the presidency. The meager progress made in resolving the Donbass conflict led to disillusionment in Ukrainian society, which was exacerbated by the economic hardship. Zelenskyi was forced to raise utility tariffs to meet IMF demands, while on the other hand the pandemic bleeded small businesses to death. The inability of the Ukrainian authorities to secure enough corona vaccine for mass vaccination of the population has dealt the final blow to Zelenskyi’s popularity. (Carnegy.ru, 5.4.21)  The Ukraine representative in the US State Department had previously stated that Zelenskyj had to earn the call from the new president: The Deputy Secretary of State George Kent … stated that the phone call, which the Ukrainian side is so desperate for because of its symbolic significance, must be supported by action … ‚We want Ukraine to succeed. That means that we want the government and President Zelenskyi to succeed. But for this to be successful, the right actions and reforms must be in place. (112 Ukraine, 25.3.21)
 It is not the USA that owes Ukraine to join NATO, but Ukraine owes the USA „reforms“: Blinken repeated the well-known positions of the USA about supporting the „sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine“, but gave in despite repeated requests on the Ukrainian side not be tempted to give Kiev new commitments in terms of joining NATO. On the contrary: According to one participant, at the meeting with the group chairmen, his deputy who traveled with him, Victoria Nuland, who was reactivated after 2017, told the parliamentarians to stop constantly addressing this issue. That would not do anything for Ukraine. (Junge Welt, 7.5.21)