Held on 14–20 September, Zapad-2017 promised to be the largest strategic military exercises jointly held by Russia (including the strategically important Kaliningrad Oblast) and Belarus since the collapse of the USSR.1 Historically, military strategic-operational exercises have constituted a crucial element in military training and education, first in Imperial Russia and then in the Soviet Union, and now the trend is returning. Nevertheless, it appears that, compared to previous exercises, Zapad-2017 was a much more complex phenomenon, which not only reflects Russia’s current military strength but also gives a valuable insight into who the Kremlin is preparing to confront in the future, and how.
What is Zapad, and Why History Still Matters
Strategic military exercises under the codename “Zapad” (“West”) were meant to cause shock and awe in countries outside the Soviet bloc due to the military omnipotence of the Warsaw Pact, and became an organic by-product of the Cold War in Europe. The most impressive—“Zapad-81”, held on 4–12 September 1981—involved some 100,000 military personnel, at the same time displaying unique Soviet technical-tactical decisions.2 These exercises became a remarkable chapter in the history of the Soviet Armed Forces, comparable to military operations in the Second World War. However, the collapse of the USSR, ensuing economic disaster, and the need to preserve “liberal” appearances forced Russia to call a halt to its ambitions, which also affected Zapad.
The return of conservatism (from 1996) that ended a short-lived romance with liberalism brought about crucial changes, altering Russia’s domestic milieu and signifying a comeback of neo-imperial nationalism. Indeed, fateful metamorphoses experienced by Russia between 1999 and 2013 resulted in a renaissance of Cold War rhetoric, sabre-rattling and ever-growing outspoken intimidation of the Baltic States and Poland – expressed in, among other things, rapid remilitarisation of Russia’s Western Flank. These transformations went hand in glove with the resurrection of Zapad military exercises (in 1999, 2009 and 2013) that clearly articulated where, against whom and in what form Russia planned to wage future military conflict(s).
The Road to Zapad-2017: Expectations, Concerns and Fears
Any reflections in advance of Zapad-2017 were inseparable from two issues. First, major Russian military exercises tend to bring escalations in regional tensions, with Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2013) the most telling examples. Second, the context of Zapad-2017 was shaped by the ongoing military conflict in Ukraine, Russian involvement in Syria, the continuing military build-up in Russia’s Western Military District and the emergence of two A2/AD “bubbles” on the shores of the Baltic (Kaliningrad) and the Black Sea (Crimea).3 Taken together, these profoundly affected the way Russia’s neighbours perceived the upcoming major exercises. This was especially visible in the behaviour of the Baltic States, Poland and Ukraine, for whom “Russian threat” is much more than a mere cliché. The sense of dismay was greatly amplified by growing concertation of Russia’s military equipment along the Baltic–Black Sea line (including illegally annexed Crimea).4 Moreover, the fact that Russia had contracted an 83-fold increase in railway rolling stock destined for Belarus5 (enough to transport the entire Russian 1st Guards Tank Army) made the opposition in Belarus increasingly suspicious of Russia’s ultimate plans.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea, support for separatist forces in the south-east and new military bases along its national border put Ukraine’s political leadership on the highest state of alert. The Secretary of the National Security and Defence Council, Oleksandr Turchynov, claimed that the exercises would assemble an estimated 240,000 military personnel,6 with Russia’s ultimate goal concerned with simulating the creation of a “Kaliningrad Corridor” to take on NATO. Very similar tones were adopted in Warsaw and Vilnius, chiefly based on a premise of Russia attempting to use the notorious “Suwałki Gap” as a springboard for a military offensive against Poland and/or Lithuania.7
Rather predictably, Western sentiment contrasted sharply with statements by Russian and Belarusian officials. The tone in Europe was alarmist, while Moscow labelled these views as anti-Russian hysteria and unsubstantiated accusations.
