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Disinformation during Zapad-21 exercises


On September 10-16, 2021 both the culminating and final stage of the joint exercises conducted by the armed forces of the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus under the code name of Zapad-2021 (West-2021) took place. As officially described by the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, it is: a command post exercise called “joint strategic exercise West-2021.” “Zapad” was started in 2009 and is held repeatedly every 4 years (successively in 2009; 2013; 2017; 2021). The prefix “joint strategic exercise” relates to the fact that unlike the cyclical exercises in other military districts, those held in the western region (Zapad) are always joint exercises of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation and the Armed Forces of the Republic of Belarus (Union State; Union of Belarus and Russia - UBR). The genesis of the annual exercises in individual military districts (MD) is the 2008 attack of the Russian Federation on Georgia and the occupation of a portion of its territory till this day. The so-called “five-day war” revealed a series of problems, delays and serious shortcomings in the Russian Armed Forces, which then forced an “audit” of capabilities despite Russia's victory. In 2009 [1] the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation began a large scale reorganization of the Armed Forces and decided to introduce cyclical, annual strategic exercises (in one of the four Military Districts), in the following order: West-Zapad, East-Vostok, Central-Centr, South-Kaukaz. During those strategic-level exercises the conditions of potential battlefields are simulated (in 2009–2010 they were operational and strategic in nature, and then from 2011 they were conducted at the strategic level). Those exercises are a capstone of the training cycle of the armed forces in a given year and in a given district. Both the scenario and the plan of the exercises in each of the districts assume conducting offensive actions (conventional war) against the following potential enemies: Zapad - exercises against NATO and allied forces (Finland, Sweden); Vostok - exercises against Japan, USA; Centr - exercises against Central Asia (in 2015 there were also exercises against the so-called Islamic State) and above all the transfer of troops to strengthen other flanks - mainly the Western MD; Kaukaz - exercises against Ukraine, Turkey, Georgia, Chechnya [2].

Taking into consideration the genesis as well as the analyzation of scenarios or plans of the individual exercises you can paint the following picture: as a result of Russia's aggression against Georgia in 2008, the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation decided that from 2009 it will be conducting aggressive exercises in all strategic directions year after year. The military maneuvers remain one of the most important tools which demonstrate power as a military instrument in the foreign policy of the Russian Federation to this day.

Agitation and its importance

A crucial element of the maneuvers at the strategic level is a deliberate scenario describing the alleged political situation. From the point of view of the INFO OPS and PSY OPS domains, when analyzing the military exercises one should distinguish between the scenario and the exercise plan and discern the differences between those two.

The plan of the exercise relates strictly to the military, command-staff and administrative part of the maneuvers. It determines the scale and participation of individual military / organizational/administrative units, training grounds, equipment and soldiers. Historically, ZAPAD maneuvers in that area are more of an evolution of military capabilities rather than a revolution. The strategic goal or operational actions are the constant: each time we are dealing with offensive military actions resulting in invading the enemy's territory. The directions as well as the manner of the attack do not change: sea landing and offensive actions from the Baltic Sea and the Kaliningrad where the main direction of the attack is preceded by the landing of the airborne troops from the Belarusian direction (the Brest city). With each new edition we see an increasing inclusion of additional elements supporting or accompanying the exercises, such as for example the addition of the National Guard element in the exercises, greater cooperation with secret services or public administration. Such a pattern is not surprising or new. The only thing that can be considered new are the individual elements resulting from the Kremlin's perception of national security according to the principle “everything is security.” From ideological protection of the population through public administration to strictly military and special operations. To sum up, the number of tanks and troops present on several training grounds is not as important as the assessment of the Russian Federation's level of overall preparation for war as well as the level of its determination and the goals it is going to pursue.

