Here’s what we saw during Russia’s largest joint military exercise with Belarus:
As Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka announced, the Zapad 2017 military exercises ended on September 20. In the six days prior, the Russian and Belarusian militaries held large-scale military exercises at eight training ranges in Belarus and three training ranges in Russia. However, Russia also carried out additional exercises near NATO borders during the same time period.
The Zapad exercises occur every four years and aim to demonstrate unity between Russia and Belarus. Zapad 2017 was marked by a notable distance between the leaders of both countries — both literal and rhetorical — evident from the beginning of the exercise. From confusion about certain Russian military units’ participation to the presidents of both countries not meeting in-person during the exercise to a helicopter misfire on observers, the exercise was not without tensions under the stated purpose of unity.
@DFRLab compiled a list of the most noteworthy events during Zapad 2017, and we will continue to monitor developments going forward.
Are Russian tanks coming?
The first day of the exercise started with a miscommunication, which played out in public. On September 14, the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced that a division of the 1st Guards Tanks Army would relocate conventional armament and military equipment to a Belarusian area of the exercise within 24 hours by rail. According to the Russian announcement, this was part of the exercise scenario. Russian Army television channel Zvezda TV released a video demonstrating how the command executed the task.
However, this portion of the exercise was а surprise to the Belarusian MoD. Belarus “detected” an illegal armed formation (IAF) and the command of the Western Military District (WMD) raised the alarm. On the same day, media outlet TUT.by quoted Belarusian MoD spokesperson Vladimir Makarov, who said that all Russian troops that planned to participate in Zapad 2017 already arrived, which didn’t account for the 1st Guards Tank Army.
Markov later told TUT.by that the Belarusian and Russian MoDs consulted and came to an agreement that the tank division would carry out a planned exercise at training ranges in Russia.
Russia formed the 1st Guards Tanks Army in 2016, and it includes the 4th Guards Kantemirovskaya Tank Division. @DFRLab previously reported that a part of this unit was observed at the Vereitsy station near Osipovichi, Belarus on August 25. According to a Russian soldier interviewed by a Belarusian correspondent on August 30, over ten thousand soldiers from 4th Guards Kantemirovskaya Tank Division would travel to Belarus.
He said to the correspondent:
We just came here. They have not set us anywhere down, and I do not even know where they will take us to. We are artillerymen from the Kantemirovskaya tank division, have you heard of it? I like here — it’s quiet, calm. How many of us? In general, there will be many of us, ten thousand. But not the whole Kantemirovskaya division will be involved — only a motorized rifle regiment and reconnaissance. In the meantime, we are unloading. Officers do not let us go far, only here, next to, a maximum to the gates…
The most reported on accident during Zapad 2017 occurred at Luzhsky training ground near Luga, Russia where a Kamov Ka-52 “Alligator” (NATO reporting name Hokum-B) attack helicopter accidentally fired missiles at people observing the exercise.
Another accident occurred on the first day of the exercise at the Shaykovka airbase in Kaluga Oblast, where a Tupolev Tu-22M3 (NATO reporting name Backfire-C), a supersonic, long-range, and maritime strategic bomber, rolled off the runway while taxiing.
On September 14, Twitter user @galandecZP posted images from the accident.
— Записки охотника (@galandecZP) September 14, 2017
Later, Russian news agency Interfax reported the Russian MoD confirmed the accident. The official statement relayed the aircraft rolled off the runway due to technical difficulties. A post on a VK page about the event specified that the bomber’s landing gears broke, which laid the bomber on its underbelly.
Russian news YouTube channel Perviy po Srochnim published a story about the crash. The video used footage taken by local witnesses.
According to Russian media outlet RIA Novasti, the Russian MoD confirmed the crash. The MoD stated the pilots managed to direct the plane away from residential areas and successfully eject.
Zapad 2017 did not include Voronezh Oblast as one of its official areas, but its proximity to Ukraine is relevant.