What Was on the Surface …
According to the Russian side, Zapad-2017 had no aim other than to simulate defensive operations against a coalition of three fictional states (Lubenia, Vesbaria and Veyshnoria) that, according to the exercise scenario, attack Belarus. Official statements claimed that this task was supposed to be carried out with forces of no more than 13,000 military personnel,8 with “transparency” assured by the presence of various international observers.9 However, the official rhetoric and continuous (re)assurances emanating from Moscow and Minsk were of little solace to Russia’s neighbours, thanks to a number of inconsistencies that could not be easily reconciled.
First, the geographical scope of the exercises: Zapad-2017 was to be carried out on a huge swathe of land stretching from the Russian Arctic to Belarus and Kaliningrad Oblast, rendering the declared number of military personnel involved to be virtually unrealistic. Second, the conspicuous invitation of external observers had its flipside. In effect, these spectators were only allowed to monitor the “Belarus part” of the exercises, so as not to violate the formalities of the Vienna Document (since Belarus is part of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe) while at the same time concealing the rest of the exercises (apparently, the most essential part) from the eyes of “unwarranted” observers.
… and What Remained Behind the Scenes?
Bits and pieces drawn from various sources and information outlets pertaining to the exercises allow the main results of Zapad-2017 to be summarised under the following key categories.
1. Zapad as a Weapon of Information Warfare
Information-psychological operations (and reflexive control) is a backbone of Russian information warfare against the West in its current form. The truth is that the precise number of troops actually deployed by the Russians during these exercises is of little importance. Russia had achieved its main propaganda goal long before Zapad started: by manipulating/distorting/corrupting information, the Russian propaganda machine managed to sow the seeds of doubt that flourished by spreading panic in the West, which was one of the Kremlin’s main objectives. Moreover, unlike its predecessors (when Russia deliberately underscored its offensive military potential), Zapad-2017 became a peculiar mixture of intimidation and defence-related rhetoric, thus serving both internal and external purposes.
2. Zapad as a Testing Ground for the “War of the Future”
Involvement in Ukraine and Syria provided Russian military strategists with an abundance of valuable information that was processed and applied during Zapad-2017. In particular, one could highlight the growing priority given to electronic warfare (EW) capabilities (both offensive and defensive); this element was extensively tested (in various Russian regions) prior to and during the exercises.10 In addition, huge attention was devoted to the so-called “Initial Period of War” which, according to Jamestown Foundation analyst Roger McDermott, is still very much related to fear of a surprise attack (based on the experience of both June 1941 and the war in Yugoslavia), which is to be dealt with through “military planning based on air-defense and conventional precision-strike systems”.11 On the other hand, the exercises once again underscored Russia’s strategic concern over the improvement of various parts of Command and Control (C2), as well as integrated use of the main branches of the Russian army. In this respect, it is worth mentioning that Russia’s vision of the “war of the future” is closely related to the creation of Anti-Access/Area-Denial zones/bubbles to ensure the invincibility of certain areas deemed essential for Russian defence. Seen from this perspective, special attention should be paid to Kaliningrad—Russia’s westernmost district and its most advanced A2/AD “bubble”.
3. Kaliningrad: More Crucial Than Ever
Aside from a series of snap exercises hosted by the oblast ahead of and impressive developments during Zapad-2017 (this aspect has been extensively covered), some other developments have remained eclipsed. For example, immediately prior to Zapad-2017, so-called “territorial defence units” (perceived by the Russian side as an integral part of future conflicts) were created. The local media have claimed that the newly created units were to take part in the exercises.12 If this proves correct, one could speak of a qualitatively new level of militarisation of the oblast, de facto manifesting a full return to Soviet mobilisation patterns.
