On September 14, Russia and Belarus will begin Zapad 2017, a week-long, large-scale joint military exercise that occurs every four years. For observers, the exercise offers insight into the capabilities, focus areas, and plans of both militaries. The exercise is also worthy of analysis because of the potential threat it poses; for instance, Russia’s invasions of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 coincided with similar military exercises.
On July 17, Belarusian Defense Minister Lieutenant-General Andrei Ravkov spoke to Russian News Agency TASS, naming the locations where Zapad 2017 will take place:
“Practical exercises for the bodies of military governance and troops will be held in Belarus at the Lepel, Borisov, Losvido and Osipovichi training ranges, the Ruzhansky and Domanovsky Air Force and Air Defense Force practice grounds and also on the terrain near the community of Dretun,” the general said.
What can open source information tell us about these locations?
Lepel training range
This location is home to the 19th Tank Division (Military Unit 71327), and it neighbors the village of Zaslonovo. A video uploaded by Belarusian media outlet Tut.by on September 30, 2016, shows an infantry fighting vehicle passing by multi-story civilian apartment buildings in the village.
The division has a VKontakte (VK) group with 2,214 members. On the group page, current and veteran members of the division shared images of military vehicles and tanks, including some photographs from the last year.
In the comments section of one of the photos, VK user Oleg Radyush identifies the featured vehicle as a T-72B tank. It is also visually similar to a vehicle identified as a T-72B on MilitaryArms.ru, a Russian website focused on military equipment.
The 227th Combined-Arms Range is used primarily by cadets of the 72nd Joint Education Center for Ensigns and Junior Staff. According to The Belarusian Military Newspaper, the 18,000-hectare range was improved in 2015:
Capital repairs were carried out on thirteen points of combat service, five facilities at major training sites, including “fighting in the city.” Two equipped control points were put into operation, more than five kilometers of a new power control cable were laid on the directrix and the military shooting range, and the cable for the target movement was replaced on all mobile targets. To optimize and improve educational facilities on the territory of the landfill, three buildings have been demolished (by blasting) with a total area of two thousand square meters, the territory has been reclaimed. About two thousand lifts, bogies, motorized winches, electric boards, and other range equipment have been serviced and tested for fire protection conditions.
Educating soldiers is not the center’s only task. The Belarusian Ministry of Defense (MoD) also disclosed a technical support center, the 495th Separate Battalion of Material Support, and a separate security and maintenance battalion at the same location.
A poll featured in the education center’s VK group gives a snapshot of the diversity of ranks participating in the online group. Of the group members, 39.3 percent self-identified as privates. Sergeants and staff sergeants represent a slightly smaller group, at 16.2 percent and 15.5 percent, respectively.
A video from the Victory Day parade on May 9 in Pechi shows cadets marching by a crowd of spectators.
Images posted by some of the older group members, who served in the Belarusian Armed Forces since 2016, suggest the cadets are involved in ground artillery training.
A photo published on June 30 by another education center VK group member shows a BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicle. The same model was featured during the Belarus Independence Day Parade on July 3.
On July 15, one of the education center VK group members, Anton Volf, posted an image of himself standing by a tank identified as a T-72 or a modified version of a T-72.
The public statements and open source evidence of equipment in each location suggest that the Lepel Training Range and the 227th Combined-Arms Range in the Borisov region will be used for artillery exercises during Zapad 2017.
Losvido training range
The Losvido range is located north of Losvido Lake, in the area of Vitebsk.
Osipovichi training range
The Osipovichi range is located west of the city of Osipovichi, in the Mogilev area.
According to The Belarusian Army Newspaper, the 51st Mixed Artillery Group is based in Osipovichi.
Ukrainian military expert Oleg Zhdanov recently suggested that a range capable of hosting 20,000 people in the Mogilev area will serve as the place for practicing real combat situations during the Zapad 2017 exercise. Journalists from the online media outlet Mogilev Online suggested Zhdanov pointed to the Osipovichi range because it is used for testing combat readiness in Belarus throughout the year.
