Zapad 2017 Counts Down (Part 1: Belarus)

Soldiers on move in build up to joint Russia-Belarus exercise

Left (Source: Belaruskaya Voennaya Gazeta); Right (Source: BelSat)

On August 12, the Belarusian Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced a special material-technical support (MTS) exercise to be carried out on August 21–25 in preparation for the joint Russian-Belarusian military exercise Zapad 2017. He said:

Issues of technical covering of facilities on the assigned sections of military highways, evacuation, repair and restoration of defective equipment and armament, deployment of the field trunk pipeline, as well as areas of mass refueling of equipment will be worked out.

The Belarusian MoD then reported on the first part of the exercise after its conclusion on August 23:

During this stage, military units and logistical support units practically worked out the issues of equipping the concentration areas, masking them, protecting and defending them, repelling the attack of a conventional enemy, deploying a field mechanized bakery unit, organizing aerodrome engineering and landing support and the departure of aircraft.

The report by the Belarusian MoD provided more detail than initially expected. What else can open sources tell about the warm-up exercise?

Where did the exercise take place?

On August 21, the day the exercise started, both the Russian and Belarusian MoD reported information about the exercise.

The Belarussian MoD reported that the exercise would be carried out on the Brisov training ground and in the Minsk, Vitebsk, and Mogilev Oblasts. The Russian MoD then reported that the exercise in Russia would be carried out on the training ground of the Military Academy of MTS in Luga region.

The scale of this exercise is large, so we investigated in two parts. Each part covers a different location of the exercise. In part, we cover the Belarusian portion.

Minsk Oblast

The most spectacular part of the Belarusian exercise was carried out in the Minsk Oblast.

On August 22, the Belarusian MoD reported that an aviation exercise was scheduled for August 23–25, with the main task of landing a military plane on a civilian highway.

On August 24, Facebook user Dmitry Kovalgin shared images showing military preparations by a civilian highway.

(Source: Facebook user Dmitry Kovalgin)

The post read:

On the Mogilev highway are dozens of military equipment, tents, the Russian flag is being unfurled … A straight wide section of the road suggests that they will practice landing an aircraft. But why on earth are airport vacuum cleaners standing by? Who in the war will lay a red carpet for you? In short, weaklings.

The post was geotagged at Rachi Borki, a village in the Minsk Oblast. However, according to the Belarusian media outlet Naviny.by, the exercise was carried out on the M4 highway between the towns of Cherveny and Berezeno.

(Source: Yandex maps)

Later, on August 25, a video from the exercise was published by many YouTube channels, including Belarusian Army Television, VoenTV. According to the Belarusian news agency Belta, an An-26 transport aircraft, a Su-25 fighter jet, a MiG-29 fighter jet, and a Yak-130 combat and training aircraft landed on the designated landing strip.

An video posted by YouTube user OtVinta provides a better look at the exercise.

(Source: YouTube user OtVinta)

The matching sequence of flags lined up in the military observation booth verifies the digital evidence captured on August 24 and August 25.

Left (Source: Facebook user Dmitry Kovalgin); Right (Source: YouTube user OtVinta)

A report from the Belta news agency elaborates on the exercise:

In line with the scenario of the exercise, Air Force units were instructed to spread to dispersal airfields in order to preserve their combat ability in the face of the enemy’s possible missile strikes. Army logistics command units prepared the necessary number of highway strips for aircraft and helicopters. The necessary materials and ammunition were stocked as well. Before the engineer teams arrived, infantry units and special operations units swept the area in order to find and destroy ammunition and explosives. The engineer teams carefully checked and prepared the highway strip for landing aircraft. Weather service units of the army were tracking weather conditions in real time.

The part of the exercise with a military plane landing on a civilian highway was widely covered by Belarusian media; however, other parts of the exercise were less disclosed.

Osipovichi, Mogilev Oblast then Borisov?

On August 23, Instagram user ivdmitrich posted an image with a man holding a rifle. The text that accompanied the image suggested that the user was participating in the Zapad 2017 exercise close to the Osipovichi training ground.

(Source: Instagram user ivdmitrich)

The post, and some revealing comments, read:

ivdmitrich Zapad 2017, exercises of Belarus-Russia, we are living in the woods for 3 weeks already, one more month ahead) how are you? #army #Russia #Belarus #exercise #forest #trainingground #imissyoumydear #sleep #calm
primecrime_0880 normal topic))
andrey_bmp2 photo like a bullet
mr.mihailyakubovich_gml photo is strong as f**k!)))
kate.rudnickaya My handsome. We are very waiting for you
ivdmitrich Thank you, everyone, I love you rabbit)
kate.rudnickaya @ivdmitrich and I love you, dear
vlad_fomenok_ on which training ground?
ivdmitrich @vlad_fomenok_ Osipovichi

The same day, on August 23, Instagram user akulka92 posted an image of himself with text that suggested he was also at Osipovichi and will move to Borisov to participate in the Zapad 2017 exercise.

