Not so long ago, Liberty Nation asked the question: Are Russia and China double-teaming the United States? Now there is a definitive answer. In the next two months, Russia and China will collaborate in a major military exercise in China followed by a strategic training drill deploying Putin’s military to Belarus. According to The Diplomat, China’s Ministry of National Defense confirmed that “Russian and Chinese armed forces will take part in the ZAPAD/INTERACTION-2021 military exercise, which will be held in China later in August.” The combined People’s Liberation Army (PLA)-Russian tactical training will include as many as 10,000 soldiers and “test, validate, and augment” capabilities in “joint reconnaissance, early warning, electronic information attack, and joint strike capabilities.”
Soon after the Beijing-Moscow training, Russia plans a significant armor and infantry exercise in Belarus with maneuvers on the borders of Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia. These Baltic nations face the Russian bear every day and are the point of the spear for other NATO allies. At this time, tensions are running exceptionally high. Bloomberg explained that ZAPAD 2021 will take place as:
“Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko grows increasingly dependent on Russia after his crackdown on protesters over last year’s disputed elections sparked U.S. and European Union sanctions. Lithuania has accused him of ‘hybrid aggression’ against the E.U. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization members by sending thousands of mainly Middle Eastern migrants across their border.”
The anticipated deployment of Moscow’s combat forces comes on the heels of major armor and infantry units threatening Ukraine’s border in April. Liberty Nation provided a comprehensive report on Russian troop deployments representing a threat to Kiev’s security. Unfortunately, the Biden administration has not been tough or resilient when it comes to engaging China or reacting to military muscle-flexing by Russia. In many ways, the U.S. national security team has demonstrated all too often a timid stance toward Moscow.
While the combined training activities of Russia and China bear watching, Moscow’s armor and infantry movement into Belarus signals serious concern because ZAPAD 2021 will involve “nearly 13,000 troops.” As John Vandiver, writing for Stars and Stripes, put it:
“‘About 12,800 troops will participate in the drills on the territory of the Republic of Belarus, including 2,500 Russian personnel and up to 50 Kazakh servicemen,’ Belarus Deputy Defense Minister Viktor Gulevich said, as quoted by Russia’s Tass official news agency. Every four years, Russia and Belarus hold the Zapad exercise, which has a history of unnerving U.S. and NATO military officials concerned that Moscow could use the drill as a means for moving larger than announced numbers of forces near allied borders.”
This year’s exercise may validate NATO’s fears. During a video conference sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Lieutenant General (Ret.) Ben Hodges, holder of the Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies, Center for European Policy Analysis, explained the importance of ZAPAD 2021. He said there are three reasons that this exercise is important. First, from a “broad general standpoint, Russia has always used exercises, whether during the Soviet times or in modern Russian times, to test concepts.” Hodges explained that the Russians “are quite good at using these to try out new formations, new ideas, and new technical capabilities.” Consequently, it’s “important for us, hopefully, to learn as much as we can.”
Second, regarding this particular exercise, the United States should pay attention because “it comes on the heels of the first meeting of President Biden and President Putin. It’s an early test, if you will, of Russian reaction to whatever conversations happen between our president and the President of the Russian Federation. It will be a very, very public demonstration of attitude, intent, and transparency.” Last, it matters because Moscow’s announcement that it was pulling its combat forces on the Ukraine border is a “fairy tale,” since “actually nobody went home.” The implication is Russian forces mobilized for this year’s ZAPAD may find a more permanent bivouac in Belarus.
Backing up Hodges’ caution, the Stars and Stripes reported back in May:
“‘While Russia has pulled back some troops, tens of thousands remain in and around Ukraine, as well as significant amounts of weapons,’ NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Tuesday [May 25, 2021] during a visit to the alliance’s Brussels headquarters by Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas. Moscow continues to back eastern Ukrainian separatists in a war that the United Nations estimates has claimed thousands of lives.”
However, as Hodges explained, despite the fiction of Putin’s military departing Ukraine’s border, Paris, Brussels, Berlin, and perhaps Washington “breathed a sigh of relief” that was overly optimistic. With elections coming up in Germany and Washington focused on domestic issues, the timing of the ZAPAD exercises means that the West must sharpen attention on them. Moscow’s excuse for invading Ukraine was that a large ethnic Russian population in Ukraine was being discriminated against and needed Moscow’s protection. As reported in the CIA World Fact Book, Estonia and Latvia both have 25% ethnic Russian populations that could easily be targeted for Moscow’s “protection.”
Therefore, the United States and the rest of NATO must pay attention – close attention — to the tactics and maneuver operations of the Russian and Belarus infantry, armor, and particularly the use of special operations forces during the ZAPAD training. And Russia and China allied as military training partners should be intensely assessed as a potential threat to the West.
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.