4. Zapad As a Litmus Test for Russia-Belarus Relations
The exercises were, among other objectives, aimed at demonstrating the highest level of unity and cohesion between Minsk and Moscow, but might in fact have exhibited the opposite. Analyses conducted by leading experts on Belarus have shown that the state of relations between the two partners is far from the way these are usually portrayed.13
In Lieu of a Conclusion
Now that anxiety over the joint Russian-Belarusian military exercises has calmed down, it is worth mentioning that, aside from challenges and perils, Zapad-2017 has provided plenty of invaluable information, bringing to light new trends and tendencies, and confirming some previously visible ones. Further analyses will reveal more information on what actually happened between 14 and 20 September, and what should be expected next. At this point it is quite clear that Russia perceives NATO as its key adversary in the Baltic Sea region, which has (and will likely retain) a pivotal significance for the Kremlin’s geopolitical calculations. In this regard, the Baltic States and Poland—constituting the northern part of NATO’s Eastern Flank—should be seen as the main targets of Russian “hybrid warfare” in the event that tensions escalate. At the same time, Kaliningrad Oblast, which has formed Russia’s most advanced A2/AD “bubble”, is nothing less than a playground where Moscow will be implementing key elements of the “war of the future” concept.
Kalev Stoicescu, Research Fellow, International Centre for Defence and Security
In his analysis, Sergei Sukhankin outlines very clearly the main political and military aspects of the Russian exercise Zapad-2017, which also had a bilateral (Russian-Belarusian) element. I would like to add just a few thoughts.
The Kremlin pretends that it is merely “reacting”—“protectively”, of course—to NATO’s “expansion” and “strengthening of infrastructure” on the Alliance’s eastern flank, while completely denying its actual role in fuelling the political and military confrontation between Russia and NATO, especially in the Baltic Sea region. The difference between Moscow’s official rhetoric and its actual steps taken is as striking as during the Soviet era when the Soviet Union advertised itself as the “stronghold of global peace”. In the military sense, Russia actually operates according to a model established during the Cold War. It has since been somewhat updated in its technical and doctrinal aspects, especially concerning (dis)information, cyber and electronic warfare and precision strike systems.
The Zapad exercise showed that Russia essentially sees Belarus as a constituent part of its Western Military District. However, Russia does not currently have a permanent military presence in Belarus, with the exception of two radar and communications stations as part of the Russian‑Belarusian joint regional air defence system. Then again, the political ties between the two countries depend heavily on the relationship between the two presidents, Putin and Lukashenko, who do not seem to like each other much. They observed Zapad-2017 separately, each in their own country, which might give an inkling of their rather different views and objectives.
Zapad-2017 enacted Russia’s land, special, missile and air forces’ deployment to Belarus in conditions where Russia decides to “react” to NATO’s improved frontline presence in the Baltic States and Poland as well as to the US missile defence elements in Poland and Romania. The scenario of regime change in Belarus, which was of course imputed to three fictitious western neighbours, was also rehearsed. This should give Alexander Lukashenko and all other pro‑independence Belarusians every reason to be worried, albeit for different reasons.
Raivo Vare, observer
Sergei Sukhankin has quite aptly summarised a series of conclusions drawn from Zapad-2017, the recent large-scale exercises by Russian armed forces. In fact, he has stressed the messages that Zapad sent in a wider political sense, rather than in terms of specific military‑technical aspects.
I must agree that these exercises manifest Russia’s current vision of its potential enemies, as well as its own role—primarily a military powerhouse in the new global and regional political order. By the way, this positioning is indeed historically consistent, having been only briefly disrupted by a temporary moment of confusion at the beginning of the 1990s. It also curbed the military and geopolitical ambitions of our neighbouring country, perhaps not so much due to flirting with the idea of liberalism, as suggested by the author, but rather because of banal economic inability. I would only add that Russia’s foreign-policy vision has always been strongly influenced by “general staff-based” views in the spirit of the classic 19th century geostrategic schools. According to such views, territorial buffer zones for the country’s key regions are of vital importance, especially in the west.
