TAPA TRAINING AREA, Estonia — Fighting winds from the whirling helicopter blades overhead, U.S. Army Soldiers of the 1st Squadron, 91st Cavalry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade hit the ground running during a dry fire exercise alongside the British army’s Fire Support Company, 5th Battalion, “The Rifles,” 20th Armored Brigade on September 13, 2017 at Tapa Training Area, Estonia.
The 1st Squadron, 91st Cavalry Regiment is currently participating in several exercises across Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia as a part of Bayonet Shield, a region-wide exercise taking place to display operational agility between the U.S. and its NATO allies and partners.
The exercise started with the troops of both armies making a descent from UH-60 Black Hawks provided by the 3rd General Support Aviation Battalion, 10th Aviation Regiment, 10th Combat Aviation Brigade, 10th Mountain Division to conduct a foray into the Estonian woods to engage targets while moving through several training scenarios.
The exercise consisted of breaching and clearing structures, delivering mortar fire on enemy positions, successfully evading chemical attacks, and tending to wounded soldiers before being evacuated from the area via helicopter. While this type of training may be normal for soldiers training for the battlefield, the new Baltic-area environment gave the troops a fresh perspective on being ready to fight. British army Lance Cpl. Robert Davis, the section second-in-command for the reconnaissance team, Fire Support Company, 5th Battalion, “The Rifles,” spoke on how the change of scenery was beneficial to all soldiers involved.
“Being in Estonia offers us opportunities to train in a dense wooded area that we’re not familiar with, as well as once again train with a foreign nation,” he said.
This is one of the first times during Bayonet Shield that British forces have been integrated into a cavalry company to support them directly on the battlefield. U.S. Army Capt. Erik Olsen, assistant planning officer for 1st Squadron, 91st Cavalry Regiment, detailed the importance of working closely with allies.
“Working with other nations is a big deal because it provides the type of training we shoot for. In case there’s ever a real world situation, we need to already know how we can work together in the field,” he said.
This event allowed U.S. and British soldiers to come together under a unified command to successfully achieve objectives in a new field environment. Davis shared his feelings on the opportunity to train under these conditions.
“It’s good to see how allies that we are very close with operate, because it gives us an understanding of the way they do things. During future operations we’ll have the ability to integrate our forces better and learn off each other faster,” he said.
Is the Russia-Belarus exercise Zapad 2017 is a reason for concern for NATO?
Russia-Belarus exercise Zapad 2017 started today. Experts are asked what the most important strategic objectives of the Russia-Belarus exercise Zapad 2017 are, especially from the Russian point of view and whether Zapad 2017 is a reason for concern for NATO.
Will tensions between the West and Russia run high during the exercise?
This is what they said:
Johan Norberg, Senior Analyst at FOI (Swedish Defence Research Agency)
The main strategic objective is to train and if possible consolidate the capability to launch and wage high-intensity war fighting operations on the war-theatre level. I base this on an analysis of Russia’s strategic military exercises in 2011 – 2014 report and on (yet unpublished) work covering 2015 and 2016. The West should worry about Russia’s capability intentions, what type of wars they want to be able to fight, not that this exercise takes place in Western Russia and Belarus right now (it does once every 4 years).
Tensions are political. The military exercises are in my understanding primarily for building military capabilities. I do not expect the exercise as such to create more tension than there already is. Yes, there is a theoretical higher risk of incidents since there will probably be more reconnaissance aircraft and ships active than usual.
Michael Kofman, Research Scientist, CNA Corporation, Fellow, Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center
There are three elements to this exercise. First, Russia is testing its ability to command combined arms formations and the logistics involved in moving heavy ground forces into the Baltic region. Second it is a large civil-defense drill designed to test how the military and civilian authorities would behave at a time of total war, de facto mobilization of the state for a conflict with an existential threat. In that respect it tests the National Guard and other authorities in their response to internal instability, protests and the like. Finally the exercise is important in signaling to the United States that Russia has the capability and resolve to intervene in Belarus, defend its interests, and see NATO down in a potential fight. The scenario is defensive but some elements of Russian strategy are principally offensive since they involve compelling the adversary during a crisis or conflict.
Absolutely, any time a country conducts large scale military exercises it is a time for prudent vigilance and caution on the part of neighbours. This is especially so because Russia has a mixed history of having used some announced and unannounced exercises in the past to prepare for combat operations against another state, most notably Kavkaz-2008 and the snap readiness inspection in February 2014. Tensions do run high in the context of the wider confrontation between Russia and the West, but few truly expect this exercise to be a prelude to some nefarious plan, or risky adventure. Most of the reactions among NATO members have been calm, although there is always some unfortunate panic and media sensationalism that takes place during such events.
