Latest news on Russia’s war in Ukraine

Russian paratroopers board a plane as they take part in ZAPAD 2021 in Kaliningrad region, Russia, last September. Vitaly Nevar/Reuters/FILE

The UK’s Ministry of Defense suggested it is “highly likely” that Russia canceled a major joint strategic military exercise “because too few troops and equipment are available.”

ZAPAD, a joint military exercise between the armed forces of Russia and Belarus, was due to be held in September, the ministry said in an intelligence update Monday.

ZAPAD, Russian for “West,” is a major annual event in Moscow’s military calendar. Since 2010, Russia has run a four-year cycle, rotating the JSEs [joint strategic exercises] around four of its military regions. 

However, since 2021, Russia has held the JSE in the west of the country every second year, “as it prioritizes confronting what it perceives as the threat from NATO,” according to the British defense ministry.

ZAPAD 2021, the largest Russian military exercise since the Soviet era, was held along Russia and Belarus’ western flanks, much to the alarm of Ukraine and some NATO countries.

“Zapad 2021 marked a major tactical, operational and strategic change of pace,” according to a report from RUSI, a UK defense and security think-tank. 

That exercise involved 200,000 military personnel, more than 80 aircraft and helicopters and 15 ships, the RUSI report said, adding that “Zapad 2021 was Russia’s first preparation for operations on a scale comparable to those undertaken in Ukraine a year later.”

But the British intelligence update on Monday suggested that this year’s event might have been canceled for several reasons.

“The Russian military’s under-performance in Ukraine has highlighted how JSEs [joint strategic exercises] have had limited training value and have largely been for show. Russia has likely canceled ZAPAD 23 because too few troops and equipment are available,” the intelligence update said.

This is not the first military event that Russia has scaled back since launching its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Putin led a more modest Victory Day parade than usual in Moscow on May 9, featuring just a single World War II-era T-34 tank. In previous years, dozens of tanks had been involved in the procession.

The British defense ministry suggested there may be some doubts among Russia’s leaders about staging flashy military exercises while its invasion of Ukraine drags on.

“There is a realistic possibility that the Russian leadership is also sensitive to domestic criticism liable from running another slickly presented JSE during wartime,” the update said.