At the same time, in the Kremlin’s view, the western front line, established at the time of the Warsaw Pact and once pushed far away in Moscow’s strategy, has moved too close to the centre of the country. It did so with the collapse of the Soviet Union and has moved even more “dangerously” with developments in Ukraine. For that reason, the annexation of Crimea was a step that fits very well into building a new military defensive line. Kaliningrad’s fortified military outpost stands at one end, while the Crimean analogue, which is being intensively equipped with corresponding systems and units, is at the other. Between the two locations, however, are Belarus and Ukraine. In both these directions, military preparedness is continuously being increased by way of more powerful weapons systems as well as the formation of new units.
Actually, in a practical sense, we are speaking rather of prioritising the development of attack preparedness. In addition, for a long time a similar process has also been carried out in other areas along Russia’s western border, from the Arctic Ocean to the Black Sea. Yet the age-old truth is that the key component of preparedness is real action and cooperation between different elements, which requires constant practice. This is why the largest and most diverse military exercises conceivable are necessary—such as the recent ones. These exercises also exhibit a sense of wanting to demonstrate certain strengths and to intimidate, rather than be the symbol and means of foreign-policy influence.
Sukhankin is also undoubtedly right about the fact that, especially after Georgia and Ukraine/Crimea, the level of unease about Russia’s intentions has grown significantly in neighbouring countries, for understandable reasons.
Sergei Sukhankin’s methodical approach through the superficial and analysis of hidden factors is very relevant. The formal image shown to the outside world was only “for show”, which was at best only a small fragment of a much larger mosaic in the biggest undertaking in recent memory. This was also supported by the detail that, unusually, Vladimir Putin did not go to Belarus to observe the exercise with his colleague, preferring to inspect it from Russia. I would add a few of my own conclusions here.
First, the content of the numerous exercises that took place in Russia, not to mention the associated public announcements, were not in fact fundamentally related to defence. In fact, it was not in the context of the announced “terrorists and separatists” as hypothetical enemies. This is because the activities and measures, which occasionally even made the news and were used all throughout the series of exercises, presupposed such a sizeable and high-level equipment supply and tactical‑technical performance by the enemy that it could only be characteristic of relatively large countries or the regular armed forces of several such countries. What kind of forces? Probably NATO, which Russia already officially considers its main strategic opponent. To give just a few examples: rehearsals for tank traps; imitated air attacks by a massive conventional enemy; aiming tactical nuclear-capable missiles at targets in neighbouring countries; intensive testing of the A2/AD “bubble”, as pointed out by Sukhankin; rehearsal of an actual naval blockade extending across the entire Baltic coast; and the pre-positioning of logistics services and pioneer units, which had in fact already been practised in Belarus ahead of the official start of Zapad-2017.
Second, it should also be noted that, in addition to the army, the military exercises involved units from the Federal Security Service, the coastguard and the National Guard. The Vienna Document does not take these units into consideration. Allegedly, it also involved zachistka (mopping-up operations) on the territory. Even foreign banks were put to work, perhaps bearing in mind the lessons learned during events in eastern Ukraine. According to one hypothesis, even the simultaneous and massive evacuations from the centres of various Russian cities would fit in the wider context of Zapad-2017. Supposedly, these evacuations were organised by four Russian emigrants from a foreign country (sic!) …
Third, all the circumstances hint at the reality that one of the exercise goals was to breach the so‑called Suwałki Gap and establish a land connection with the enclave of Kaliningrad. What does this have to do with the fight against “terrorists”?
Fourth, Sukhankin justifiably directs attention to the electronic warfare (EW) element in these exercises. The level and organisation of EW certainly worries our allies, but allegedly so do disruption to computer networks and essential systems for our southern neighbours.
And fifth, there was obviously the element of information warfare. This was both in the context of intimidation, as Sukhankin aptly points out, and also by positioning Belarus as “belonging” to Russia—although I would add that the contours of the fictitious enemy Veyshnoria strongly resemble the parts of modern-day Belarus possessed by Poland during the interwar period. In the presidential elections there once, the most votes were given to Lukashenko’s rival. So perhaps it was a political hint both to the ally and to Poland? At least Ukrainians’ fears that Russia is practising for an attack on them is left up in the air for the time being.
