September will be a nervous month in Eastern Europe, according to Peter Apps, the global affairs columnist for the Reuters news agency. He is referring to Russia’s largest military exercise since the Cold War.
The September 14 drill (known as Zapad (West) 2017) has raised concern in Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and elsewhere.
Russian President Vladimir Putin sees both conventional and nuclear posturing as a useful tool to reassert Moscow’s status as a world power and intimidate nearby enemies. The three years since Russia’s annexation of Crimea have seen a dramatic increase in Moscow’s military activity.
But Russia’s escalating confrontation with the West goes well beyond that, writes Apps. He explains that Moscow, Washington and other Western governments understand that any direct conflict between Russia and the West would prove disastrous. Instead, the face-off is worsening in wider, often weirder ways. And while many Americans would blame Moscow, many Russians see it differently.
Despite signs that US President Donald Trump would still like to be in Putin’s good graces, Congress and much of the US government simply will not let him – particularly as probes into Russian election hacking and the Trump campaign’s Moscow links gather steam. With a continuous drip feed of allegations and revelations, it will become ever more toxic to relations.
On August 2, Trump signed a bill to impose new sanctions demanded by Congress. This showed that Capitol Hill, not the president, now may be calling the shots.
Back in Moscow, Apps notes that most experts agree Putin prioritises his personal survival above all else. In his early years in power, Putin’s authority derived heavily from Russia’s economic prosperity and stability. Now, however, the Kremlin propaganda machine focuses on his role in restoring the country’s militaristic and national pride. If sanctions begin to undermine the Russian economy, this may only intensify.
As for the upcoming Zapad exercise, this will probably follow what is now the traditional Russian pattern of ending with a simulated nuclear strike on an enemy city or military force. The last “Zapad” exercise in 2013 had Warsaw as the simulated target.
According to Apps, this is Moscow’s way of reminding its neighbours and potential adversaries of just what is at stake if tensions rise too high. The irony is that it will simply guarantee that a nervous world could get even more so.