#ZAPADWatch: First Russian military equipment appears in Belarus for ZAPAD21 exercise

Initial signs of Russian deployments to

#ZAPADWatch: First Russian military equipment appears in Belarus for ZAPAD21 exercise

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Initial signs of Russian deployments to Belarus ahead of the September 2021 joint military exercise posted to social media

(Source: @5thSU/archive)

While tension on Belarus’s border with its NATO neighbors remains high, evidence has emerged online of the first Russian military equipment deployed in Belarusian territory in preparation for the joint Russia-Belarus quadrennial military exercise, ZAPAD21.

As early as July 21, 2021, the first photos of train echelons containing military equipment started surfacing in Belarus. The current situation on the Belarusian border is highly tense, especially along the country’s frontier with Lithuania. The DFRLab has reported on the Belarusian military’s movement on the border, while a migration crisis in Lithuania — facilitated in part by the Belarusian government, which has assisted in the migrants’ transit through the country’s territory — continues to gain speed. ZAPAD21 will be the most important and largest regional exercise since ZAPAD17; with this story, the DFRLab reintroduces its #ZAPADWatch reporting, starting with the first military movements leading up to the 2021 exercise.

Some of the surfaced photos can be geolocated to exact locations, which, together with satellite imagery, allowed the DFRLab to confirm Russian presence in Belarus. Just as during the ZAPAD17 exercise, the potential long-term deployment of Russian troops in Belarus after the exercise would present a conflict risk to the neighboring NATO countries.

The ZAPAD military exercise

ZAPAD21 is the latest quadrennial joint exercise with thousands of troops from Russia and Belarus, which aims to test their interoperability in the event of a conflict with NATO forces. The 2021 exercise, however, comes at a time of heightened military tensions. On May 31, Russia’s military announced that it would form 20 new units in its Western Military District (WMD) to counter — what it claims to be — a growing threat from NATO. ZAPAD21 is scheduled to take place on September 10–16, and the preparations for the exercise are already well under way. This comes amid intensifying combat training this summer around Russia, which will culminate when ZAPAD21 kicks off in Belarus in September.

Since 1991, Russia has officially declared that no more than 13,000 military personnel take part in these exercises, as more would require the hosts to allow other non-participating governments to formally view the exercises, according to an Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) agreement. According to various estimates, however, more than 75,000 troops were involved in the ZAPAD exercise in 2013, a number that was reportedly exceeded in the next iteration in 2017. The upcoming 2021 exercise will likely be no exception. On July 30, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka declared that NATO has been massing offensive forces and building up infrastructure on Belarus’s borders, which, he said, demands a response from Belarus.

Open-source evidence of military movement

One of the key training grounds for ZAPAD21 will be the area known as the Baranovichi polygon in eastern Belarus. According to the Belarusian media, the preparations of the training grounds started as early as June 30. These news reports were accompanied by photos of military equipment clearing up the grounds and soldiers building fortifications in the forest.

Photos of preparation in Baranovichi training grounds. (Source: SB.by/archive)

These photos were confirmed with satellite imagery as well, as large spaces of land have been cleared for the participating troops. These newly created sites were visible from satellite imagery, and their construction appears to have started between May and June 2021.

Satellite image analysis confirming the progress in preparing the exercise grounds for ZAPAD21. Newly created sites are marked in white and numbered. (Source: DFRLab via Planet.com)

According to reports from the Belarussian Ministry of Defense, the first entry of Russian troops into Belarus began on July 21. Polish media confirmed the presence of Russian troops on the Poland-Belarus border on July 24 but did not provide an exact location as to where the images were taken. The same day, Belarusian media outlets published photos of Russian soldiers being welcomed in Brest, a city along the country’s Polish border.

Photos of Russian soldiers being welcomed by Belarusian troops in Brest, Belarus. (Source: Belta.by/archive)

As part of the upcoming maneuvers, Russian military units undertook snap-exercises to test their battle readiness locally, before deploying as a part of the larger exercise. On July 27, Russian military channel TVZvezda.ru published a video showing one such exercise without mentioning the exact unit. Twitter user @RALee85 suggested it involved the 1st Guards Tank Regiment of the 2nd Guards Motorized Rifle Division, equipped with T-72B3M main battle tanks.

Tracking every single echelon is impossible using only open-source information, but evidence of specific echelons moving from Russia to Brest can be found on social media. One video was recorded in Spas Demensk, around 140 kilometers into Russia from the Russia-Belarus border.

Geolocation of the video confirmed that it was taken next to the train station in Spas Demensk.

Side-by-side comparison of a still from a TikTok video, as available on Twitter, of a military echelon on the move with an image of the Spas Demensk, Russia, train station, taken from GoogleMaps Streetview; the comparison indicates that the two were taken at the same location. (Source: @GirkinGirkin/archive, left; GoogleMaps, right)

Another video, posted on July 27, 2021, was taken at an unidentified location, but the text accompanying the post indicated that the military echelon was in Belarus.

The location shown in this second video appears to be the central railway station in the town of Orsha in eastern Belarus based on a review of Google Maps imagery.

Side-by-side graphic geolocating a Russian military echelon in Orsha, Belarus. Marked in pink is the locomotive depot in central Orsha train station, marked in blue is pedestrian bridge seen in the video. (Source: @metesohtaoglu/archive, top left; GoogleMaps, top right; GoogleMaps, bottom)

Another video claimed that an echelon — it is unclear if it was the same one — was moving from Orsha toward Minsk, but the visible details in the video were insufficient to confirm via geolocation where it was taken.

Lastly, a video surfaced on July 25 claiming that an echelon — again unclear if it was the same convoy — was moving to Brest.

Numerous pieces of open-source information suggest that Russian soldiers have already entered Belarusian territory ahead of ZAPAD21. Additionally, satellite imagery appeared to confirm that the Belarusian military has been actively preparing the Baranovichi polygon for the upcoming exercise. Just as with the ZAPAD17 exercise, NATO countries remain concerned about the potential permanent deployment of Russian troops in Belarus after this year’s iteration.

Lukas Andriukaitis is an Associate Director with the Digital Forensic Research Lab.

Cite this case study:

Lukas Andriukaitis, “#ZAPADWatch: First Russian military equipment appears in Belarus for ZAPAD21 exercise,” Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), August 4, 2021, https://medium.com/dfrlab/zapadwatch-first-russian-military-equipment-appears-in-belarus-for-zapad21-exercise-b04f8361e740.

Follow along for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.