Russia’s joint military exercise ZAPAD in September 2021 seems a precursor to its invasion of Ukraine. We look at how the event prepared Russia for the conflict — and laid the groundwork for some of its biggest mistakes.

In September 2021, Russia engaged in its quadrennial military exercise ZAPAD, where Russian forces along with several other countries including India, Pakistan, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia and Sri Lanka participated at Mulino training ground near Moscow. Russia also used this exercise to bring integration of the Belarusian military into Russian-led structures and framed the exercise as a joint effort.

While this exercise has been planned for several years, there appears to be a coincidence in the timing of the invasion of Ukraine so close to ZAPAD 2021.

Being trained as a military analyst, I think back to other instances where an exercise of this size was soon followed with an invasion of another country. This is exactly what major powers do to ensure that their planned invasion will be successful. It was the case when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003; prior to the invasion, U.S. military forces not only moved to the Middle East but also conducted a series of exercises that mirrored the plan for the invasion named Cobra II. Similarly, the ZAPAD 2013 event can also be seen as a precursor to the annexation of Crimea.

This demonstrated pattern of “scrimmaging” targeted military operations as a precursor to invasion highlights the importance of using open source intelligence (OSINT) to shed light on the intentions and strategies of military powers — and how to respond.

A brief history of ZAPAD

The Russian Exercise ZAPAD (Russian for “west”) refers to Soviet Union and Russian Federation military exercises that take place roughly every four years.

The first ZAPAD took place in 1981 with the most recent taking place in 2021. There appears to be several years during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s when the exercise didn’t take place. This is potentially due to the fall of the Soviet Union and the rebuilding of the Russian Federation.

  • ZAPAD-81
  • ZAPAD-84
  • ZAPAD 1999ZAPAD 2005 (“Peace Mission”)
  • ZAPAD 2009
  • ZAPAD 2013
  • ZAPAD 2017
  • ZAPAD 2021

The significance of the most recent ZAPAD exercise is its proximity — in time and location — to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

What happened during ZAPAD 2021

ZAPAD 2021 took place from September 10-16, 2021 and was the quadrennial component of annual joint strategic exercises (“sovmestnyye strategicheskiye ucheniya” in Russian or “SSU”), which rotates between Eastern, Central, Southern and Western Military Districts. ZAPAD 2021 was billed as a “Russian-Belarusian strategic exercises.” It was a combined-arms event that took place in training ranges in western Russia and in Belarus, and — as expected — Russian ground forces began conducting mobilization drills in late spring and arriving by rail in Belarus in July 2021. The scenario of the exercise was that a coalition of NATO states intervened in Belarus, conducting a regime change and wrested a part of the country away. This would then cause Russian and Belarusian forces to defend against further attack and counterattack.

ZAPAD 2021 consisted of two phases, a three-day defensive phase against an attack from the west, followed by a four-day counterattack to regain lost territory. The main purpose of this exercise is to test a military district’s ability to operate in its assigned strategic direction, evaluate their mobilization and operation by supporting military districts, and assess the competency of command elements up through the General Staff to carry out strategic operations. It also allows a sandbox to test and evaluate new doctrine, tactics and weapon systems. During the training, Russian and Belarusian forces demonstrated numerous capabilities to include parachute/airborne operations, helicopter assaults, mechanized assaults and military operations on urban terrain (MOUT).

Another test of ZAPAD 2021 was seizing territory to establish a more reliable land route to Crimea. Russia annexed the peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 and has been building up its forces there ever since. Russia only has one route to access Crimea via a recently constructed bridge. In the event of a major military crisis, Russia would have to seize more Ukrainian territory to secure a more reliable land. To accomplish this, Russia would have to send a lot of military assets along its border with Ukraine, as Russia fears the potential interference of NATO members and EU countries like Romania and Bulgaria.

Using OSINT to analyze ZAPAD 2021

In 2021, Authentic8 partnered with Preligens to conduct open-source research in support of the organization’s image collection. The reports produced began to show how powerful OSINT can be not only on its own but also to support the other intelligence disciplines.

Learn more: Use OSINT to contextualize GEOINT >

The team of experts at Authentic8 was able to collect a ton of information from ZAPAD 2021 from a variety of open sources: researchers on Twitter, journalists in attendance of the event, etc. One detail observed of these was the buildup of troops and vehicles at a training range near the Ukrainian border that were not used as part of ZAPAD 2021 exercises. From an analyst perspective, this should have been an extremely powerful signal to Ukraine about what was coming.

Request access to the full Authentic8-Preligens report here >

Russia invades Ukraine

Beginning on February 10, 2022 and amid continued threats and military buildup, Russia held additional joint military exercises with Belarus close to the nation’s border with Ukraine. The exercise essentially has yet to end.

On February 21, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized the independence of two breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine, Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, and deployed Russian troops to these areas. Russia officially invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, with Putin authorizing “special military operations” in eastern Ukraine along with asking for Ukrainian forces to lay down their arms.

There are currently four axes of attack that are being tracked:

  1. Kyiv Axis: Russia’s advance after capturing Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant is aimed at encircling the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv from the northwest, west and east. Kyiv has been putting up resistance to the invasion.
  2. Kharkiv Axis: Kharkiv has been under siege since the beginning but has not fallen to Russian forces due to local Ukrainian counterattacks.
  3. Donbas Axis: Russian forces and pro-Russian separatists have been advancing for complete control of Luhansk and Donetsk but have not yet succeeded.
  4. Crimea Axis: Russian forces are moving to encircle Mykolayiv from the east and, if secured, may move towards the city of Odessa. 