Paal Hilde, Associate Professor, Centre for Norwegian and European Security, Institute for Defence Studies/Norwegian Defence University College
A major military exercise like Zapad 2017 generally has many objectives, ranging from narrow military aims to overtly political ones. What the most important strategic objectives of Zapad 2017 are from the Russian point of view is hard to determine with certainty. There are probably several such objectives and their relative significance will likely vary among different actors. From the military perspective, the exercise will be another occasion to test new concepts, including lessons learned in Ukraine and Syria. On the more political level, to show the Russian population, notably in Kaliningrad, as well as NATO that the Russian military is able to move quickly to defend the exclave may be another objective. Russia might also want to intimidate Belarus and other neighbours. More generally, military prowess has been a key tool in Putin’s attempt to re-establish Russia’s status as a “great power” in international affairs; including in Europe and the Middle East. Showing off military force, including in highly publicised exercises, is seemingly also useful for the Putin administration in domestic political mobilisation. The massive attention Zapad 2017 has gained in both Russian and international media is in itself a sign that such exercises are a highly useful political tool.
The speculations that Zapad 2017 might be a cover for plans to invade the Baltic states or Ukraine seem to be just that – speculations. Russian officials have obviously rejected such accusations and it is hard to see what Russia would want to achieve with such a military adventure. There is thus more reason for worry regarding situations where NATO and Russian military forces come close and where accidents or unplanned and unfortunate events spin out of control. Both sides are aware of this danger and will presumably seek to maintain safe distances and quickly deescalate if necessary. The most tangible and obvious concern from the point of view of NATO is of a political nature, however. Russia has claimed that only 12 700 personnel and a small number of military equipment will be involved in the exercise, bringing it below the threshold in the Vienna Document for inviting observers. Much suggests that the total military manpower and equipment that will be involved in the series of other exercises that run in parallel with the official Zapad 2017 will be vastly larger – perhaps up to 100 000. If this is the case, Zapad 2017 will represent a blatant Russian violation of the spirit if not the letter of the Vienna Document. It will thus represent yet another setback for arms control and confidence building in Europe.
Garret Martin, Professorial Lecturer, School of International Service, Editor at Large at the European Institute, American University
This is a bit of a speculation but we can assume that Zapad 2017 might serve the following interests/objectives for Russia. First, there is the declared aim of conducting an exercise against a simulated terrorist or asymmetric threat. But, in addition to that, it is likely that Russia is also keen to display its power and in particular to emphasize its ability “to impose substantial costs on a technologically advanced adversary, i.e. the United States” (see the very good piece from War on the Rocks that covers Russian thinking – https://warontherocks.com/2017/08/what-to-expect-when-youre-expecting-zapad-2017/ ). To cite the same piece, Zapad is also a way to establish Russia’s coercive credibility.
Is Zapad 2017 a cause of concern for NATO and a possible source of tension? That may be overstating it. Apprehension sure, but tension is too strong a word. It is true that Russia staged large drills before the conflict in Georgia in 2008 and before annexing Crimea in 2014. And Russia is most likely dramatically understating the number of troops involved in Zapad 2017 (announcing 12,700 troops, which puts it just under the threshold of 13,000 by which Russia would have to invite outside observers).
But on the other hand, there are plenty of reasons to keep Zapad 2017 in perspective. Many countries conduct such exercises, and Russia has conducted many before that were not prelude to actual operations. Moreover, part of the exercises will take place well inside Belarus and from a healthy distance away from the Polish and Lithuanian borders. Not to mention that it would be quite foolish for Russia to try and use the exercise as a smokescreen for an actual operation when NATO states are keeping a close eye on the region.
The overall objective of Zapad is to test how Russia, its C2 structures, armed forces units, and civil organisations will react if country went to war with NATO. Zapad has always had an anti-NATO character so it should not at all be surprising that NATO is target here.
That said, Zapad is much more than a military exercise. A significant part of country’s C2 structures, civil organisations are involved in Zapad as Moscow will want to see how they mobilise, move, develop, conduct operations in a state of war or increased emergency. The current movement of troops, readiness tests (such as the one from early September that tested readiness of the 11 ICBM regiments) likely fall under what Russia’s call a “threatening period”. This is when Moscow realises that threats are real. These threats need to be addressed by troop deployments, flexing muscles, and improving readiness. These moves are also a part of Zapad. How Russia mobilises pre-official start of Zapad will also be closely assessed by the civil-military leadership post-exercise.
