Namejs versus Zapad: Military exercises on both sides of the front line
Autumn is for military exercises. In September, two large exercises took place in relatively close geographical proximity, one in Latvia and the other in western Russia and Belarus. Latvia’s annual large-scale exercise Namejs 2021 started on August 30th and will last until October 3rd. Russia’s much larger exercise Zapad-2021 began on September 9-16. Each exercise reflected the country’s key security concerns and aimed to test national and allied abilities to respond to identified threats.
The annual Namejs exercises are consistently the largest in Latvia, and their 2021 iteration is no different, possibly even more ambitious than in previous years. This is in part due to its geographic reach. The exercises have developed beyond the Ādaži training ground and surrounding communities, and are also taking place in and around other cities in all four provinces of Latvia and in the streets of the capital, Riga (a video of the exercise went viral, leading to an apology from 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, while later in September the exercise was switched to countering a conventional military threat. The breadth of the exercise required the involvement of far more than just the military; These include law enforcement agencies, emergency services, local governments, and private companies. The complexity of the exercise has resulted in a series of sub or parallel exercises being conducted to focus on specific elements of Namejs 2021.
On September 2nd and 3rd, the Latvian Ministry of Defense simultaneously conducted the AMEX 2021 sub-exercise as part of Namejs 2021, during which Latvia tested its readiness to respond to any ambiguous or hybrid attack. Up to four Zemessardze brigades (National Guard) as well as the Ministry of the Interior and other government and private representatives were involved in AMEX 2021, focusing on selected cities of Riga, Cēsis, Rēzekne and Jelgava. At the same time, the NATO operations planning exercises “Steadfast Pyramid 2021” took place from 6-10. September and “Steadfast Pinnacle 2021” from 12.-17. September. Each of them, which has been held annually in Latvia since 2011, focuses on challenges that are at the center of a specific single phase of Namejs 2021. The purpose of the Steadfast Pyramid 2021 is to practice the deployment planning of senior officers and commanders in a hybrid context. while Steadfast Pinnacle 2021 will shift the focus to operational planning in a conventional warfare context.
Namejs 2021 has a total of around 9,300 participants, including Latvian and Allied military contingents, the Zemessardze and reservists as well as representatives of the Ministry of Defense, the police, border guards, the fire and rescue services and the prison administration. Namejs 2021 and the associated exercises – which are clearly intended as a comprehensive and multi-dimensional test of the new Latvian state defense concept and total defense – involve practically all parties that would be involved in the defense of Latvia if an ambiguous or unambiguous invasion actually occurs.
The Russian exercises in Zapad (West) take place every four years, alternating with the three other strategic keystone exercises in Russia, Vostok, Tsentr and Kavkaz (East, Central, Caucasus). In contrast to Zapad-2017, there is significantly less hype about Zapad-2021, especially in Western media, but also from the Russian Defense Ministry itself. The inequality of Western attention between the two most recent iterations of Zapad is perhaps explained by the increasing familiarity of the West with the confrontation with Russia. Zapad-2017 was the first Zapad exercise after the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014 and the intervention in Donbass. The increased forward presence forces of NATO had only arrived in the Baltic states in 2017 before Zapad. In contrast, the direct confrontation with Russia in 2021 is already seven years old and leading to much less panic-stricken general coverage in the western press. Nonetheless, military analysts have treated both “short” and “long” Zapad in agonizing military details, most notably Konrad Muzyka, who wrote a 14-part overview of the lead-up to Zapad-2021, and Michael Kofman, who (together with Muzyka) covered the actual exercise day in and day out and was published about it elsewhere.
The scenario of Zapad-2021 emphasizes the defense of Belarus (fictionalized as “Polesie”) against a Western coalition, whereby the failure of an indirect color revolution in Polesie leads to an escalation and an attempted regime change by military means. Enemies of Russia and Polesies identified in the exercise were Pomoris (probably for Poland), Nyaris (probably Lithuania and part of Latvia) and the Polar Republic (probably Norway), which guaranteed participation by the Russian Northern Fleet. In the two-phase exercise, the Russian and Polish military were supposed to field enemy forces in a defensive battle (September 10-12) before going on the offensive to destroy the enemy and restore the status quo ante (September 13-16) September). .
