Any mention of military exercises, weapons, and military-technical cooperation, seizes the imagination of the Russian media. The Zapad-2021 (“West-2021”) exercises are no exception, particularly since they take place during a publicity campaign about the “deep integration” of Belarus and Russia. Let’s take a look at what aspects and narratives the Russian media focus on.
Plans and expectations
Announcements and predictions regarding the “Zapad” exercises began well in advance.
According to Ekho Moskvy (newspaper), the exercises take place “against the background of concerns of Western countries” and involve Russia, Belarus and “the southern Baltic Sea”. Citing the Russian Defence Ministry, Ekho informs its readers about the opening ceremony at training grounds in the Nizhny Novgorod and Brest regions and the delegation “headed by Russian Deputy Defence Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, who oversees combat training “, which arrived in Belarus alongside around 2500 other Russian military personnel. Overall, the exercises will involve “almost 200,000 troops, 800 military vehicles, 80 aircraft and helicopters, and 15 ships” with “about 2500 Russian military personnel deployed to Belarus, along with Su-30 fighters”. The Ministry of Defence states that the air forces of the participants “will be engaged in [rehearsals for] the protection of the air borders of the Union State.”
The Russian Defence Ministry assertion that the “Zapad-2021” exercises “demonstrate the futility of building up NATO forces near the Russian borders” is emphasised while repeatedly referring to the “concern of the Baltic countries and Poland, Ukraine”. Ekho notes that the Polish authorities “introduced a state of emergency” in the regions that border Belarus due to the exercises, while Kyiv called the manoeuvres a threat to national security.
In contrast, “the head of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko” characterised the fears of the West about the upcoming exercises as “groundless”.
Numbers and scale
The media dutifully report the scale and significance of the exercises, focussing on the objectives, manpower and equipment involved.
The TV channel Russia 24 also reports on the “Zapad-2021 joint strategic exercises” in Russia and Belarus.
Viewers are assured that these large-scale manoeuvres, taking place simultaneously at 14 training grounds, will provide an impressive spectacle, with “up to 200,000 thousand military personnel” supported by more than 850 air, land, and seaborne assets. In the Ryazan region, “for the first time a whole battalion of airborne troops will land with the latest combat vehicles”, and more than 300 soldiers with 30 combat vehicles will land in a “single place”. Meanwhile, in the Kaliningrad region, “ships and boats of the Baltic Fleet were deployed” to rehearse air defence and anti-submarine tactics. Russia 24 notes that such exercises are held every two years and represent the “culmination of joint training of the armies” of Russia and Belarus for 2021. The “exclusively defensive nature” of the “Zapad-2021” joint strategic exercises is underlined. At the same time, Dmitry Petrov, correspondent of VGTRK, clarifies that military units of several countries will take part in the manoeuvres: Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, and India.
The channel repeats the statistics from the same press release in subsequent broadcasts, elaborating “up to 200,000 soldiers, 80 aircraft and helicopters, up to 760 units of military equipment, including 290 tanks, 240 guns, multiple launch rocket systems and mortars, as well as up to 15 ships.”, however, it is carefully emphasised that the maximum number of troops involved at any specific stage will not exceed 6,400, thus falling outside the terms of the Vienna Protocol of 2011 which specifies that “foreign military observers [must be invited] if the number of personnel at any stage of the exercises exceeds 13,000.”
The “Collective West.”
As expected, Russian media pay much attention to European countries’ (allegedly) exaggerated and disproportionate reactions.
NTV, stressing that “’ Zapad’ is a regular strategic exercise,” notes that “even before these manoeuvres began”, politicians in some countries were engaging in rhetoric to the effect that: “the Russians are coming, the enemy is at the gate, we need to prepare to respond to Russian aggression.” Substantiating quotes from little-known or anonymous sources are offered in support of these allegations. The Polish newspaper “Fact” apparently claims that “This is how they learn to wage war with Poland.” and some “other publication” notes (in an unconscious echo of the cold war era “Seven Days to the Rhine”) that “military experts” calculate that “the Russians will reach Warsaw in five days.”
The superficially most authoritative (but actually unsourced) allegation is that “the Prime Minister of Poland himself” said that Russia and Belarus “rehearse an invasion”.
Predictably, “Balts” are also involved and, according to NTV, “rushed to place kilometres of barbed wire to strengthen their borders.” Similarly, unsourced and attributed “quotes” allege that “the leaders of these countries” called the Russian-Belarusian exercises a “terrifying threat”, and “the NATO Secretary General accused Moscow of secretively conducting these manoeuvres”. This straw man is then refuted as groundless and absurd by noting that “all OSCE participants were warned in advance”, and the exercises were open “to both international observers and journalists”.
Rarely cited sources are also drawn in as the “Danish media” allegedly announced that “Russia is sabre-rattling” and Sweden “staged a sudden check of the combat readiness of the army in the south of the country and deployed reconnaissance aircraft.”