In short not really. Zapad is going to be provide a great insight on the progress of the Russian Armed Forces reforms, how and how quickly it mobilises, how it seeks to deter potential adversaries. We should learn from it and how to be afraid of it.
It is very likely that aircraft will be intercepted over the Baltic Sea by both sides, NATO will deploy SIGINT and ELINT assets to take a peek into what’s going on in the Kaliningrad Oblast. I don’t expect tensions to run higher compared to what we have experienced in the past two-three years.
In conducting these large capstone exercises, Russia has pursued both military and political aims. On the military side, Russia seeks to highlight its abilities to conduct large-scale joint operations that involve multiple branches of its armed forces and require the activation of logistics networks that include the transfer of forces from one part of the country to another. Zapad 2017 and other exercises in this series also seek to develop military cooperation between Russia and Belarus, since Belarus is Russia’s most capable military ally and serves as a critical buffer zone between Russian and NATO member states. What’s more, a NATO intervention in Belarus is seen in Russia as one of the most likely causes for a major military confrontation between Russia and the West.
On the political side, Zapad-2017 is aimed at deterring the West by highlighting Russia’s preparedness to counter any aggressive actions by NATO or its individual member states. Despite Western perceptions of Russian aggressiveness, Russia continues to feel relatively weak when compared to the United States and its allies. As a result, it seeks to highlight its capabilities to defend itself, against both a direct attack and regime change efforts. The recent Western media stories highlighting the potential size of the exercise are very helpful in Russia achieving this goal.
NATO should treat Zapad 2017 as an opportunity to study the Russian military’s strengths and weaknesses and also its defensive strategy for its Western border. I don’t see any reason for tensions to be high during the exercise, except for the misplaced concerns expressed by politicians in neighboring NATO states about the possibility of the exercise being a cover for a Russian invasion.
Statements that Russian military exercises on its borders are inevitably a precursor to foreign intervention are a prime example of selection bias. Russia conducts military exercises on its borders many times a year, usually with little notice from non-specialists. Only on two occasions have these these exercises been followed by foreign interventions, and in both cases these took place during major international crises, not as a surprise attack. Russia has repeatedly indicated that it is not interested in a forceful intervention in the Baltic, both because it has no desire to occupy hostile territory and because its leaders continue to have faith in NATO’s willingness to back its Article 5 guarantees to its Baltic member states with armed force.
Russia On Thursday began major joint military exercises with Belarus along the European Union’s eastern flank — a show of strength that has rattled nervous NATO members.
Named Zapad-2017 (West-2017), the manoeuvres, scheduled to last until September 20, are taking place on the territory of Moscow’s closest ally Belarus, in Russia’s European exclave of Kaliningrad and in its frontier Pskov and Leningrad regions.
Moscow says the drills will involve 12,700 troops, 70 aircraft, 250 tanks and 10 battleships testing their firepower against an imaginary foe close to borders with Poland and the Baltic States.
In a statement announcing the start of the exercises Russia’s defence ministry insisted the manoeuvres are “of a strictly defensive nature and are not directed against any other state or group of countries.”
But NATO claims Russia has kept it in the dark and seems to be massively underreporting the scale of the exercises, which some of the alliance’s eastern members insist could see more than 100,000 servicemen take part.
The war games come with tensions between Russia and NATO at their highest since the Cold War due to the Kremlin’s meddling in Ukraine and the US-led alliance bolstering its forces in eastern Europe.
Moscow has dismissed fears over the drills — the latest in a series of annual exercises that rotate around the vast country — as fuelled by the “myth about the so-called ‘Russian threat'”.
But for NATO allies, especially jittery members such as Poland and the Baltic States which only broke free from Moscow’s grip 25 years ago, such reassurances have not dampened suspicion.
“This is designed to provoke us, it’s designed to test our defences and that is why we have to be strong,” Britain’s Defence Secretary Michael Fallon told the BBC last week.
“Russia is testing us and testing us now at every opportunity. We see a more aggressive Russia, we have to deal with that.”
– ‘Skillfully manipulates’ –
Moscow has held a stream of exercises since ties with the West plunged in 2014 over Ukraine, with the military claiming some drills included nearly 100,000 troops.
Minsk has said the games will role play a conflict with a made-up rebel region backed by neighbouring European nations. Russia says they will simulate assaults by “extremist groups” trying to carry out “terrorist attacks”.
Russian military expert Alexander Golts told AFP that Moscow “very skillfully manipulates the figures for such drills because it does not want to have to invite foreign observers”.
“Russia at every drill is working on one and the same scenario — how to deploy troops quickly,” he said.