The schematic structure of ZAPAD 21 scenario

The exercise scenario often refers to the current international or geopolitical situation in which the Russian Federation is in and through operations in the information (INFO OPS) or psychological (PSY OPS) domain is intended to fit into the Kremlin's current strategic communication. The scenario and the rhetoric has a schematic structure and consists of several points:

  • Phrases that are intended to suggest the alleged defensive nature of the exercises are always placed at the very beginning. The phrases “terrorist” and “separatist” are invariably alternating. These formulations are intended to picture Russia (or the Union State) as a threatened entity, undertaking defensive actions and not preparing for a confrontation with other neighboring countries. The message is supposed to suggest similar threats faced by Western countries (NATO) so that the activities of the Union State of Russia and Belarus can be legitimized and the real image for the exercises can be masked.

  • The parties of the conflict are identified. Not directly, but clearly enough for the recipients to deduct which countries are the alleged opponent. Geography and direct neighborhood indicate the so called NATO's eastern flank countries, namely Poland, the Baltic States (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia) and the broadly understood North Atlantic Alliance.

  • In the rhetoric and the adopted terminology there is a reference to the current international situation. At this stage, Russia strategically communicates its current greatest “fears” as well as specifies the kind of security situation in Russia's neighborhood that would be perceived as a direct threat to the Kremlin.

  • Communication on the strategic level shows that in accordance with so far identified disinformation operations the Russian Federation recognizes any situation undesirable from their perspective as a state of emergency, even ordinary exercises of NATO countries which, unlike ZAPAD exercises, do not take into account offensive scenarios and whose existence is constantly and unfoundedly accused by the Russian Federation.

  • The exercise is divided into two stages. On the one hand, it strengthens the propaganda message regarding its defensive character (first stage is a repulsion of the alleged aggression), and on the other hand, it is supposed to consolidate the role of the Belarusian armed forces as a “union shield” that is de facto a defender / bulwark of Russia. This strategic scenario fits in as a part of the disinformation operations currently conducted jointly by Belarus and Russia, which are supposed to create the false impression that the West is trying to destabilize Belarus in order to open the way to offensive actions against Russia.

  • In the description of the exercise scenario, we will find references to the Vienna Document on Confidence and Security Building Measures in Europe, indicating multiple times that the number of troops will not surpass 6,300/400 or 12,700/800, respectively, which should indicate the transparency of the exercises and above else no need for inviting foreign observers (NATO/OSCE). However, those appeals do not translate into reality and the provisions of the document have been repeatedly violated by Russia.

The scenario pattern is a derivative of the propaganda strategy and the shaping of Russia's image as a “besieged fortress,” which the Kremlin has been implementing for a long time now and nowadays in close cooperation with the regime of A. Lukashenka, whose position in the strategic communication of Belarus and the Russian Federation has been unified since its isolation from the international arena after brutal suppression of social protests started in 2020.

Zapad, or the Western Military District, is the most important of all MDs and has always been treated as a priority since it was the destination from which the greatest threat came to Russia in the past (Żółkiewski, Bonaparte, Hitler). The Russian Federation undertakes systematic propaganda activities based to a large extent on falsifying history (e.g. by falsely accusing Poland of contributing to the outbreak of World War II, creating potentially offensive actions, hostile to Russia). In the 21st century, in the era of globalization this atmosphere of threat is intentionally sustained by the use of propaganda and disinformation, which is supposed to, on one hand justify and to some extent mask the reasons why the Russian Federation undertakes actions hostile to other sovereign states and, on the other hand, to legitimize the policy of the Kremlin authorities.

In accordance with the concept (ideology) that “everything is security,” the Kremlin equates the military threat to the will of neighboring nations to decide for themselves. In Moscow's perception, the willingness of a sovereign state to hold free elections is a potential threat similar to military action and so Russia reserves the right to use similar measures in both cases. The aggression of the Russian Federation against Ukraine or Georgia and the occupation of the territories of both of these countries (directly - Crimea or by means of separatist republics) is a derivative of such policy and perception of threats based on false premises.

ZAPAD'21 and the Republic of Belarus

Taking into consideration both the internal and external situation of Belarus, which was created by the regime of A. Lukashenko: social protests after the rigged elections -> brutal pacification -> international isolation -> provoking a border conflict with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia: the past “joint strategic exercise West-2021” was based on the following scenario: “The main reason for the exacerbation of the situation is the desire of the “West” to destabilize the situation on the territory of the Republic of Polesia (Republic of Belarus – editorial note) thus deteriorating relations between the entities of the Union State, changing the political leadership in the Republic of Polesia and joining its western districts to Neris (Lithuania - editorial note).” To achieve this, the West would use: “separatist and international terrorist organizations with external support.”

