What have we seen so far in anticipation of the joint Russian-Belarusian military exercises?
As the countdown to the joint Russian-Belarusian military exercises under Zapad 2017 (September 14–20) nears, this piece aims to provide a breakdown and analysis of the information accumulated in the @DFRLab’s #ZapadWatch monitoring series.
Zapad 2017 is a planned bilateral military strategic exercise with the Russian and Belarusian militaries set to take place in various locations throughout Belarus and western Russia. This highly anticipated event is held quadrennially, with outside observers expecting to gain critical insight to the operations of Russian military practices. It is very unlikely that Zapad will directly lead to another Russian invasion of a sovereign state, but that has not prevented the internet from speculating that it may.
The Belarusian Ministry of Defense (MoD) has shown transparency in anticipation of the exercise, with formal announcements and high-level officials participating in interviews with various media sources. The Belarusian MoD invited international observers to Zapad and released a detailed schedule for press coverage of the exercises. In a press interview, Belarusian Defense Minister Andrei Ravkov stated that up to 12,700 servicemen and 680 combat vehicles are expected to participate in the exercise.
Per the OSCE Vienna Document 2011 On Confidence- and Security-Building Measures, an exercise with more than 13,000 troops would trigger a mandatory international observation mission. There is a similar provision for the number of tanks, armored combat vehicles, self-propelled and towed artillery pieces, mortars, and multiple rocket launchers; however, definitive or reliable information on the exact breakdown of vehicles involved in Zapad 2017 is not yet available.
The units listed below were either observed in exercises in preparation for Zapad 2017, are geographically near announced locations of Zapad 2017, and/or were explicitly stated to be deployed in the exercise.
Italicized units are or were reportedly involved in either the conflict in eastern Ukraine and/or illegal annexation and occupation of Crimea.
Russian Military Units
Western Military District:
76th Guards Airborne Assault Division (also “Chernigov Red Banner Division”) (unit 07264), Pskov
98th Guards Airborne Division (unit 65451), Ivanovo
31st Separate Guard Paratrooper Brigade (unit 73612), Ulyanovsk
1st Tank Army:
– 6th Separate Tank Brigade, Mulino
– 4th Guards “Kantemirovskaya Tank Division, Naro-Fominsk
Baltic Sea Fleet, Kaliningrad
11th Army Corps, Kaliningrad
25th Independent Coastal Missile Regiment (unit number 39108)
44th Air Force and Air Defense Division [unnamed, but likely given the equipment used and location–Mi-24 (NATO reporting name Hind), Mi-8 (NATO reporting name Hip), Sukhoi Su-34 (NATO reporting name Fullback)], Baltiysk
Belarusian Military Units
19th Guards Tank Division (unit 71327), Zaslonava
38th Guards Air Assault Brigade, Brest
72nd Joint Education Center
495th Separate Battalion of Material Support
103rd Guards Separate Mobile Brigade (also Airborne), Viciebsk
51st Guards Mixed Artillery Group, Osipovichi
1st Anti-Aircraft Division (unit 15994)
120th Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade (unit 96577), Baranovichi
- Mi-24 (NATO reporting name Hind) helicopters
- Mi-8 (NATO reporting name Hip) helicopters
- Sukhoi Su-34 (NATO reporting name Fullback) fighter bombers
- 9M133 “Kornet” anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) (NATO reporting name AT-14 Spriggan)
- 9K35 “Strela-10” surface-to-air missile (SAM) system (NATO reporting name SA-13 Gopher)
- 9K38 Igla man-portable air defense system (MANPADS) (NATO reporting name SA-18 Grouse)
- 2S5 “Giatsint-S” (NATO reporting name Hyacinth, M1981) 152mm self-propelled artillery howitzer (or variant)
- 2S19 “Msta” (NATO reporting name Farm, M1990) 152mm self-propelled heavy artillery howitzers (or variant)
- BM-27 “Uragan” (9P140) multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS)
- Various main battle tanks (MBT), including the T-72B 125mm tank
Where in World?
Exercises In Anticipation of Zapad
Slavic Brotherhood 2017, June 6–14
In mid-June, @DFRLab reported both phases of the third annual Slavic Brotherhood joint trilateral military exercises between Russia, Belarus, and Serbia at the Brestsky military range in Muchavec, Belarus, just south of Brest, Belarus, and notably near the Polish and Ukrainian borders. The “anti-terror” team-building and combat exercises hosted servicemen from Russia’s 76th Guards Air Assault Division (unit 07264, based in Pskov, Russia), Belarus’ 38th Guards Air Assault Brigade (based in Brest, Belarus), and Serbia’s 63rd Parachute Battalion (based in Niš, Serbia). The activities were announced as “counterterrorism” exercises, but @DFRLab found that the equipment and tactics used are typically used in counterinsurgency scenarios or large-scale military conflicts, such as Syria or Ukraine.