The Kremlin has vigorously defended its right to hold exercises and has long blamed the United States for ratcheting up tensions by expanding NATO up to its borders and holding its own provocative drills.
The Russian war games come as Ukraine on Monday launched annual joint military exercises with the US and a host of other NATO countries.
Meanwhile non-aligned Sweden has mobilised 19,000 soldiers for its biggest drills in 20 years which also include units from across Scandinavia and the US.
MINSK — Belarus says its upcoming military maneuvers with Russia won’t violate international agreements, amid Western concerns about the war games.
The chief of the Belarusian Defense Ministry’s department for international cooperation, Major General Aleh Voinau, told journalists in Minsk on September 13 that international organizations and governments — including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and NATO member states — have been informed in a timely fashion about the Zapad (West) 2017 exercises in accordance with OSCE rules known as the Vienna Document.
Voinau said that the number of personnel, weapons, and military hardware involved in the Zapad 2017 exercises, which are set to be held in Belarus and parts of western Russia on September 14-20, will comply with the Vienna Document as well.
Under the Vienna Document, states conducting maneuvers involving more than 13,000 troops must notify other nations in advance and be open to observers.
Russia and Belarus say Zapad 2017 will involve about 12,700 troops. But Western military officials and experts say that the true numbers could be far higher, with as many as 100,000 military personnel involved.
Russia charges that Western concerns about the exercises are unfounded, saying they are “purely defensive” and pose no threat to Russia’s neighbors, NATO, or the West.
Voinau said that by September 30, all Belarusian military personnel and equipment will return to their bases and all Russian troops and equipment will leave Belarus.
He also insisted that the drills will be held far from the borders with foreign countries.
Last week, British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon and German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said that Zapad 2017 will involve about 100,000 troops and accused Moscow of seeking to show off military might on the borders of the EU and NATO.
In an interview with the Russian Defense Ministry’s newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda on September 13, the commander of Russia’s Western Military District said such statements were made “without any evidence.”
“It is a defensive training and it is the final stage of the joint training of the armed forces of Russia and Belarus,” Colonel General Andrei Kartapolov said. “We conduct such events regularly in accordance with decisions made by our heads of state.”
Fallon told the BBC on September 10 that Zapad 2017 aims at “provoking” NATO and “testing” its defenses.
Speaking on September 7 in the Estonian capital, Tallinn, von der Leyen said, “It is undisputed that we see a demonstration of the capabilities and power of the Russians.”
NATO says it will send three observers to Belarus and Russia to monitor Zapad 2017 but has repeatedly called on the two countries to allow broader monitoring of the drills.
Belarus borders NATO members Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, as well as Ukraine. The area in which the upcoming exercises are due to take place also includes the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, which lies between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea.
Russia’s military actions in Ukraine have increased concerns about Moscow’s intentions in NATO nations, particularly former Soviet republics or Warsaw Pact satellites of the Soviet Union.
Russia occupied and seized the Crimean Peninsula in March 2014 and backs separatists whose war against Kyiv’s forces has killed more than 10,000 people in eastern Ukraine since April of that year.
Those actions have prompted NATO to step up its defenses in the east, deploying four multinational battlegroups in the three Baltic states and Poland — totaling approximately 4,500 troops.
Russia’s military is preparing to hold its biggest war games in several years, dubbed Zapad-2017. NATO’s eastern members are alarmed by these plans, and claim similar drills preceded clashes in Georgia and Crimea.
Tomorrow, the armies of Russia and Belarus are set to conduct joint military maneuvers, with thousands of troops taking part in war games in both countries and Russia’s heavily militarized exclave of Kaliningrad. The drill, designated Zapad-2017, comes after similar exercises were held in the region in 2013 and 2009. “Zapad” is the Russian word for “West.”
According to Moscow, some 13,000 service people are set to participate this year. However, NATO puts little faith in the estimates published by the Russian defense ministry and worries that the actual scope of the drill might be many times larger. Representatives of some NATO members, such as Estonia, believe that Russia intends to involve some 100,000 soldiers and officers in the exercise.
The number of troops is more than just a demonstration of power. According to the 2011 Vienna Document set up by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), any country holding military exercises involving more than 13,000 service members must invite observers to monitor at least some of the drills. Russia, a member of OSCE, agreed to these terms. However, NATO has repeatedly accused Russia of cheating by underreporting the number of participants.
Scenario: Attacked from Baltic
Representatives of NATO remain unconvinced, pointing to the Zapad-2013 drill held four years ago. In it, Russian and Belarusian forces simulated defense from armed “terrorists” moving in from the Baltic.