Then, according to propagandists (screenwriters), Western countries would move into a full scale military operation: “However, having failed to achieve their goals and initiate an internal armed conflict in Republic of Polesia, “West” began to implement the most radical measures and unleashed an alleged aggression against the Union State.” Republic of Polesia and the Central Federation (Russian Federation - editorial note) strive to ensure stability in the region, relying on national norms of international law, maintaining their territorial integrity and independence. The subject of the exercise was “the use of troops (forces) in the interest of ensuring military security of the Union State.”

In accordance to the scenario, West is represented by three “fictional” countries. Lithuania as Wilia / Nyaris, Poland as Pomoria and Norway (more broadly the Scandinavian countries) as the Polar Republic. Both Lithuania and Poland, for geopolitical reasons, are constant objects of information influence as well as the goals of a conventional military operation as part of the ZAPAD maneuvers. Compared to previous editions, the addition of Norway is a new thing (or more broadly, NORDEFCO, Nordic Defense Cooperation). A novelty, but not a surprise, because the Russians have been building a dense network of military units beyond the Arctic Circle for over a decade as well as deploying significant air, sea and land forces. It is also a direct consequence for the creation of the fifth military district (01/01/2021) based on the Northern Fleet (it covered the northern part of the Western MD, including the islands of the Arctic Ocean). Russia continues its expansive policy of “fait accompli” in the Arctic and communicates its determination as well as points out that it expects to make concessions, which, if any arise, will be the result of the pressure currently being generated.

Between September 10-15 simultaneously to the ZAPAD'21, exercises of the Northern Fleet with an Arctic Expeditionary Group took place (and in fact they are being a part of it). Officially, according to the press service of the Northern Fleet up to 8,000 troops, around 800 units of military and special equipment, including about 40 tanks, 460 armored combat vehicles, up to 240 cannons, mortars and multiple missile systems, about 120 aircrafts as well as up to 50 warships and support units took part in the exercise.

Despite the fact that the ZAPAD maneuvers are always described as a “joint strategic exercise,” between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus it is Belarus itself, and in particular the Lukashenka regime, which was and still is the target of pressure and information and psychological operations from the Kremlin. It is worth reminding of ZAPAD'17: fear and anxiety that some of the Russian troops will stay in Belarus against the will of Lukashenka himself. This coincided with increased pressure on Lukashenka to accelerate incorporation and was intended to remind us that Lukashenka's “flirt” with the West is unacceptable and could be quickly put to an end by the Kremlin.

Military integration

It should be remembered that the Russia primary goal towards Belarus is: military integration at the start and then the gradual incorporation of the Belarus as a country. Therefore, in operational terms, the Belarusian army should be treated as an integral part of the Russian Armed Forces in the western strategic direction. The recent situation in Belarus, or rather the circumstances in which the A. Lukashenka regime is in as well as the subordinate and still faithful to him state power ministries, determined the main direction of propaganda influence among the Kremlin propagandists. The above described alleged threats in the exercise scenario were intended to support and authenticate the propaganda of the Lukashenka’s regime. Propaganda aimed at reversing and justifying the course of events that have been taking place since 2020 (turning the nation away from the regime, moving towards democracy, brutal pacification, torture).

The Russians are reacting to the increasing isolation of Lukashenka himself in the international arena. Hence, among other things, there is such a wide but symbolic participation of the troops from other countries: Armenia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, India, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Serbia and Sri Lanka. Russia against Belarusian protests has temporarily become the guarantor of Lukashenka’s power. Moreover, this is to show Lukashenka that Russia - an ally - stands by him, guaranteeing security against the allegedly undertaken “hostile, destabilizing actions of the West,” with particular emphasis on Poland and Lithuania.

