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West 2021 Exercises and Other Maneuvers. Why Russia Pulls Troops to Its Western Borders

Russian peacekeepers

Lately there has been a lot of talk about the active movement of large number of troops and equipment. Moscow’s formal explanation: scheduled final inspection of military units and preparations for the West 2021 strategic exercises. At the same time, former commander of the United States Army Europe Ben Hodges believes that such a show of muscle-flexing is a challenge for Joe Biden’s administration. Chief of the Ukrainian General Staff Ruslan Khomchak cites figures: apart from 28 battalion tactical groups (BTGs) already concentrated near the Ukrainian border, Russia may deploy 25 BTGs more.

According to the Defence Express Ukrainian media outlet, troops of Western and Southern districts conducted exercises in the Rostov region, Volgograd region, Krasnodar Krai, and the occupied Crimea. Land forces, army aircraft, and ships of the Black Sea Fleet were involved in the maneuvers. Iskander missile systems were also used at firing ranges. The drills began in late March and will last several weeks.

The West 2021 maneuvers, which will have international status and will be deployed mainly in Belarus, are expected to be much larger. The preparatory stage is underway, with Russian generals visiting Minsk for talks. On the Russian side, these exercises are overseen by Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov, known for drafting the doctrine of “new generation war” which the Russian army implements in the war in Donbas. Gerasimov’s doctrine provides for the simultaneous use of not only a military component, but also economic, informational, humanitarian and other means of influence in the interstate conflict.

Among the tasks discussed by the exercise organisers is the creation of a single (for Russian and Belarusian armies) combat training centre for joint exercises for the air force and anti-aircraft defence. Such a centre should be located in Grodno region, western Belarus, closer to the EU borders. Moscow has long put pressure on Minsk seeking to deploy a military air base. Lukashenka postponed the issue in every possible way, but he makes concessions now that the political situation in his country has worsened. Under the guise of a training centre, Russia now essentially is able to deploy fourth-generation Su-30 fighters in Belarus.

The West 2021 exercise could result in an increase in the presence of Russian troops in Belarus. Such fears were expressed during similar maneuvers in 2019, but those predictions did not come true. It should be understood that the first exercises entitled “West” were held in the USSR in 1981. It was the largest strategic operation since World War II. At that time, the troops of the three districts of the Soviet army and the armed forces of the Warsaw Pact members practiced combat missions in Belarus, the Baltic states and Poland. The theater of operations was chosen not by chance: it was a kind of intimidation action against the background of the Solidarity movement rallies in Poland.

Putin probably inherited a passion for such maneuvers from his predecessors, and the main goal of the West 2021 exercises is to demonstrate the strength and intimidate the Western countries and their allies. Ukraine takes such a display of power seriously. The other day, a bill was passed that allows the conscription of reservists into the army without announcing mobilisation.

Stepan Nazarenko

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