Moscow’s official statistics put the number of troops at around 12,000. Foreign analysts, however, estimated that between 70,000 and 90,000 soldiers took part in 2013. Even more troubling for NATO’s eastern flank, the Russian military displayed the use of new tactics and technologies, such as scouting drones, that were later used in Crimea, in eastern Ukraine and Syria. The 2013 exercise ended with a mock nuclear strike against Sweden, according to NATO.
Four years before that, Russia ended the Zapad-2009 drill with a simulated nuclear strike on Poland. The same drill saw NATO scramble German “Eurofighter” jets to intercept a Russian radar plane above Estonia. Finland, which is not a NATO member, also responded by deploying its own F-18s.
Drilling for war
Such border incidents are also possible with the upcoming drill in September, with NATO-Russia tensions still running high and NATO troops deployed on the alliance’s eastern flank. Russia also stirred concerns by repeatedly holding massive snap exercises in recent years. Unlike the long-scheduled Zapad drills, they require no advance notice.
NATO analysts also point out that Russia held a large exercise just ahead of its takeover of Crimea, presumably to provide distraction and cover for the move. Some 150,000 troops allegedly took part in the anti-terror drill near Ukraine’s borders in late February 2014, and remained in the area as Russia annexed the peninsula in March the same year.
In a similar scenario in July 2008, Russia conducted military drills in regions near to Georgia, including Chechnya and North Ossetia. The war between Georgian forces on one side and Russia and their Abkhazian and South Ossetian separatists on the other broke out only weeks later.
In the meantime, the Swedish military has begun its largest joint military drill with Nato in 20 years over fears about the growing encroachment of Russia.
Aurora 17, started on Monday and is designed to strengthen the country’s defences and create a “credible and visible” deterrent to make its neighbours “carefully consider the risks of attacking” it, the Swedish Armed Forces said in a statement.
It said: “The overarching mission of the Swedish Armed Forces is to defend the country’s interests, our freedom and the right to live the way of our choice.”
The exercises will take place in the air, on land and at sea. They will take place across the entire country but will focus on the Mälardalen Valley, the areas around cities of Stockholm and Gothenberg and on the strategic island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea.
Around 21,150 total personnel from all branches of the Swedish Armed Forces, as well as troops from foreign nations will participate. One fourth of them will consist of Home Guardsmen. Civilian authorities, such as police and social services will also participate.
Several NATO nations have planned to take part in the exercise. As of January 2017, the participating nations include France, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Norway, Germany, and the United States.
The designated exercise area will cover most of Sweden, but will be focused on the Mälaren Valley, Stockholm, Gotland and in Gothenburg.
The exercise is expected to cost the Swedish government 583 million Swedish krona (approx. $65,6 million USD).
It comes after Russian president Vladimir Putin vowed to “eliminate” the Nato threat if Sweden decided to join the organisation.
In June, he told the state news agency Itar-Tass: “If Sweden joins Nato this will affect our relations in a negative way because we will consider that the infrastructure of the military bloc now approaches us from the Swedish side.
“We will interpret that as an additional threat for Russia and we will think about how to eliminate this threat.”
Currently only tiny Montenegro is on the list of countries which are due to be inducted into Nato, as the military alliance steps up its presence in eastern Europe over fears about Russian encroachment.
Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, the commanding officer of the US Army forces in Europe, said no island was as strategically important at Gotland and said he was looking forward to working with the Swedes.
“We have to react to that, and not just the US, but the whole of Nato. The countries closest to the bear have historical experience. They feel the hot breath of the bear – and they are the ones most worried.”
“The fact that Sweden decided that they have to put troops back on Gotland is a very clear indication of what’s going on. Sweden is known as moderate, credible and alliance free. Nevertheless Sweden felt that this was necessary.”
AURORA 17 Schedule
Monday, 11: Exercise starts.
Wednesday, 13/9: Supreme Commander will visit Gothenburg, where host nation support will be exercised with the American and French Air Defense Units.
Monday, 18/9: Air-drop, Gotland.
Wednesday, 20/9: Defence of Sweden, support from Finland. Hagshult Air Force Base will host Swedish and Finnish aircraft and pilots on site.
Saturday, 23/9: Land Combat, Kungsängen.
Sunday, 24/9: Consequences of Conflict (Total Defense), Gotland.
Sunday 24/9: Supreme Commander will attend the Defence Information Day at Gärdet, Stockholm.
Beginning tomorrow, as many as 100,000 Russian and Belarusian troops will launch major military exercises along the border of three NATO countries.
Russia’s upcoming Zapad military exercise, which will simulate a response to an attempted overthrow of the Belarusian government by an insurgency unfriendly to Russia, has European countries and the United States on edge at a time when relations between the NATO alliance and Moscow are colder than ever.