Screenshot of Instagram post by the user akulka92 (Source: Instagram; note original post was removed by the user)
akulka92 Last days in Osipovichi, then going to Borisov for Zapad 2017, joint exercises of the Belarus-Russia exercise.
#Army #AllInGreen #ManInGreen #Artilery #Osipovichi #Belarus #TrainingGround #Day9

On August 25, Instagram user akulka92 posted a subsequent image suggesting that he moved to the training ground in Borisov.

Screenshot of Instagram post by the user akulka92 (Source: Instagram; note original post was removed by the user)
akulka92 Training ground, the city of Borisov. We’re equipping the camp
#Army #AllInGreen #ManInGreen #Artilery #Borisov #Belarus #TrainingGround #Day12

The same day, on August 25, Instagram user ivdmitrich posted an image of three soldiers in the woods.

(Source: Instagram user ivdmitrich)
ivdmitrich The forest has become our home) would rather return to the brigade, miss everyone, but of course you want to go home, to your beloved, to sleep peacefully.
#army #Exercise #zapad2017 #Russia #Belarus #comrades #good #bye

Though the post does not mention the location the image was taken, the fact that both Instagram users reported to be in Osipovichi in the same time makes it likely they were both transferred to Borisov.

Finally, on August 29, akulka92 posted another image with text suggesting the an exercise in Borisov will soon start.

Screenshot of Instagram post by the user akulka92 (Source: Instagram; note original post was removed by the user)
akulka92 Getting ready to fight
#Army #AllInGreen #ManInGreen #Artilery #Borisov #Belarus #TrainingGround #Day15 #DembelSoon

@DFRLab previously reported the Osipovichi training ground is located in the Mogilev area, whereas the 227th Combined-Arms Range “Borisovskiy” is located west of the city of Borisov, Minsk Oblast.

@DFRLab also reported that a movement of military vehicles was documented close to the 72nd Joint Learning Center, located on the southern outskirts of the city of Borisov in the military village of Pechi.

(Source: YouTube)

Similarly, on August 25, Radio Svaboda, the Belarusian outlet of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, reported that locals in Belarus noticed a train with Russian military equipment at the Vereitsy station, near Osipovichi. According to locals, military personnel unloaded equipment in the night. In the morning, the military equipment moved through woods towards a military base near the village of Pratasievichy.

1 — Vereitsy station; 2 — the village of Pratasievichy; 3 — Osipovichy training ground. (Source: Echosec)

The photographs submitted to Radio Svaboda suggest that the military equipment belonged to the Russian military.

(Source: Radio Svaboda)

The article provided additional details:

Meanwhile, in Vereitsy they put up a radar station. A large military engineering machine on caterpillar tracks, a truck with awning and kung remained there. Three passenger carriages of the Russian railway were located at the station, together with the unloaded railway platforms.
The road to the military base was broken by the caterpillars of tanks and large trucks. It was five kilometres from Vereitsy to the base.
One could see a bustle and rumbling of heavy military equipment on the military base. Tanks and other heavy caterpillar vehicles were on display in the territory. Because of the fence one could see how the military were spinning from armored vehicles. Single cannon shots were heard. Not far from the training range.

The time and place of the open source evidence matches the MTS exercise disclosed in Mogilev Oblast. Unfortunately, there is no open source evidence describing the MTS training carried out at the Borisov training ground from August 21 to August 25. Digital evidence suggests that military exercises in both training grounds continued after the MTS exercise was reported.

Romashkovo, Vitebsk Oblast

Finally, on August 25, the Belarusian Army Newspaper published a story about the 2766th fuel base that participated in the MTS exercise. The story mentions that the fuel base had to deploy fuel storage near the village of Romashkovo (Vitebsk Oblast).

The village is located 30 minutes away from the city of Orsha, south of the Vitebsk Oblast.

Romashkovo: 54.515249,30.0429453. (Source: Google maps)

@DFRLab previously reported that Russian military equipment was spotted in the city of Orsha on August 14.

The military vehicles used by the 2766th fuel base during the exercise were not in the image of the military equipment in the city of Orsha. However, the military equipment in an image posted on VK on August 14 was used for logistical proposes.

Left (Source: VK user Dmitry Kostin); Right (Source: Belaruskaya Voennaya Gazeta)

Conclusion

The most noteable part of the MTS exercise was carried out on the civilian highway between the towns of Cherveny and Berezeno in the Minsk Oblast. In addition to landing military planes on a civilian highway, the militaries carried out a range of supporting activities to prepare the training area for defensive combat. 
 
The less exciting parts of the exercise were carried out in the village of Romashkovo, Vitebsk Oblast by the 2766th fuel base, where the staff deployed fuel storage.
 
The Borisov training ground was where we found the least digital evidence with no visual insight into what happened. Nevertheless, soldiers’ posts on Instagram suggest Belarusian soldiers moved from the Osipovichi training ground to continue at the Borisov training ground. Russian military equipment was also deployed to the Osipovichi. Such evidence suggests that after a preparatory MTS exercise, both training grounds will be used during the Zapad 2017 exercise.

@DFRLab will continue to monitor the situation, as preparations for Zapad 2017 intensify. If you or any other #DigitalSherlocks see anything on the ground or online related to the exercises, join the conversation using #ZapadWatch.


Nika Aleksejeva is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).

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

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