Moscow is strategically interested in deepening Belarus' international isolation, as this allows it to strengthen the republic's lasting dependence. This temporarily results in Lukashenka's deepening desperation in rebuilding the image of a strong and efficient father of the nation, the so-called “Baćki.” Consolidating the Lukashenka’s belief of himself that it was not the nation that turned away from him, but the “camouflaged Lithuanian and Polish (Western) option” also plays its role here and is reflected in, for example the inclusion, for the first time, of the Belarusian counterpart of territorial defense in ZAPAD maneuvers and assigned it to the tasks of: fighting the 5th column or suppressing the uprising of the Polish minority in Grodno (an element also present in previous editions of ZAPAD).

Alexander Lukashenka's mental condition and his perception of reality are a topic for a separate in-depth analysis. It is worth noting, however, that we are dealing here with typical symptoms occurring in dictators when a society/nation is turning away from/against them. An open question remains whether the brutal interrogations and torture of detained oppositionists, journalists or ordinary citizens are the result of cynicism, panic or the effect of disinformation that created an operational window to “fight foreign agents” and create conditions for greater control of the Russian Federation over Belarus. Beating detainees until they admit to fictitious collaboration and serving foreign/imperial interests in order to consolidate, standardize the message and reception of events or provide alleged evidence (confession) is a very well known and researched mechanism from the times of the operation of the Soviet security apparatus (Cheka, KGB). At the time of writing this report, the Belarusian KGB has launched paid campaigns on YouTube with recorded political prisoners “pleading guilty.”

The announcement of the creation of a “common defense space” on September 9, one day before the commencement of the culminating phase of the exercises, also has its goals in terms of information. From now on, the space of Belarus in the eyes of the Russians can be treated as their own defense space with all its consequences. The alleged threats identified in the ZAPAD scenario leading to the conflict are very consistent with the communication, including Russian-Belarusian disinformation. Lukashenka in recent months has repeatedly suggested territorial claims against Poland and Lithuania: “Our neighbors are given to us by God, just like any other country. We do not remind them today that Białystok and its region are Belarusian lands, that Vilnius is also a Belarusian city, just like the lands around it. We are not talking about it (A.L. 09/17/2021)”. Also a “fictional” exercise map usually annexes part of the eastern territories of Poland and/or Lithuania. This year there is a change in this field as well, and the maps of the scenario took into account the extension of military operations to the territories annexed to Belarus.

Until the Euromaidan (Revolution of Dignity) in 2013, when first Ukrainian society, and then the newly elected political elites, opted for the democratization of the country and the membership in the European Union the Ukrainian side was not under the influence of Zapad. Of course, the situation changed dramatically after the illegal annexation, occupation of Crimea and the destabilization of the eastern regions of Ukraine. During ZAPAD'17, there was a threat (influence/psychological pressure) that Russia would leave significant military forces on the territory of Belarus to attack Ukraine. Since 2017, ZAPAD has also been used to constantly put pressure on Ukraine and raise fears of opening the 2nd front and encircling Ukraine from three directions.

This year, there was a border incident involving the firing of a hunting weapon at the Belarusian border post. Although the incident was detected and reported by the Ukrainian border guard (in accordance with all procedures), it was used to trigger an information incident in the disinformation campaign against Ukraine. During the military exercises, Russia periodically “examines” the Ukraine-Belarus northern border territory and conducts not only military reconnaissance of this area, but also reconnaissance for the purpose of conducting information operations.

Border incidents and provocations in Belarus have become more frequent recently and seem to be elements of deliberate aggression (below the threshold of war) against NATO countries and partly against Ukraine. It is not Belarus that is primarily interested in such aggression, but the Lukashenka regime and the Russian side, which tries to remain in the shadow of the regime's actions, as not to be exposed to further direct sanctions from the EU and the US.