Zapad has the potential to be the country’s largest military exercise since the Cold War – despite Russian claims that only roughly 13,000 troops will participate, Western defense officials have put forward estimates closer to 100,000. Many suspect the Russians may hold multiple, smaller, simultaneous exercises as unofficial parts of Zapad, to adhere to the letter, if not the spirit, of the official 13,000 limit.
Why 13,000? According to the Vienna document, an agreement among the nations of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe of which Russia is a member, any exercise involving more than 13,000 people – including both military and support personnel – requires that outside observers be allowed to attend. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said last week that Moscow’s offer to allow three international observers access is not sufficient.
What is of more concern than the actual numbers are NATO fears of Russian duplicity. Russia made similar assurances regarding troop numbers in 2013, ahead of the last Zapad exercise, but the number reached nearly 70,000 – and acted as a prelude to the 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
So, is this Russian posturing or a true threat to NATO? According to experts, the exercises pose three major risks: potential positioning for a future attack, as in 2014; diversion for Russian activities elsewhere, such as in Syria and Ukraine; and an opportunity to signal to its Western rivals that it is once more a player on the global stage. None of these options are mutually exclusive, and all also carry the potential for miscommunication or miscalculation that leads to actual conflict.
The exercise comes at a time when the U.S. and Russia are exchanging diplomatic blows by expelling each other’s diplomats (because of the U.S. assertion that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election) and subtly challenging each other across the world from Syria to Afghanistan.
Former U.S. Senior Defense Official and Military Attaché to the Russian Federation, retired Brigadier General Peter Zwack, told The Cipher Brief, “I haven’t seen this level of distrust in my experience since 1999 – Kosovo. It is built on the 2014 crisis points and exacerbated by the very ugly activities – corruption and meddling – in our own body politic.” Given that level of tension, Zwack’s main concern surrounding Zapad is “an accident or an incident in this period of really serious distrust.”
Meanwhile, Russia’s primary objective seems clear: sending an indisputable message of strength to its Western neighbors and their NATO allies. In fact, the name Zapad, which means “West” in Russian, is quite literal – Belarus shares a western border with three NATO countries: Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia.
Speaking to the BBC on Sunday, UK Defense Secretary Michael Fallon indicated that the message was not lost on Europe: “This is designed to provoke us, it’s designed to test our defenses, and that’s why we have to be strong,” he said. “Russia is testing us and testing us now at every opportunity.”
Indeed, the Russian First Guards Tank Army – the historic unit that fought back the German invaders in World War II along the Eastern Front and then went on to occupy Berlin during the Cold War – will participate in the exercise.
The message was certainly not lost on Russia’s eastern European neighbors either. General Jaroslaw Stróżyk, the former Polish Defense Attaché in the United States, told The Cipher Brief that “the major aim of Zapad-17 is to intimidate Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.”
Beyond messaging, the West will also be watching closely for signs that Russia may be leaving military equipment in Belarus as pre-positioning for a future attack on one of the bordering nations – making Zapad-17 a modern-day Trojan Horse.
The Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, General Tony Thomas, stated in July that “the great concern is that [the Russians] are not going to leave” Belarus after the conclusion of the exercise. “And that’s not paranoia,” he added.
Moreover, after the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea and its intervention in Syria, experts noted similarities between tactics used in those actions, such as the use of unmanned aerial systems, and maneuvers practiced in Zapad-13.
But that also creates an opportunity for NATO, according to Cipher Brief expert and former member of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service Steven Hall. “There’s going to be the entire breadth of NATO collection capabilities aimed at Zapad to try to find out what the Russians are capable of,” he told The Cipher Brief.
So what does NATO have planned during the exercise?
According to NATO officials, the alliance will “closely monitor exercise Zapad-17 but we are not planning any large exercises during Zapad-17. Our exercises are planned long in advance and are not related to the Russian exercise.”
Instead, NATO will maintain normal military rotations, while carrying out previously scheduled exercises in Sweden, Poland, and Ukraine. Sweden, which is not a NATO member but is a member of the European Union, began its Aurora 17 exercise on Monday – which consists of 20,000 people from nine Western countries, including around 1,000 U.S. Marines, training to counter a hypothetical attack by Russia.
There will also be an additional six-week deployment of three companies of 120 paratroopers to each of the three Baltic countries for ‘low-level’ exercises. And, based on a 2016 agreement, four deployments of U.S., UK, German, and Canadian troops maintain an “Enhanced Forward Presence” in Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Estonia.