Nuclear-capable war games near the Norwegian border
At the beginning of Zapad 2017 on September 14, the Russian MoD announced a Northern Fleet exercise in the Barents Sea. The nuclear-capable missile cruiser Pyotr Veliky, the destroyer Admiral Ushakov, the small rocket ships Rassvet and Aisberg, and the small anti-submarine ships Snezhnogorsk, Brest, and Yunga carried out an exercise by the Rybachy peninsula located close to Norwegian border. The exercise tested a wide range of capabilities and continued for almost as long as Zapad 2017 exercise.
On September 18, the Russian MoD reported that the Pyotr Veliky practiced repelling hostile amphibious landings and supporting coastal defense forces. Russian forces carried out this exercise on Sredniy peninsula, close to the Norwegian border. The MoD released a video of the exercise on the same day.
On September 19, Pyotr Veliky and two nuclear submarine missile cruisers Voronezh and Orel practiced a missile strike on a simulated enemy. The same day the Russian MoD published a video from the exercise on its YouTube channel.
Even though Zapad 2017 did not include these naval exercises in the Barents Sea, their timing and proximity to NATO borders are noteworthy.
During Zapad 2017, Russia also separately conducted a launch of the 9K720 “Iskander-M” (NATO reporting name SS-26 Stone) short-range ballistic missile system. A year ago @DFRLab reported that Russia deployed Iskanders to Kaliningrad. However, during the Zapad 2017 exercises, Russian forces fired the missile from a training ground in Astrakhan Oblast. According to Interfax, on September 18, Russian MoD stated that the missile launch was carried out at the Kapustin Yar training ground as part of Zapad 2017 exercise.
Interfax quoted the Russian MoD:
The high-capacity missile overcame 480 kilometers and successfully hit the target at the “Makat” training ground in Kazakhstan.
However, the Kazakhstan MoD has not released a statement confirming the launch.
Also, Russian Army television Zvezda TV very briefly reported on the event .
The cold between Putin and Lukashenko
Finally, the fact that Russian and Belarusian presidents did not meet at the exercise signals a lack of unity between the two countries.
On the second day of the exercise, September 15, Russian and Belarusian media simultaneously released reports detailing the times and dates presidents of both countries will attend Zapad 2017. Russian news agency Interfax quoted Russian President’s Press Secretary Dmirtry Peskov as saying that President Putin would visit the exercise on Monday, September 18 at a training ground in Leningrad Oblast. The Belarusian news agency Belta referred to Belarusian President’s Press Secretary Natalya Eismont, who stated President Lukashenko would attend the active phase of the exercise, but didn’t specify a time and place. Nevertheless, the report elaborated on the fact that Lukashenko will visit exercises in Belarus, not Russia. The report also mentioned Lukashenko invited Putin to join him in Belarus.
The same day Belarusian news media Belta reported Lukashenko would visit the exercise during its last day on September 20 at the Borisovsky training ground. A day before the scheduled visit, Russian media RT reported Russian Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu would join Lukashenko. However, according to Belarusian media outlet Belsat TV, Shoygu did not attend due to an undisclosed reason.
Belarusian TV channel ONT broadcast a story about Lukashenko’s visit on September 20.
These two events signal that despite the joint military exercises, lack of public relations between the two leaders reflects a possible lack of mutual trust.
Multiple events during Zapad 2017 military exercise demonstrated possible disconnect between Russia and Belarus from leadership to operational elements of each country. In particular, the confusion over the deployment of Russia’s 1st Tank Army Division and the fact that the leaders of both countries did not meet in person at the exercise.
Russia was active during the Zapad 2017 exercise even outside of the stated limited scope of the joint exercise with Belarus. From naval exercises just off of NATO shores in the north to missile system tests directed to Kazakhstan in the south, Russian military exercise went beyond Zapad 2017 in the last week.
Military exercises are notable not only in their show of force, but in the allocation of resources and equipment. While Zapad 2017 has officially concluded, @DFRLab will continue to monitor any resources and equipment reallocated or relocated as units return to their bases.
Follow along for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.