As of April 4, 2022, Russia is still having issues pushing into major cities, as Ukrainian forces and civilians have been mounting a successful resistance. Additionally, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy continues to push for support from not only NATO but specifically the United States as well.

Links between ZAPAD 2021 and Russian invasion of Ukraine

Invasion routes

One of the most glaring links between the ZAPAD 2021 exercise and the Russian invasion of Ukraine is the location of the exercise. By conducting exercises in Russia’s Western Military District, it gave Russia the pretext for positioning forces near the Ukrainian border. This district consists of several training areas like Dorogobuzh and Pogonovo which placed the Russian military in key positions for the invasion. Russia was also able to deploy S-300 air defense systems and Su-30 aircraft to bases in Belarus.

Preparation and the realities of “maneuver warfare”

ZAPAD 2021 also differed from exercises in years past in terms of its scope and preparation. Instead of the usual snap-readiness checks or stress tests, ZAPAD 2021 was highly formalized and planned in advance, involving ground, air, naval, air defense, engineering and logistics, as well as chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defense (CBRN) units. Several months of pre-deployments and other smaller exercises preceded the event and prepared each participating unit for their role in ZAPAD.

In light of the invasion of Ukraine within the six months following, the scale of ZAPAD 2021 may have been an indicator of Russia’s plans and the intensity with which the invasion would take place.

While Russia prepared extensively for ZAPAD 2021 and thus, it seems, the invasion of Ukraine, differences in the execution of both could explain Russia’s lack of effectiveness thus far.

Preparation for the September 2021 exercise began at least three months prior, giving Russia ample time to mobilize troops and equipment. However, the invasion of Ukraine required “maneuver warfare” — a military strategy which attempts to defeat the enemy by incapacitating their decision-making through shock and disruption (think “shock and awe” in the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq). Without the luxury of time and what appears to be limited or inexperienced logistical support, Russia has so far been unable to exact a decisive victory against Ukraine despite outmatching it in terms of military size.

This was evident by the 40-mile convoy of vehicles, tanks and artillery that had stalled outside the captital of Kyiv. It has become apparent that this was a massive logistical failure by the Russian military to provide fuel, food, and spare parts according to General Sir Richard Barrons, former Commander of the UK Joint Forces Command. It also appears that the convoy had vehicle issues and there were some that were stuck in the mud in a way that makes it difficult to move vehicles out.

Overall, this war has become a logistical nightmare for the Russian military that should have practiced these types of operations either during ZAPAD 2021 or the small unit exercises leading up to the invasion. The now infamous convoy has since redeployed and is no-longer in a 40-mile chain that could have been catastrophic if destroyed by airstrikes.

Seeding alliances

ZAPAD not only allowed for the coordination between Russia and Belarus but also may have been a way for Russia to showcase its military prowess as a means of ally-building. Russia invited several other countries —particularly China and India — to watch the exercises, culminating in combined arms formation with those countries. China and India have notably remained uncritical of the invasion and have thus far not participated in subsequent sanctions.

Use of drones

Russia also used ZAPAD to test new tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) when it came to the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the support of ground operations. This was evident in their use during combined exercises with Belarus, India and others at the Mulino Training Ground where they not only worked on coordination with other units but also where Russian electronic warfare elements used jammers to disable UAVs. This part of the exercise was supervised by electronic warfare specialists who had intercepted drones in Syria.

From the invasion perspective, it appears the Ukrainian forces have been more successful in using UAVs, provided by the Turkish government, to conduct strikes on Russian forces. Ukraine has been more successful using UAVs than conventional aviation assets — which is probably why they have requested more UAVs and not fixed winged aircraft. Additionally, they have requested more surface-to-air missile systems, man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS), anti-armor, small arms and ammunition.

One analyst’s perspective

From my perspective, as a formally trained military intelligence analyst (nine years in the U.S. Marine Corps, with four of those years at USSOCOM, five total deployments to OIF and OEF), it appears that Russia, even with the exercises and troop movements in late 2021, has over extended itself by invading Ukraine.

For years the world has been scared of the might of the Russian military, dating back to the Iron Curtain days when it was the United Socialist Soviet Republic (USSR). Cold War fears persist of getting into a long, drawn out conflict with the USSR or Russia. It appears that all of the analysts — military and civilian — who have pushed the might of Russia were mistaken in that they have been unable to swiftly invade Ukraine; this may have as much to do with Russia as it does with Ukrainian military forces and civilians fighting for their home.

Based on the conflict thus far, even with months of buildup along the Ukrainian border potentially under the guise of ZAPAD 2021, Russia has failed to adequately predict the time and materials needed to complete the invasion of Ukraine. I harken back to the invasion of Iraq by Coalition Forces (the coalition of more than 160,000 multinational troops being key) took roughly a month and one week, whereas this current invasion has just passed the one-month point and seems nowhere near a decisive military conclusion.

Overall, in my view, Russia is in a pickle: victory seems unlikely and a retreat would be a blow to their standing on the world stage. Russia has been boasting over the past few years of their military might and isn’t willing to lose face, which is why it appears that the peace talks between Russia and Ukraine have not bore any fruit. Russia doesn’t want to back down and, in all honesty, neither does Ukraine.

Looking toward the future

For all these dotted lines between a “routine” military exercise and a full-scale invasion, there were no doubt countless analysts looking for clues — in open and clandestine sources — trying to discern Russia’s intentions, strategies, tactics and objectives. The earlier those could be deduced, the better chance Ukraine had of thwarting Russian aggression. In the future, it seems, analysis of exercises like ZAPAD will be given even more scrutiny as a harbinger of things to come.

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