The last time Russia and Belarus teamed up to hold a large-scale strategic command-and-staff military exercise, a number of international media outlets pondered whether it might be a prelude to war. Less than two months before Zapad-2017 (“West-2017”), The New York Timesproclaimed that the drills near NATO’s borders had raised “fears of aggression,” and a CNN contributor wondered, “Could they turn into war?” Ukraine’s then-defense minister cautioned that Zapad could be a ruse to attack any European country that shares a border with Russia. None of these scenarios materialized. Since then, the Russian General Staff has held three comparable sets of drills annually in the geographical areas of Vostok (“East”) in 2018, Tsentr (“Center”) in 2019, and Kavkaz (“Caucasus”) in 2020.
It is now time for Russia to hold exercises in its western regions again, and we hear warnings that Moscow will use it as cover for the start of aggression against another country—although such warnings are not as numerous as in 2017. For instance, the Ukrainian leadership is considering as many as nine scenarios of “aggravation of the situation around Ukraine” as a result of Zapad-2021, according to Alexey Arestovich, a member of Ukraine’s delegation at the Trilateral Contact Group on Donbas. One of the scenarios, Arestovich said, involves an “invasion by an attack grouping formed in the course of Zapad-2021 in the direction of Chernihiv, Sumy, and Kharkiv.” In addition, Russia watchers such as former Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili and the American Enterprise Institute’s Leon Aron have recently speculated that Russia could either annex Belarus or use the territory of that country to execute an intervention in one of the Baltic states. I would argue, however, that it is unlikely—though not impossible—that President Vladimir Putin would use Zapad-2021, the main phase of which is to take place September 10-16, to either absorb Belarus or intervene in a state that borders either Russia or Belarus (or both).