Information and psychological operations

As already mentioned in this report, “joint strategic exercise West” is, contrary to Russian and Belarusian communications, not one exercise but a whole set of various exercises. This scheme does not refer only to this year's edition, but is of general application. In this year's edition, various field exercises began at the turn of June/July. The exercises taking place on 10-16 September are the culminating and final phase. From a typically military (planning) point of view, this is because it is not physically possible to practice such different components of the Armed Forces on such a scale in geographically distant areas in just a few days. It is obvious. However, what is less obvious is the use of such division in the INFO and PSY OPS domains. This is evidenced, for example, by the procedure of dividing the exercise into smaller stages.

Selected goals of the information campaign

Selected goals of the information campaign implemented by dividing the ZAPAD'21 exercise into stages (July-September) in order to influence their perception, including the masking of selected features:

1. The exercise regroups to maintain the appearance of adhering to the limits (troops participation) set in the CBM/CSBM documents and not inviting NATO/OSCE observers.

2. Hide the scale and complexity of the exercises.

3. Conceal the offensive nature of the maneuvers and maintain a unified media message regarding its alleged defensive nature.

As evidenced by the following facts:

  • The nature of military exercises is evidenced by the logistics, which in this case contradict the defensive nature. E. g.: in 2017, over 800 km of pipelines were laid to practice delivering fuel for armored strikes deep into enemy territory.

  • From edition to edition there is an increasing involvement and inclusion of Rosgvardia units (National Guard - ex internal troops) in the exercises, which practice pacification of occupied territories (“Zaslon 2021”).

4. Conceal the true nature of the maneuvers and maintain a uniform media message suggesting that these were merely regular military exercises.

As evidenced by the following facts:

  1. Public administration and other state organizations such as Rosatom are increasingly involved in the exercises.

  2. The scale of use of field bakeries.

  3. In this year's edition the novelty was to instruct the Ministry of Finance on how to provide cash to subdivisions in case of Internet cutoff and loss of financial liquidity. In various currencies, including those found in potentially occupied territories.

  4. In fact, these are district-wide warfare exercises not limited to the military component, according to the “everything is security” concept.

5. The most important from the point of view of Russian propaganda: to channel and focus the attention of foreign media and audiences to the culminating phase of the exercises (10-16. 09) where military capabilities are presented in a dynamic way.

It aims to:

  1. This operation is intended to improve the ability to propagate the image of the 'power and modernity' of the Russian Armed Forces in the Western media.

  2. The exercise itself and its information handling is an operation of psychological pressure, intimidation, etc.

  3. Military exercises are one of the most important forms of demonstrating force as a military instrument in the foreign policy of the Russian Federation.

An escalation strategy for de-escalation purposes

Nuclear weapons have a special place in Russia's doctrine of deterrence and the Russians have repeatedly stated that they reserve the right to use them if they lose 'conventionally' especially on their own territory (e. g. as a result of a counterattack by the defending side), calling it an escalation strategy for de-escalation purposes. The Russian Army reportedly conducted a mock nuclear attack against NATO troops in Poland. If the source of this information can be trusted that means that this time during Zapad 21 exercise nuclear attack was not aimed at the European capitals city per se but directly aimed at the US and Nato allies troops. This move through pressure and intimidation continues the campaign to undermine NATO's presence on the eastern flank, which is growing in response to Russia's aggressive actions.

In March 2021, a decision was made to establish a joint combat training center of the Air Force and Air-Defense Forces of Belarus and Russia. However, two Su-30SMs were dispatched as late as September 8th, which was a day before the conclusion of the agreement on the establishment of a common defensive space and 2 days before the start of the culminating phase of the ZAPAD exercises. In the INFO OPS domain, we can expect a Russian-Belarusian narrative which is to create the impression that the exercise was a “response” to the NATO Air Policing mission.

In this year's edition the electronic warfare component (EW) of the Russian army was practiced to a great extent. The Russians put a lot of emphasis on this type of army and consider them an advantage over Western armies. In 2018, during NATO's Trident Juncture maneuvers, jamming GPS signal was reported, one that affected civilians as well. The Norwegian Foreign Ministry has made an official complaint to Russia (based on the evidence). In March 2021, not only British transport aircraft operating in Cyprus but also civilian air traffic in the region were targeted by Russian EW systems. The global AIS (Automatic Identification System) was caused to report false data concomitant to ZAPAD 2021 exercise.