Further claims are that the “demonstration of new weapons“ has resulted in ”an even more violent reaction from the West.” Some “British and American tabloids have burst into fulminating headlines”– such as: “Russia is preparing to invade NATO countries with killer robots.” NTV also alleges that The New York Times experts were “alarmed” that “Russia and Belarus have mastered these technologies.”
To ensure the intended linkage is not missed, NTV explicitly conflated the military and political developments by intruding their report summarised as: “the Zapad-2021 exercises and the agreement on the integration of Russia and Belarus have stirred up Europe.”
Predictably, the topic of Ukraine is never far away. The 60 Minutes programme on Russia 1 TV stresses that the Ukrainian Foreign Minister, Dmytro Kuleba, “worries in needlessly” about the exercises because Ukraine “is not in danger at present” (our emphasis), lending the character of a veiled threat more than reassurance.
Kommersant claims that the Security Service of Ukraine conducted anti-terrorist exercises in the border areas of the Zhytomyr region. They were also attended by units of the National Guard, the Armed Forces of Ukraine, the State Border Service, the National Police, and government representatives. Kommersant quotes an announcement that “the participants in the exercise successfully rehearsed procedures for interdepartmental cooperation to prevent sabotage and terrorist threats.” Kommersant also mentions that Kyiv held anti-terrorist exercises on September 13th near the borders with Belarus in the Volyn region.
New toys to play with
Much attention is paid by the Russian media to technical innovations. Russia 24 enthusiastically reports that the Uran-9 and Nerekhta assault robots were deployed for the first time in Zapad-2021 manoeuvres. The Uran-6 robotic mine clearer and the “Karer” tactical laser system, “capable of suppressing optical observation of armoured vehicles and small arms”, are also highlighted. The presence of President Putin at the Mulino training ground in the Nizhny Novgorod region to inspect the new B-19 combat vehicle and Epoch combat module is also noted.
Russia 24’s next story is about Russian Ka-52 and Belarusian Mi-24 helicopters operating to mutually support each other while long-range aviation “destroys inbound aggressors”. Mention is also made of the “newest tanks” already “standing in service with the troops of the Union State”. It is repeatedly noted that Belarus plans to purchase military equipment from Russia “for more than a billion dollars [and] the supply of S-400 [air defence missile systems] is being discussed.”
NTV notes that during Zapad-2021, the military of Russia and Belarus created a “unified air defence system”. The viewer is informed that this:
- Includes capabilities for surveillance, repelling airstrikes and supporting ground troops.
- Is controlled “from a joint [command] centre“ with the help of modern communications and automated control systems.
- Enables swift identification and (if necessary) destruction of airborne targets.
A person familiar with the nature of the exercises will note the shift in emphasis and increased jingoistic manipulation. The Zapad exercises, which are part of the Belarusian-Russian Armed Forces training plans in 2021, were presented as part of a more extensive set of manoeuvres of the Russian army. That is, a leading partner and its satellites rather than the cooperation of equals. The de facto superiority of Russian forces is not in question. However, the contrast was not previously presented explicitly. It may indicate the media view of the underlying “Union State” theme (i.e. annexation vs cooperation). It is also notable that instead of limiting the scale of the exercises in accord with the Vienna Document of 2011, the emphasis is on the 200,000 personnel involved in total, with Vienna compliance assured as a postscript.
The Russian media systematically create an image of an enemy common to Belarus and Russia, dividing the world into “friends and foes”. The audience is persuaded that the “collective” West, and NATO, are such a common enemy. The Russian media repeatedly emphasise that it is only the support of Russia, particularly in the defence arena, that secures the Republic of Belarus. The clear subtext is that Belarus is not viable as an independent entity.
From the other side, attention is focused on the reaction of NATO countries and Ukraine. The audience is lead to believe that “the enemy is frightened.” Emotive terms like “horror” and “sabre-rattling” are allegedly the standard backdrop for assessing exercises in neighbouring countries. The use of “new technology” is emphasised, which alarms the “enemies”.
Counterposed to this (alleged) nervous reaction of Western countries, the Russian media emphasise the exclusively defensive nature of the planned exercises and Russia’s military initiatives in general.
This chain of reasoning: “the scale of the exercises - the fear of enemies - the confidence of Russia” can be at least partly attributed to propaganda surrounding the Russian State Duma elections. The incumbent party needed to demonstrate something analogous to a “foreign policy success”, and deploying the old Soviet principle “fear is an expression of respect” came in handy.
Russian media, both state and non-state, are primarily in the business of shaping, rather than reflecting, public opinion. Crude but effective manipulation of the audience via emotive terms, jingoism and patriotism are standard practices. It is noteworthy that non-state media tend to adopt the same pro-government lines, thus acting as a natural adjunct to state media. Independent ownership does not imply, much less guarantee, an independent political position.
Cover image: screenshot from ntv.ru website