However, according to Zwack, NATO’s readiness needs to go beyond the military component. The alliance must be “absolutely ready” from a political and economic perspective as well, and prepared to lay down “mind-bending sanctions” if the Russians move beyond exercises to “a permanent dwell” in Belarus.
Russian adventurism, he believes, must have consequences that would put the Russian regime – and the monied interests that support that regime – at risk. It would need to be, according to Zwack, an existential threat to the controlling powers in Russia: in other words, “bad for business.”
But even if the exercise concludes without incident, the current climate is simply unsustainable, according to General Philip Breedlove, the former U.S. Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, who retired in 2016.
“I would hope that cooler heads and better judgment would prevail. But we can’t live in this way,” he told The Cipher Brief, adding, “The glib saying you often hear is ‘hope is not a strategy.’”
Callie Wang is the vice president of analysis at The Cipher Brief.
It is being billed as a military exercise, but when Russian and Belarusian forces start Zapad-2017 this week, many neighbouring countries will be looking on nervously.
Zapad-2017 (“West-2017”) is a joint strategic-level exercise involving Russian and Belarusian military forces, expected to begin on 14 September in Russia’s western military district Kaliningrad, and across Belarus.
It is scheduled to last about a week, but may well go on for longer. The exercise is part of a four-year rolling cycle of manoeuvres that focus each year on one broad region or “front” (“West”, “Eastern”, “Central” or “Caucasus”). This year’s Zapad exercise though is drawing much greater attention than did its predecessor in 2013.
The context has changed significantly. Russia has seized and annexed Crimea; it has supported a separatist war in eastern Ukraine with weaponry, training and, for periods, its own combat units. Russia is thus seen by several Nato countries as much more threatening.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has described Russia’s build-up for the exercise as “preparations for an offensive war on a continental scale”. Ukrainian border defences, he said, are being bolstered.
He also pointed to the fact that in his view, Russia has form here, using the pretext of an exercise to mobilise and position forces to conduct offensive operations. President Poroshenko said he could not rule out the possibility that the drill “may be used as a smokescreen to create new Russian army assault groups to invade Ukrainian territory”.
Units on the move
Nato watchers and insiders do not necessarily share this concern about an all-out invasion of Ukraine.
Russia expert Keir Giles, a fellow at Chatham House think tank, acknowledges that “previous Russian exercises on this scale have prepositioned troops for undertaking military operations, against Georgia in 2008 and against Ukraine in 2014”.
However, he says, “both of those moves were precipitated by an immediate political crisis – currently absent in Europe.
“And there have been plenty of other major Russian exercises in between,” he says, “which did not end up with somebody getting invaded”.
Nonetheless, the fear of a resurgent and more aggressive Russia is real enough. That is why, over the past year, Nato has sent small multi-national units to Poland and to each of the three Baltic republics to underline its deterrent message. And that is why this year’s war games will be watched so closely.
Just how closely is a contentious issue. Russia, unlike Belarus, has been far more reluctant to invite Western observers in any number. This despite the fact that, as a member of the OSCE international security body, it is obliged to send out broad invitations if an exercise numbers more than 13,000 troops.
Mr Giles notes that, while Russia may be “content to see Europe alarmed at the prospect of Moscow throwing its military weight around”, Belarus seeks instead to calm the situation. The siting of the exercise in ranges across the middle of the country – not near the Polish and Lithuanian borders – was a deliberate policy decision intended to reduce the chances of misinterpretation, or incidents when Russian troops and aircraft come close to Nato borders.
Belarus has been much more open towards international observers. Clearly satellites, airborne radars and other national intelligence collection measures will be used by Nato countries.
In addition, efforts are under way to mobilise concerned citizens in Belarus to observe military movements in their area and post them online for the benefit of non-government, open-source analysts and experts.
How many troops?
So just how big is this exercise and what will Western analysts and observers be watching for? Here assessments differ widely.
The Russians say some 12,700 troops will be involved in total, including a significant contingent from Belarus. (Notice this takes it below the 13,000 OSCE threshold.)
Western experts watching the preparations, especially the marshalling of railway flat-cars – the main way of moving heavy armoured formations to the exercise areas – say it will be considerably more.
Some estimates suggest that up to 100,000 troops could be involved, but since there are a range of drills, exercises and spot mobilisations it is hard to be precise about numbers.
Russia will be testing its capacity to contain and respond to some form of outside aggression and will be deploying units from different services: heavy armour; airborne troops; “spetsnaz” elite reconnaissance teams; and electronic warfare specialists.
The Baltic Fleet will be involved, as will units from the 14th Corps based in Kaliningrad. One point of interest may be the part played at the tactical and strategic levels of “information operations troops” – a relatively new formation in the Russian order of battle.