AIS equipment sends regular information on position, course, speed and destination. It is a tool for collision avoidance of water transport as well as ship identification by physical shore stations. A group of five Russian warships allegedly approached the Polish coast. In fact, they did not exist. Incidents of this nature usually coincide with some major military events. In June it was the NATO Baltops naval maneuvers. Now the Belarusian-Russian ZAPAD'21 exercises, in which the Russian Baltic Fleet also takes part. Such falsified AIS data regularly occurs in the waters surrounding Crimea. The positions of American ships in the Far North are also systematically falsified.

The reasons for such actions are twofold. On the one hand, by falsifying the location of NATO's ships, the Russians want to create incidents to be used later as a message that either blames the West or portrays a constant threat to their own society (the syndrome of a besieged fortress). On the other hand, by falsifying the location of their own ships they want the Western societies to perceive Russia as superpower thus disavowing the enemy's defensive capabilities: “we are so powerful that we can sail when and where we want to and there is nothing you can do about it.”

Weaponized Migration in the context of ZAPAD'21

One event surrounding this year's ZAPAD exercises deserves separate analysis. The Lukashenka regime has resorted to inhumane methods “reserved” only for the most cynical governments: weaponizing migration, or in Polish literature: an attack with “D”, standing for demographic,weapons (weapon of mass migration)[3]. These are asymmetric, unconventional actions, below the threshold of war. Belarus and Russia scrupulously use precisely selected information. However, if they do not possess suitable one, they orchestrate field activities as well as manage foreigners' behavior to produce expected effects. Every patrol, reconnaissance activity, response time and reaction of Poland and/or Lithuania- are stimulated by Belarusian migrant pressure and analyzed by the regime.

The whole operation began in July with an attack first on Lithuania, then, in early August, on Poland. Operations of this type are planned well in advance because they contain a number of factors to prepare, such as:

  • to set up bogus travel agencies to smuggle people,

  • accumulation of a sufficient number of people,

  • to organize all the logistics necessary for the transfer of people,

  • identification and training of relevant services,

  • preparation of media coverage.

“Joint Strategic Exercise West” is a large military training event planned 4 years in advance. Such major events as the announcement of a common defence space or the application of migration pressure and the exertion of political pressure on Poland and Lithuania (EU and NATO) are not coincidental. The Lukashenka regime could not, on its own, without consultations or the Kremlin's permission, make a decision to carry out an operation on the border of a union state which is supposed to have a common defence space and which would target NATO countries. At various stages of planning or implementation, Russia could not have been left out. The Russian side tries to remain in the shadow of Lukashenka's regime's actions so as not to be exposed to further direct sanctions from the EU and the US. At the same time, by managing Lukashenka's position, Russia gains more and more control over Belarus.

On the one hand, this is Belarus' response to the sanctions prepared by the European Union. Alyaksandr Lukashenka then announced that he would “flood the European Union with migrants from the Middle East.” On the other hand, a separate context for this operation should be indicated, taking the ZAPAD'21 exercises as a starting point. At this stage, it is necessary to briefly explain (in theory) what Russia's new-generation warfare is like as well as what objective is achieved by taking actions below the threshold of war (not precisely referred to as “hybrid war” in mass media ). Regardless of the distinction between times of peace, crisis or war covert activity behind the backs of non-state actors or state-sponsored attacks (criminals, propagandists, businessmen, media, Think Thanks, foundations, extremist organizations, etc.) are designed to occupy specific state resources (personnel, equipment, cognitive resources, perceptual resources). Such actions are designed in such a way so that social polarisation is achieved and deepening. In addition to that, this mechanisms are used to have the effects of that phenomenon multiplied (snowball effect) and influence the object of attack to a greater extent by occupying its resources and reducing (narrowing) the perception of threats (tunnel vision).

