On 10-16 September 2021, Russia conducted the formal part of ZAPAD 2021, one in a cycle of annual military exercises which represent the culmination of training by the Russian Federation Armed Forces in a given year. As ‘Zapad’ (the Russian word for ‘west’) suggests, the exercise is centred on what Russia calls the Western strategic sector or ‘direction’. ZAPAD 2021 included Belarus. Accordingly, it was termed ‘a joint strategic exercise’, primarily to emphasise the participation of Belarus as well as that of the Russia-controlled Collective Security Treaty Organisation. ZAPAD 2021 was preceded by weeks of preparatory and associated exercises, and, as repeatedly emphasised by Russia, involved as many as 200,000 troops, drawn predominantly from Russia.

ZAPAD 2021 included a powerful communication campaign in the form of messages and narratives, which this study identifies, explores, and explains.

This study consists of two separate but interconnected parts:

Part I looks at the exercise from the perspective of what the exercise signalled, both explicitly and implicitly. It deconstructs and groups these messages and narratives. In addition, it offers a wealth of information of interest to any student of Russia’s behaviour, be it concerning the military and security or policy and media.

Part II looks at communication associated with ZAPAD 2021 with an eye on the information environments in the three Baltic states and Poland, all targeted by ZAPAD 2021 communication. It does so by balancing and combining a holistic understanding with forensic attention to detail. It analyses both official communication from the Russian Federation and Belarus and communication in digital news outlets, based on comprehensive research underpinned by a unique methodology.