To try to sum up the overall impressions, while finding support from Sukhankin’s own conclusions, then this exercise was essentially a rehearsal for a full-blown military conflict in a region that also concerns us. Full stop.
Ants Laaneots, Estonian Reform Party Member of the Estonian Parliament (Riigikogu)
In September last year, general Valery Gerasimov, the Chief of Russia’s General Staff, announced that Zapad, the largest joint strategic exercises held by the Russian-Belarusian armed forces, would take place in 2017. He said the aim of these exercises was to test the preparedness of joint forces during the planning and conduct of large-scale military operations over a very limited period of time, the preparation of a control system for an army group in a war situation, improvement of regional air defence system effectiveness, and the development of cooperation between integrated intelligence, communications and electronic combat systems. Zapad-2017 was scheduled to be conducted on Russian and Belarusian sites.
A few months later, the Russian Minister of Defence, Sergei Shoigu, in turn said that the exercises would be held on territory from the Barents Sea to Ukraine near Russia’s western border. In addition to the Western Military District forces, units from the 1st Guards Tank Army, the fleets of the North and Baltic Seas, and the 11th Army Corps in the Kaliningrad Oblast would take part. He also noted that, while working out the concept and scenario for the exercises, the situation involving NATO’s increasing presence near the federation’s borders would be taken into consideration. On 11 August, colonel-general Andrey Serdyukov, the commander of Russian Airborne Troops, announced that three airborne divisions would take part in the exercises in Pskov Oblast. In the spring and summer of this year, the Russian media reported several times that up to 100,000 armed and fully-equipped soldiers would participate, referencing the Russian Ministry of Defence.
In December 2016, the Ministry of Defence sought permission from Belarus to use 4,162 rail carriages for the transport of their units, which caused Minsk some concern. The length of a train reputedly depends on the length of the railway station. The average length of a standard Russian military train (an “echelon”) is 50 carriages. Hence, 4,162 carriages could make up about 83 trains. Even allowing just for transport back and forth, this number of carriages could carry a fully equipped and armed motor rifle division, supported by intelligence, the Spetsnaz, landing and landing assault units, and an air component. In other words, it would amount to 14–15,000 men with their weapons and technical equipment. According to Minsk, the Russians were allowed to use only 400 carriages, which probably changed Vladimir Putin’s plans in Belarus.
The chiefs of the Russian and Belarusian general staffs supervised the exercises. In addition to the aforementioned units, air forces such as heavy bombers and strategic missile units were added during the event. The latter fired two intercontinental missiles at Kamchatka. Thus, the 12,700-man exercises in Belarus, which Moscow presented to the West as Zapad-2017 and which drew the attention of the Western mass media, was only a small part of the whole.
The Kremlin probably pursued the following aims with the strategic Zapad-2017 exercises.
1. To demonstrate the power of Russian armed forces to the West, to intimidate Western European countries and NATO, and to force them to be more accommodating of the Kremlin’s demands in dividing the spheres of influence in the post-Soviet space.
2. To rehearse the control and cooperation of a regional strategic army group during the planning and conduct of large-scale defence and attack operations on a wide front in depth.
3. Bearing in mind the feud between presidents Putin and Lukashenko, we should not overlook the possibility that the Kremlin had a plan to send a large army group to Belarus with the intention of removing Lukashenko from power, leaving a contingent of troops permanently stationed there, and turning Belarus into an obedient Moscow vassal—all under the label of military exercises.
4. Russian presidential elections will take place on 18 March 2018. It cannot be completely ruled out that Putin, much like other Russian presidents who have fallen on hard times due to economic crises and the nation’s general isolation, had planned a small, victorious “operation” in Belarus to fool his own people and ensure successful re-election.