On April 12, the 51st Artillery Group tested multiple rocket launcher systems, including “Smerch” and “Uragan” and the “Msta-B” howitzer. This was reported by the Belarusian news agency BelTA.
On July 3, Valentina Milyko published a vlog about Belarusian Independence Day celebrations in Osipovichi. The video showed the multiple rocket launcher systems “Smerch” and “Uragan.”
Here again, we find equipment and location pertinent to Zapad 2017.
Ruzhansky Air Force practice ground
The Ruzhansky practice ground is located in the western part of the Pruzhany region, in Brest Oblast.
According to an article published on the Belarusian MoD’s website, the Ruzhansky airfield is used by the staff of 210th Aircraft Practice Ground. Military Unit 39212 is located 5 kilometers north of the air force practice ground.
The military unit has its own VK group, with 62 members. None of the group members have recently served in the Belarusian Armed Forces.
On March 19, 2014, Belarusian Army TV published a video showing military exercises carried out by Mi-24 helicopters at the Ruzhansky practice ground. Though the vehicles may not be the exact same, the visual similarities are obvious in the image composite below.
Most recently, Belarusian Army TV published a video about a Belarusian Air Force exercise at the Ruzhansky practice ground on May 22. L-39 training planes, Yak-130 training-combat planes, and Su-25 ground-attack jets were used during the exercise.
Domanovsky Air Force and Air Defense Force practice ground
The closest military base located near the village of Volka is that of Military Unit 15994, which belongs to the 1st Anti-Aircraft Missile Division.
On July 1, the Belarusian MoD published a news article and stated the division has the S-300 anti-aircraft missile system.
In 2014, Belarusian Army TV published a story on how the practice ground was used by the 120th Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade to test the Tor M2 anti-aircraft missile system.
In January 2015, a transporter erector launcher (TELAR) for a Buk missile system was spotted in Baranivichy. It was coming back from an exercise carried out by the 120th Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade.
Finally, Lieutenant-General Ravkov mentioned to TASS that part of Zapad 2017 will occur near the community of Dretun, located in Vitebsk Oblast.
An article published in The Belarusian Army Newspaper describes a shooting range near the village:
The shooting range of the Dretun is about thirty kilometers from Polotsk. It is named after a small village and the railway station of the same name, which had ramps for loading and unloading military equipment. The shooting range was mostly used for artillery. Twice a year, in winter and autumn, all artillery of the 120th Motorized Infantry Division got in formation and departed for a month and a half for carrying out military firings in Dretun.
The firing range is located north of the village. It includes lakes Leshno and Sosno.
A video published by YouTube user Aleksey Seliverstov suggests the shooting range was used for the large-scale Soviet Union military exercise Zapad 81. The video is almost an hour long, and it documents an exploratory trip the author of the video took in the spring of 2017.
The description of the video reads:
The video of a small one-man hike into the territory of the former 228th Combined-Arms Military Test Ground, in which, in 1981, the largest exercises of Soviet troops took place. By their scale, they are comparable only with the major operations of the Great Patriotic War. During the “Zapad 81” exercise, an automated control system and some types of high-precision weapons were tested for the first time. In the course of the exercise, an offensive operation — a massive landing in the rear of the “enemy forces” — was completed. Since the exercises of Zapad-81 were near the border of Poland (where there was an unstable sociopolitical situation), it is believed that along with the strategic goals of the doctrine relevant at that time, military-political tasks were also solved (i.e., the development of a possible operation for the introduction of troops into the territory Poland, etc.).
On May 30, a YouTube user posted a video showing vehicle testing at the firing range.
The fact that both of these videos were taken by civilians suggests that the shooting range was not operational at the time.
The locations scheduled for use during Zapad 2017 in Belarus provide infrastructure for a wide spectrum of military activities.
Three ranges — in Lepel, Barisov, and Osipovichi — are suited for ground artillery exercises. The Losvido training range is in use for airborne exercises. The Ruzhansky practice ground provides infrastructure for air force exercises, while the Domanovsky practice ground is equipped for air defense tasks. Though the Dretun range is not currently in use, it was historically suited both for airborne and ground artillery exercises.
@DFRLab will continue to monitor the situation through the summer, 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.