#ZapadWatch: Back From Belarus?

Accounting for resources and material after Russia’s largest military exercise

Before the Russian-Belarusian joint military exercise Zapad 2017, which occurred September 14 to September 20, European countries sharing a border with Russia or Belarus expressed concern that Russian troops, who participated in the exercise, would not leave Belarus. Indeed, even some Belarusians conveyed skepticism that their military guests would leave at the agreed upon time. While it has only been a little over one week since the end of Zapad 2017, which took months of preparation, Russian troops appear to be returning home on schedule thus far.

A Real Concern

In the months ahead of Zapad, officials from bordering countries like Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, and Ukraine made clear an exercise on the scale of Zapad near their borders was a topic of obvious concern. Estonia’s Minister of Defence expressed this concern on April 27, according to Reuters. On June 8, Lithuania’s Minister of Defence also suggested Russian troops would stay in Belarus. The Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces warned an international audience of the military exercise on July 8, and the former Polish Minister of Defence mentioned Zapad in an interview on August 10.

On the last day of the exercise, Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko reiterated his assurance to the international community that Russian troops were heading home.

Some social media posts by Russian soldiers offer corroborating evidence that suggests Russian troops are, in fact, going back to their bases.

On September 20, as the exercise ended, Instagram user nastya_zakharova posted an image of her boyfriend geotagged in Barysaw, Belarus.

(Source: Instagram / nastya_zakharova)

The post reads:

nastya_zakharova #Zapad2017 exercise has finally ended now everything will be all right #dmb2018 #waitingforbelovedsoldier #waitlovemiss

On September 22, she posted a screenshot from an application that identified how many days left for a soldier to serve in conscription. The post was geotagged in Mulino, military village in Nizhny Novgorod Oblast in Russia.

(Source: Instagram / nastya_zakharova)

The post reads:

nastya_zakharova -3 months #dmb2018 #waitingforbelovedsoldier #waitlovemiss

dashakiisa Congratulations

nastya_zakharova @ dashakiisa Thanks!

As @DFRLab reported before, Mulino is where the 6th Separate Tank Brigade is based (56.3203975,42.935824). Images found on social media before the exercise suggested that the unit participated in Zapad 2017 exercise.

According to social media posts presented above, the unit most likely has returned back to its base.

On September 22, another Instagram user _holyrainbow_ posted an image from a public transport. The comment section suggested that he participated in the Zapad 2017 exercise.

(Source: Instagram / _holyrainbow_)

The post reads:

_holyrainbow_ #Minsk#Minsk#Zapad2017

damcho_ What was interesting there?

_holyrainbow_ @ damcho_ We went to Minsk to closed exercise ) I saw Lukashenko live, he stood 10 meters away from me ) and many more interesting things )

damcho_@_holyrainbow_ it is already more interesting than my service

On September 27, the same user posted an image geotagged in Naro-Fominsk, Moscow Oblast, Russia.

(Source: Instagram / _holyrainbow_)

The post reads:

_holyrainbow_ #narofominsk#moscow#zapad2017

The division based in the city of Naro-Fominsk, Moscow Oblast is Kantemirovskaya tank division (full name — 4th Guards Kantemirovskaya Tank Division and military unit 19612). As @DFRLab previously reported, the division and its equipment was noticed in Osipovichy, Belarus three weeks before the beginning of the exercise.

Images posted by another Russian soldier on Instagram confirm the Kantemirovskaya Tank Division left Belarus. Instagram user kex40 posted an image from Zapad 2017 exercise geotagged in Osipovichy, Belarus on September 22.

(Source: Instagram / kex40)

The post reads:

kex40 #zapad2017

belyavskiy_vlad Cool pic!

Later the same user posted a selfie geotagged in Naro-Fominsk.

(Source: Instagram / kex40)

On September 24, Instagram user tankamarka posted a video, which suggested some Russian military equipment already arrived back to Russia from Barysaw, Belarus.

(Source: Instagram / tankamarka)

The post reads:

tankamarka Russian vehicles and military leave #borisov after #zapad2017 exercise #photo #video #exercise #borisov

Conclusion

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, one of the most interesting and definitive implications of where the resources and equipment used in the exercise will end up permanently remains a question. Specifically, will Russian material remain in Belarus despite claims to the contrary?

A small portion of fresh social media posts from individual soldiers corroborated to existing knowledge of the military exercise is hardly conclusive, but it does offer a small accountability check. Digital evidence on social media suggest that, at the very least, 6th Separate Tank Brigade and 4th Guards Kantemirovskaya Tank Division returned to their bases in Russia after participating in Zapad 2017 in Belarus.

According to Belarusian media, Russian troops must be entirely removed from Belarus by September 30. @DFRLab will continue to monitor any resources and equipment reallocated or relocated as units return to their bases in the aftermath of Zapad 2017.


Nika Aleksejeva is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).

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