For the first time, motorized rifle units conducted maneuvers with recon and fire support robots from the Uran-9 robotic complex during the joint strategic exercise Zapad-2021 at the Mulino training ground. Credit: Russian Defense Ministry.

Russian president Vladimir Putin looked on, as thousands of troops and materiel attacked an invisible enemy in the Nizhny Novgorod region east of Moscow despite reportedly being in isolation due to Covid-19 cases among his close contacts.

Russia was conducting one of its largest military exercises since the Cold War in Belarus, along the eastern flank of NATO, as relations between Moscow and the West have reached their lowest ebbs in decades.

According to a report in the Financial Post, the joint war games with Belarus, known as Zapad, are held every four years.

But this year, the military relationship between the two countries is being closely studied, as Belarus has been drawn closer into Russia’s orbit over the past year.

And for the first time, Russia has employed unmanned ground vehicle — robot tanks, if you will — in combat formations, a significant step in the country’s quest to develop an effective all-robot military unit, experts say.

Western leaders have viewed the exercises with concern because of their sheer size and proximity to NATO’s eastern flank — it’s believed that about 200,000 troops from Russia, Belarus and several other countries, took part, Stars & Stripes reported.

The Russian defence ministry said about 80 aircraft and helicopters, up to 15 ships and nearly 300 tanks were involved.  

Military personnel from Armenia, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia were present ahead of the drills, sources said.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko — who is alleged to have won office via a rigged election — reviewed the drills amid plans to buy more than US$1 billion in arms from Moscow. 

Two types of armored robot vehicles were used for fire support and reconnaissance work, Russia’s Defense Ministry said in a statement.

The Uran-9, a tracked vehicle equipped with a 30 mm autocannon, a machine gun, anti-tank missiles and a flamethrower, destroyed mock enemy targets over 3 miles away, the statement said.

However, it still isn’t a true “terminator” in the sense that it can operate independently without human control. Thus, while described as a “robot,” it would be more apt to call it a “remote-controlled tankette.”

The Uran-9’s diesel engine allows the vehicle to accelerate to twenty-two miles per hour on highways, or six to fifteen mph off-road.

According to the developers, the steel armor plates can protect it from shell splinters and small-arms — though implicitly it may remain vulnerable to other relatively common weapons such as RPGs or heavy machine guns.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu inspect the Zapad joint military drills in Russia’s Nizhny Novgorod region. ALEXEY DRUZHININ / SPUTNIK / AFP.

In the testing in Syria, the Uran-9 wasn’t seen as a major success, in part because of a limited field of view for the operators, while the unit also failed to respond quickly enough at critical times.

“Shortcomings were identified during the tests in Syria. In particular, the issues of control, reduced mobility, and unsatisfactory military intelligence and surveillance functions had been considered by engineers and were rectified,” said Vladimir Dmitriev, head of the Kalashnikov Concern.

This could explain why the Russian Army is creating a new unit to work out the kinks in the platform, while additional testing will occur in a safer environment.

Meanwhile, the smaller Nerekhta unmanned ground vehicle, or UGV, fired at targets with a mounted machine gun and a grenade launcher in addition to performing tasks that would be dangerous for troops, such as delivering ammunition and equipment in combat.

Russian paratroopers take part in an airborne assault formation during joint military drills, named ‘Zapad-2021’, with Belarus on Saturday. Credit: Russian Defense Ministry.

The apparently successful use of UGVs during the Zapad exercises underscores Moscow’s determination to improve its robotic capabilities, said Alexis Mrachek, a researcher at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington D.C.-based think tank.

“That fact is certainly significant because it means that Russia is continuing to experiment and seeking new ways to obtain greater lethality and survivability,” Mrachek said. 

“We should expect that with continued experimentation they will perfect their equipment and tactics.”

Officials say the exercises do not envisage specific countries as adversaries.

But the chief of Belarus’ general staff, Major-General Viktor Gulevich, said the exercises should be a “signal” to the West of the “futility” to taking “a position of strength” against the two countries. 

President Putin has branded the drills “sensible” give increased NATO activity near the country’s borders and those of its allies.  

But neighbours such as Ukraine and NATO members Poland and Lithuania say such big exercises so close to the frontier risk being provocative.

“We need to realize that this [a Russian military attack on Estonia] may indeed happen in the coming years,” Martin Herem, commander of the Estonian Defense Forces said in an interview .

“Russia’s goal likely isn’t to occupy us — it does not want to gain control through occupation, but it enjoys instability and influence via instability.” 

Russian Deputy Defence Minister Nikolai Pankov said the drills were purely defensive in nature and would give Moscow and Minsk a chance to improve the way their respective militaries work together.  

Sources: Military.com, Stars & Stripes, Financial Post, Economist, The Daily Mail, National Interest