Zapad 2017 Counts Down (Part 2: Russia)

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

Left: (Source: Instagram user kjrlghet); Center: (Source: Instagram user ilya_bim); Right: (Source: Russian MoD)

On August 21–25, the Russian and Belarusian armed forces carried out a special material-technical support (MTS) exercise in preparation for the joint military exercise Zapad 2017, scheduled for September 14–20.

@DFRLab previously reported on the parts of the same warm-up exercise in Belarus. This follow-up report will focus on parts of the MTS exercise in Russia.

Luga, Lenigrad Oblast

On August 21, the Russian MoD reported the MTS exercise in Russia would be carried out on the training ground of the MTS Military Academy in the Luga region.

The training ground is located right by the city of Luga in the Lenigrad oblast.

Source: Echosec (City of Luga)

The training ground is extensive. According to Russian tourist portal Turbina.ru the area of the ground is over 96 thousand hectares.

On August 22, Russian state television published a video from the exercise at the Luzhsky training ground. The video showed tanks, howitzers, and multi-launch missile systems firing to create a realistic combat environment in which medical, supply, and support forces conducted training.

A few Instagram posts provide additional evidence about the MTS exercise in Luga.

A day before the exercise, on August 20, Instagram user maksim39993 posted an image of two men in a military truck with the hashtags #zapad2017 and #luga.

(Source: Instagram user maksim39993)

Previously, the user posted an image of himself in a uniform with a nametag. This helped identify him and find his profile on VK. On December 19, 2016, he posted a selfie in a classroom wearing a uniform. The image was geotagged to the base where the 79th Reactive Artillery Brigade is located.

Left (Source: VK user Maxim Katrysh); Right (Source: Voyskoviye Chasti Rossii)

The full name of the brigade is 79th Guards Reactive Artillery Novozybkovsky Krasnozanmennaya Medal of Suvorov and Alexander Nevsky Brigade. The brigade badge is visually similar to the badge on the soldier’s uniform.

Left (Source: Sammler.ru); Right (Source: Instagram user maksim39993)

The digital evidence suggests the 79th Reactive Artillery Brigade, which possesses a few units of the multi-launch rocket system Smerch, was involved in the MTS exercise in Luga.

The following day, on August 21, Instagram user kjrlghet put up an image showing a poster of MTS exercise. The location of the post was Luga.

(Source: Instagram user kjrlghet)

According to his Instagram profile, he is a third-year cadet at the Military Academy of Logistics and Transport located in St. Petersburg.

These photos confirm the time and place of the MTS exercise in Russia. However, another post by Instagram user westw00d_ray suggest this is not the first time the Luzhsky training ground has been used for Zapad 2017. On August 8, the user posted an image of an armed vehicle with a geographic reference to Luzhsky area.

Source: Instagram user westw00d_ray

The post reads:

westw00d_ray This is the beauty that guards our robot #army #Russia #VS [Armed Forces] #job #summer #adventures #exercises #zapad2017
oksana_nagalina_kosmetolog Beauty!

The post suggests some automated heavy equipment was tested on the Luzhsky training ground in the beginning of August.

A day before, on August 7, the user posted a video on Instagram showing his robot in action.

(Source: Instagram user westw00d_ray)

The post reads:

westw00d_ray Russian army robotization. If someone had told me that I would be doing this, I wouldn’t have believed it #army #Russia #spb #summer #adventures #robots #science

Unfortunately, the lack of visual features does not allow us to identify the cargo that the robot loads in the wagon.

Yaroslavl

On August 24, the Russian MoD reported that Russian Minister of Defense Sergey Shoigu attended a part of the MTS exercise in Yaroslavl. The main task of the exercise was to build a railway bridge over the river Volga.

On August 24, Russian Army channel ZvezdaTV published a story about the exercise on its YouTube channel. A similar story the next day was published also on a YouTube channel of Telekanal Perviy Yaroslavsky.

On August 25, Instagram user ilya_bim posted a gallery of images from the exercise with some key facts about it.

(Source: Instagram user ilya_bim)

The number of videos and photos posted online by non-official social media accounts suggest that the general public could freely observe the exercise.

For instance, Instagram user tigerficent posted an image with a banner of the exercise.

(Source: Instagram user tigerficent)

The banner reads:

Joint material-technical supply forces special exercise “Zapad 2017”

Later, the user posted an image of two women. The tagline to the post uses the hashtags #zapad2017 and #yaroslavl.

(Source: Instagram user tigerficent)

On August 24, YouTube user Alexander Davidik (Александр Давидик, AeroPRO) posted a video from the exercise filmed with a drone.

(Source: YouTube user Александр Давидик, AeroPRO)

The wide panoramic view from different angles helps to verify the exact location of the exercise.

The first noticeable landmark on the video is a white Orthodox church with blue domes. According to Yandex panorama view, it is the Uspenskaya church, located right by the Volga river.

Left (Source: YouTube user Александр Давидик, AeroPRO); Right (Source: Yandex maps)

Another unique feature of the landscape where the exercise was carried out is a peninsula that stretches into the river. The peninsula is located right across the river, opposite the church.

Left (Source: YouTube user Александр Давидик, AeroPRO); Right (Source: Yandex maps)

Combining all the distinguishing features of the place allows us to locate them on the map and compare them with satellite imagery. The imagery shows railway lines that end right by the river on both banks. The light blue line on the image below represents the place where the floating railway bridge was built during the exercise.

(Source: Yandex maps — 57.731813, 39.781828)

Kaliningrad Oblast

On August 23, the Russian MoD reported on an MTS readiness drill for the Baltic Fleet in Kaliningrad. The report provides some details about the exercise:

During the exercise, the issues of arranging assembly points for damaged equipment and the evacuation and repair of combat vehicles that were damaged in a presumed battle were conducted.
Servicemen dismantled combat vehicles, repaired their running gear and hulls. At specially organized points in the field, the operating combat and automotive equipment was filled with fuel and lubricants.

The next day, on August 24, the Russian MoD reported on an exercise by Baltic Navy engineering troops on Khmelovka training ground (54.757222, 19.971667). The exercise was already completed, and some images from it were published with the article.

(Source: Russian MoD)

Servicemen installed, and then overcame, non-explosive and explosive anti-landing obstacles in the water and on the shore.

A day later, on August 25, Russian state-media Vesti Kaliningrad published a video about the exercise on its YouTube channel.

(Source: YouTube user ВЕСТИ Калининград)

A separate Instagram post on August 24 provided additional evidence to verify the exercise.

(Source: Instagram user viktoriyabazhanova)

The post reads:

viktoriyabazhanova My soldier, preparations for #zapad2017 #army #marines

Though the Russian MoD did not mention that the exercise was carried out in preparation for Zapad 2017 exercise, the Instagram post above suggests that Russian soldiers involved in the exercise perceived it as such.

Conclusion

In Russia, the MTS exercise was carried out on the Luzhsky training ground, in the city of Yaroslavl and on the Khmelovka training ground in the Kaliningrad Oblast. The portion carried out in the Luga area was the only one which the Russian MoD announced as part of the MTS exercise. The exercise in Yaroslavl was free for the public to observe, providing a clear view of the exact place the exercise was carried out. Though the Baltic Navy Engineer Force exercise was not attributed as part of the MTS exercise, the participants of the exercise considered it a prelude to Zapad 2017. 
 
Overall, the MTS exercise announced by the Belarusian MoD on August 12 took place at four locations in Belarus and least three locations in Russia. The scale of the exercise and preparations carried out signal the true scale of the final Zapad 2017 exercise scheduled for September.

@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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