Primary objectives of the ZAPAD 21 scenario

In the context of ZAPAD'21, all of the above mentioned was used and exercised to achieve three primary objectives. Construction of the scenario:

  1. Legitimizing offensive actions by plotting incidents that are then presented as “another hostile action.” Additionally, Russia and Lukashenka's regime try to legitimize their internal actions (pointing to the enemy, creating a syndrome of a besieged fortress). 2. Media interest and maintaining consistency of message

  2. The creation of highly emotional situations/events based on human tragedy and their appropriate media coverage focused the common (European) perception on “beaten refugees” on the external border of NATO and the EU rather than Russians practicing full-scale aggression. Continuation of the message and accusations found in the exercise scenario. 3. Resources, attention, perception

  3. “Media crisis” used as a smokescreen for upcoming activity of potentially great significance. Material but most importantly cognitive resources were drained while the attention of decision makers, communities (etc.) was channelled to another substrate /created event.

It is necessary to emphasize the correlation between the message of the Belarusian propaganda and the overtones of the ZAPAD'21 exercise scenario. In both cases the narrative and message utilize similar phrases, which is not accidental but stems from the implementation of the communication scenario:

  • destabilized situation,

  • joining the western circuits,

  • aggression against the State of the Union,

  • border conflict,

  • terrorists with Western support,

  • “western aggression,”

  • fight against foreign ideological diversion,

  • strife for stability in the region,

  • defense of sovereignty.

Conclusion - Maskirowka ad the fog of war

Despite the fact that the “Joint Strategic Exercise West-2021” has ended, it will remain an object of study for analysts for a long time to come. Among other things, the tracking (IMINT) of the exercising troops' regroupings and the return to their home units is still underway. This year's edition was the largest in terms of the scale of forces and resources involved. This also applies to the INFO and PSY OPS dimensions:

  • For the first time, a nuclear attack on European capitals was not exposed as much as during West/Zapad 09;13;17 but directly against NATO troops in Poland.

  • For the first time, the Russian Defense Ministry did not understate but overstated the number of participants.

  • For the first time, we are dealing throughout with a real, created by the State of the Union border crisis situation that is a textbook example of a well prepared INFO and PSY OPS operation penetrating and affecting all 3 dimensions (physical, virtual, cognitive).

Maskirowka, fog of war, INFO and PSY OPS operations or active measures are nothing particularly new. This, however, escapes some of those commenting on ZAPAD due to the fact that the prevalence and availability of information and at the same time disinformation (being a permanent element of such exercises), has increased significantly. It is noteworthy that, according to Russian operational doctrine, military exercises (always and everywhere) are kinetic (physical) operations aimed to exert psychological pressure through exposures of force, suggestion and intimidation. Hence, it is advisable to not to put yourself in the Russian information context. It is worth noting that the creation and distribution of multithreaded simulations of “hybrid threats” expected during the exercises by various analytical centres, without considering their reality or one's own (NATO's) forces and means engaged in observing and preventing them, results in saturation of the information sphere the image of the Russian Armed Forces desired by Russia and in evoking emotions of fear and danger which may evoke the feeling of helplessness among the recipients which, from the perspective of Russian planners, is an expected state. The study of ZAPAD exercises and the formulation of judgments should always be well-thought, based on evidence and then evaluated.

We should not expect any resignation or even limitation by the Russian Federation of the use of the military factor as a tool of the “information war” against the West. Russian Federation will continue its information warfare using the effects it obtains from actions in the physical - kinetic domain (fear, feeling of threat, helplessness), which we only further strengthen the “all-powerful” image of the Russian army and disavow our own capabilities.


Cover photo: ZAPAD 21 exercises / Source



  1. Caucasus 2008 was not a cyclical exercise but a sham under the pretext of which forces and means were accumulated and then used to attack Georgia.

  2. As of January 1, 2021, Russia has a fifth military district (Northern Fleet). It covered the northern part of the Western MD, including the islands in the Arctic Ocean.

  3. W. Repetowicz, Broń „D” jako zagrożenie asymetryczne [“D” weapon as an asymmetric threat] , Wiedza Obronna nr 1-2, 2018 r. [access:

  4. 9e88-d3a8a62aca1e ]


Report by: INFO OPS Poland Foundation and Res Publica – Civic Resilience Center


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