In addition to the actual scenario, three key features of Zapad-2021 are of interest. First, it’s believed to be larger than at least the two previous Zapad iterations (with an estimated 75,000 for 2013 and 50-60,000 for 2017). The Russian Defense Ministry claims that Zapad-2021 comprised 200,000 participants – while also claiming that it fell below the Vienna Document’s threshold of 13,000 participants. (Observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe will be required for exercises that exceed this threshold.) However, estimating the true extent of Zapad-2021 is difficult and depends heavily on another key feature of the exercise.
Second, Zapad is actually just the culmination of a series of smaller preparatory exercises in the two months leading up to Zapad itself. These preparatory exercises generally focus on mobilization, logistics and deployment, with Russian troops being positioned on training grounds in northwestern Western Military District and Belarus to do the last Zapad exercise yourself. Zapad is hardly the whole show. Furthermore, it is unclear whether the excessive (in contrast to the other, deflated) number of participants of the Russian Defense Ministry actively includes the many soldiers who were involved in the exercises off Zapad.
Third, Zapad is not that easy to analyze. In one sense, it reflects Russia’s understanding of NATO – and the United States in particular – warfare and aims to test Russian countermeasures developed since 2017. This can include new formations such as the 18th Motor Rifle Division in Kaliningrad; new, improved, or critical skills, including electronic warfare or command and control skills; new concepts of operation, etc. On the other hand, Zapad has at the same time become a scripted, fixed exercise, which harbors the danger for the Russians as well as for all western observers of possibly learning wrongly from the exercise.
It is particularly noteworthy how the last two Zapad exercises demonstrate great changes in Russia’s relations with Belarus. In 2017, Alexander Lukashenko wanted to draw a border between Belarus and Russia. In September 2021, due to the highly competitive presidential elections in Belarus in August 2020 and the subsequent pressure from the West on Belarus, Lukashenko was unable to present the same dynamic between Belarus and Russia – the former is much more firmly embedded in its orbit in a way that it was before had not given.
Exercises and threat awareness
It is worth thinking about how both Namejs 2021 and Zapad-2021 reflect their respective states’ perception of threats. While both exercises necessarily act as political signals to the other side, their implied threat perceptions remain reasonably honest – the contingencies that their respective militaries should be ready to respond to. Obviously, both sides would, possibly truthfully, denounce the aggressive intentions ascribed to them by the other. NATO’s defense declarations are certainly true, although in its view Russia would find it careless to accept NATO’s declarations uncritically. Russia’s own assertions that it has no interest in aggression against the Baltic states may also be true, but it would still be unwise for the Baltic states and NATO as a whole to base their entire defense policy on faith.
What is remarkable, however, is the fundamental similarity of the threat perceptions on which the exercises are based. Both expect a first hybrid attack; both then move to conventional operations to attack and defeat the enemy. In the case of Latvia, the hybrid scenario represents the initial aggression to which the country must respond and the presumed defeat of which leads to Russia escalating and open invasion. For the Russian scenario, the hybrid aggression expected by the West is essentially a prologue, the failure of which leads to an escalation of the West and an open invasion, including a simulation of the much-feared MRAU (massirovany raketno-aviatsionny udar or Massed Missile-Aviation Strike) from the USA, which the Russian and Belarusian military have to parry defensively and then defeat offensively. From a western perspective, Namejs 2021 clearly corresponds to the western perception of threats to Russia since 2014, but Zapad-2021 also agrees fairly well with the Russian perception of threats and assessment of the western’s international activities since at least the Arab Spring in 2011 and the general evolution of each other’s defense concepts Both exercises should cause few, if any, surprises to the observer on the other side.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author 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.