By Lukas Milevski*
(FPRI) — Autumn is for military exercises. In September two major exercises have occurred in relative close geographic proximity, one in Latvia and the other in western Russia and Belarus. Latvia’s annual large-scale exercise Namejs 2021 kicked off on August 30 and runs until October 3. Russia’s much larger-scale exercise Zapad-2021 began on September 9 with a formal opening ceremony, actual military maneuvers beginning only the following day, and concluded on September 16. Each exercise reflects its respective country’s key security concerns and sought to test national and allied capabilities for responding to identified threats.
The annual Namejs exercises are consistently the largest in Latvia and its 2021 iteration is no different, indeed possibly even more ambitious than in previous years. Partially this is a result of its geographical scope. The exercises have moved beyond the Ādaži training grounds and surrounding municipalities to also take place in and around other cities and towns throughout all four of Latvia’s provinces and in the very streets of the capital Riga (prompting one video of the exercise to go viral and leading to an apology from the Ministry of Defense).
Namejs’ ambition is also reflected in its two-phase scenario. In the first half of September, the first phase consisted of responding to a hybrid threat, whereas later in September the exercise transitioned to countering a conventional military threat. The breadth of the exercise has required the involvement of far more than just the military; it includes law enforcement, emergency medical services, local governments, and private businesses. The complexity of the exercise has resulted in a number of subordinate or parallel exercises taking place to focus on specific elements of Namejs 2021.
On September 2-3, the Latvian Ministry of Defense concurrently ran sub-exercise AMEX 2021 as part of Namejs 2021, during which Latvia tested its readiness to respond to any ambiguous or hybrid incursion. AMEX 2021 involved up to four Zemessardze (National Guard) brigades, as well as Ministry of Interior and other government and private representatives, focusing on selected cities Riga, Cēsis, Rēzekne, and Jelgava. Parallel NATO operational planning exercises “Steadfast Pyramid 2021” took place September 6-10 and “Steadfast Pinnacle 2021” September 12-17. Each of these, having occurred annually in Latvia since 2011, focuses on challenges at the center of a given single phase of Namejs 2021. The purpose of Steadfast Pyramid 2021 is to exercise higher-level officers and commanders’ operational planning in a hybrid context, whereas Steadfast Pinnacle 2021 switches the focus to operational planning in a conventional warfare context.
Namejs 2021 boasts approximately 9,300 participants in total, including Latvian and allied military contingents, the Zemessardze and reservists, and representatives from the Ministry of Defense, the police, the border guard, fire and rescue services, and prison administration. Namejs 2021 and its associated exercises — clearly intended to be a full and multi-dimensional test of Latvia’s new state defense concept and total defense — engage virtually all parties who would be involved in the defense of Latvia if an ambiguous or unambiguous invasion were actually to occur.
Russia’s Zapad (West) exercises occur every four years, in rotation with Russia’s three other capstone strategic exercises, Vostok, Tsentr, and Kavkaz (East, Center, Caucasus). In contrast to Zapad-2017, there is substantially less hype surrounding Zapad-2021, most notably in Western media but also from the Russian Ministry of Defense itself. The disparity of Western attention between Zapad’s two most recent iterations is perhaps explained by increased Western familiarity with confrontation with Russia. Zapad-2017 was the first Zapad exercise following Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea and intervention in Donbas. NATO’s enhanced forward presence forces had only recently begun arriving in the Baltic states in 2017 prior to Zapad. By contrast, in 2021, direct confrontation with Russia is already seven years old and results in much less panicked general Western press coverage. Nonetheless, military analysts have covered both “short” and “long” Zapad in excruciating military detail, most notably Konrad Muzyka, who has written a 14-part overview of the lead up to Zapad-2021, and Michael Kofman, who has (together with Muzyka) covered the actual exercise day-by-day, as well as published elsewhere about it.
Zapad-2021’s scenario emphasizes defense of Belarus (fictionalized as “Polesie”) against a Western coalition, with the failure of an indirect color-style revolution in Polesie leading to escalation and attempted regime change by military means. Russia’s and Polesie’s identified enemies in the exercise were Pomoris (probably representing Poland), Nyaris (probably Lithuania and part of Latvia), and the Polar Republic (probably Norway), guaranteeing involvement of Russia’s Northern Fleet. In the two-phase exercise, the Russian and Polesian militaries were to deploy and encounter hostile forces in a defensive engagement (September 10-12) before going onto the offensive to destroy the opponent and restore the status quo ante (September 13-16).