Press reports indicated that many of the same units seen in June military exercises with units from the Western Military District and Baltic Sea Fleet’s 11th Army Corps and 25th Independent Coastal Missile Regiment (based in Donskoye, Kaliningrad) are expected at Zapad 2017. Equipment used included Mi-24 (NATO reporting name Hind) helicopters, Mi-8 (NATO reporting name Hip) helicopters, and Sukhoi Su-34 (NATO reporting name Fullback) fighter bombers.
The 25th Independent Coastal Missile Regiment houses Bastion (NATO reporting name “Stooge”) and Bal (NATO reporting name “Sennight”) coastal defense missiles. Read more about the Bal and Bastion missiles in Kaliningrad in @DFRLab’s previous reports.
Airborne and Artillery near the Baltics
In early July, Russian air assault divisions conducted large-scale airborne exercises near Pskov Oblast, Russia (Russia’s western oblast bordering Estonia and Latvia) with 2,500 paratroopers and 500 pieces of equipment. These exercises were not explicitly announced to be in preparation for Zapad 2017; however, the equipment used and location of the exercise indicated that the exercises are likely for something larger than “counterterrorism” purposes. The 76th Guards Airborne Assault Division (who also participated in Slavic Brotherhood 2017), 98th Guards Airborne Division, and 31st Separate Guard Paratrooper Brigade trained with Mi-8 (NATO reporting name Hip) helicopters. Artillery used in the exercises included the 9M133 “Kornet” anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) (NATO reporting name AT-14 Spriggan), 9K35 “Strela-10” surface-to-air missile (SAM) system (NATO reporting name SA-13 Gopher), and 9K38 Igla man-portable air defense system (MANPADS) (NATO reporting name SA-18 Grouse).
In late June, @DFRLab reported small-scale joint tactical warm-up exercises in preparation for Zapad 2017. Belarusian and Russian electronic warfare units based in Damanava, Belarus conducted communication and transmission exercises, logistical support units ran drills at their base in Barysaw, Belarus, and engineering units carried out special tactical exercises in Daszkowka, Belarus (near Mahilyow, Belarus). Exercises featured similar tactics as seen in the aforementioned Slavic Brotherhood 2017 trilateral exercises against “illegal armed formations” and similar high-intensity adversaries.
Three large-scale Russian snap drills in Pskov Oblast and Kaliningrad on the border of NATO member states in early August revealed likely Zapad preparatory exercises. One of the three exercises was explicitly stated to be a “preparatory stage” of Zapad 2017, using 50 naval vessels along with naval planes and helicopters. Two of the exercises nearly matched the scale — 2,000 people and 2,500 people, respectively — that Russia formally announced will be deployed to Belarus for Zapad 2017 (3,000 Russian troops alongside 10,000 Belarusian).
In mid-August, combat readiness drills in Russia indicated that the 6th Separate Tank Brigade (under the 1st Tank Army) based in Mulino and reserve forces in St. Petersburg will participate in Zapad 2017.
@DFRLab provided a two–part report on the Russian and Belarusian joint special material-technical support (MTS) exercises from August 21–25. Note, these are the same exercises that brought the aforementioned Russian military forces through Barysaw and Orsha. The exercises focused on support activities and defensive combat, with activities ranging from landing military aircraft on a civilian highway to refueling.
From Russia to Belarus
In early August, press reports and social media evidence indicated the possible movement of possible Russian military equipment in Belarus. BM-27 “Uragan” (9P140) multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) and other armored vehicles were seen in transit near Brest and Minsk. It is difficult to ascertain if the systems seen are Russian or Belarusian, as the respective countries have the same models.
Russian troops formally arrived in Belarus for Zapad 2017 on August 15, a month before the planned exercises are scheduled to begin. Social media reports indicated troops and equipment were traveling to Barysaw via Orsha, a train line that continues on into Minsk. The Russian military elements arrived for joint preparatory exercises from August 21–25
Press reports and various social media posts in late-August indicated a substantial Russian military presence at the Vereytsy train station near Osipovichi. Photos revealed a likely 2S5 “Giatsint-S” (NATO reporting name Hyacinth, M1981) 152mm self-propelled artillery howitzer (marked 229) and at least five likely 2S19 “Msta” (NATO reporting name Farm, M1990) 152mm self-propelled heavy artillery howitzers, while social media posts and interviews indicate that grad rocket systems, very likely the BM-27 “Uragan” (9P140) multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS), are in the area. Reports also indicate that the Russian 4th Guards “Kantemirovskaya” Tank Division is already in Osipovichi.
Expectedly, Russian and Belarusian forces have been practicing for the highly anticipated military exercises Zapad 2017. In the process, press, official announcements, and social media posts revealed who may be participating, what they are likely using, and where they will be. @DFRLab will continue to monitor the situation before and after the exercises begin on September 14.
A @DFRLab staff report. Follow along for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.