Besides the actual scenario, three Zapad-2021 crucial features are of interest. First, it is believed to be larger than at least the two previous Zapad iterations (with 2013 estimated at 75,000 and 2017 at 50-60,000 participants). The Russian Ministry of Defense claims Zapad-2021 involved 200,000 participants — while simultaneously claiming that it fit below the Vienna Document’s threshold of 13,000 participants. (Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe are required for exercises topping that threshold.) Yet estimating the true scale of Zapad-2021 is difficult and highly contingent on another crucial feature of the exercise.
Second, Zapad is really just the culmination of a series of smaller preparatory exercises in the two months preceding Zapad itself. These preparatory exercises generally focus on mobilization, logistics, and deployment, putting Russian forces in position at training ranges across the north-west side of the Western Military District and Belarus to undertake the final Zapad exercise itself. Zapad is hardly the whole show. Moreover, it is unclear whether the Russian Ministry of Defense’s inflated (as opposed to its other, deflated) count of participants actively includes the many soldiers involved in the exercises leading up to Zapad.
Third, Zapad is not an entirely straightforward exercise to analyze. In one respect, it reflects Russia’s understanding of NATO’s — and especially the United States’ — way of waging war and aims to trial Russian countermeasures developed since 2017. These may include new formations such as the 18th Motor Rifle Division in Kaliningrad; new, improved, or crucial capabilities including electronic warfare or command and control capabilities; new operation concepts, etc. On the other hand, Zapad has simultaneously become a scripted, set-piece exercise, which runs the risk to both the Russians and any Western observers of potentially mislearning from the exercise.
Of particular note is how the last two Zapad exercises demonstrate major changes in Russia’s relationship with Belarus. In 2017, Alexander Lukashenko was keen to draw a line between Belarus and Russia. By September 2021, as a result of Belarus’ hugely contested presidential elections in August 2020 and the West’s subsequent pressure on Belarus, Lukashenko could no longer portray the same dynamic between Belarus and Russia—the former has become much more firmly embedded in the latter’s orbit in a way that it had not been previously.
Exercises and Threat Perceptions
It is worth reflecting on how both Namejs 2021 and Zapad-2021 reflect their respective states’ threat perceptions. While both exercises necessarily act as political signals to the other side, their implied threat perceptions remain reasonably honest — the contingencies toward which their respective militaries should be prepared to respond. Both sides would obviously decry the aggressive intentions ascribed to them by the other, possibly truthfully. NATO’s defensive declarations are certainly truthful, although Russia, from its perspective, would find it imprudent to accept NATO’s statements uncritically. Similarly, Russia’s own protestations that it has no interest in aggression against the Baltic states may be truthful, but it would still be imprudent for the Baltic states and NATO as a whole to pin their entire aggregate defense policy on faith.
However, it is remarkable how fundamentally similar the threat perceptions underpinning the exercises actually are. Both anticipate an initial hybrid attack; both then transition to conventional operations to engage and defeat the enemy. In the Latvian case, the hybrid scenario represents the initial aggression toward which the country must respond and whose presumed defeat leads to Russian escalation and overt invasion. For the Russian scenario, the hybrid aggression they expect from the West is essentially a prologue, whose failure leads to Western escalation and overt invasion, including a simulation of the much feared MRAU (massirovany raketno-aviatsionny udar or Massed Missile-Aviation Strike) from the United States, which the Russian and Belarusian militaries must parry defensively and then defeat offensively. From a Western perspective, Namejs 2021 is in clear keeping with Western threat perceptions of Russia since 2014, but Zapad-2021 is also quite consistent with Russian threat perceptions and assessments of the West’s international activity since at least the Arab Spring in 2011. Besides tracking the general development of each other’s defense concepts, both exercises should cause few, if any, surprises for observers from the other side.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.
*About the author: Lukas Milevski is a Baltic Sea Fellow in the Eurasia Program at FPRI.
Source: This article was published by FPRI