Indeed, while there may be much to learn about Russia’s use of artillery, its capability in electronic warfare (already manifest in the fighting in Ukraine) and the growing importance of precision-guided munitions in Russia’s thinking, it may be this information aspect that is most important. For beyond the troop movements, Zapad-2017 is part of a wider propaganda effort to influence and shape opinion in the West.
Atmosphere of suspicion
The US analyst Michael Kofman in a fascinating piece on the War on the Rocks website, describes Zapad as “a good window into the Russian mindset.
“For all the modernisation and transformation of the Russian armed forces,” he writes, “in reality the Russian leadership is probably still afraid: afraid the United States will try to make a bid for Belarus, afraid of American technological and economic superiority, afraid the US seeks regime change in Moscow, and afraid Washington desires the complete fragmentation of Russian influence in its near abroad, or even worse, Russia itself.”
“Zapad,” he argues, “is the most coherent manifestation of these fears, and a threat from Moscow to the United States about what it might do if the worst should come to pass.”
And what of those lingering fears in some quarters that this could be much more than just an exercise? Mr Giles remains unconvinced by much of the media hyperbole surrounding Zapad.
But he has this caution: “The time to watch troop deployments most closely,” he says, “is likely to be after the exercise proper has ended.”
The final day of Zapad is 20 September but, he notes, “Russian troops are only scheduled to leave Belarus by 30 September – after the observers have departed, and when the media interest will have died down. That will be the time to decide whether Zapad this year has in fact passed off peacefully.”
The large “Zapad-2017” war games will pit the troops of Russia and Belarus against terrorist infiltrators from three “hypothetical” Eastern European countries. DW gives you an overview of the upcoming drill.
Moscow and Minsk are finalizing their preparations for the week-long “Zapad-2017” drill, which is set to start next Thursday. In it, the two countries will deploy their troops, designated as “the Northern ones” to stand up to the aggression from “the Western ones” – armed attackers from the made-up countries of Vesbaria, Lubenia, and Veishnoria.
According to the scenario released by Russian and Belarusian defense officials, Vesbaria and Lubenia are located in the Baltic region and control the corridor which links the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad with Belarus. In the real world, the corridor roughly corresponds to the border between Lithuania and Poland, both of them NATO members.
The hypothetical state of Veishnoria, however, is located in the Grodno area of Belarus, near the country’s western border.
Independent experts see this as a sign that Minsk and Moscow are preparing scenarios for threats originating in NATO countries as well as from within Belarus. The Grodno area seems to have a special significance as the home for a large population of Poles living in the former Soviet state. However, military officials insist that the scenario was developed “against a hypothetical opponent, unrelated to the concrete region.”
What is the goal of the drill?
“Belarus and the Kaliningrad region have been infiltrated by extremist groups with the intention of committing terrorist attacks. The illegal militias are backed from abroad, providing them with armaments and naval and air capabilities. In order to neutralize the opponents, land forces will be deployed to cut off their access to sea and block air corridors in the region, with the support of the air force, air defense forces, and the navy,” the official plan says.
The goal of the Zapad-2017 maneuvers is to coordinate actions between regional military commands “in the interest of ensuring military safety,” Moscow and Minsk said. “The Republic of Belarus strives to prevent armed conflicts, and the Russian federation is providing it with political backing, financial aid, as well as technical and military support,” according to the Belarusian Defense Ministry.
The drill is set to proceed in two stages. Initially, the military will boost their air force and air defense capabilities to protect key military and state objects, and prepare to “isolate regions of activity by the illegal armed groups and their subversive-reconnaissance squads.” The second stage will be “to work out the issues of managing troops while repelling an aggression” against Russia and Belarus.
How many troops will take part?
The two countries say that some 12,700 servicemen will be involved in the upcoming drills. “Zapad-2017” will also involve 70 planes and helicopters, 280 tanks, 200 artillery weapons, ten ships, and various other pieces of military equipment. The drills will also include agents of the Russian intelligence service FSB, as well as people working for the Russian Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Emergency Situations.
However, NATO allies have repeatedly disputed these numbers, with German Defense Minister Ursula Von der Leyen claiming the real number is likely to be upwards of 100,000 troops. International accords mandate that countries provide a larger degree of transparency when holding drills with over 13,000 troops.
On Saturday, Russia’s Defense Ministry said it was “bewildered” by Von der Leyen’s assertion, and repeated its claims that drill would stay below the 13,000 threshold. Previously, the Kremlin has asked foreign defense officials and military-diplomatic corps to visit the final stage of the joint exercise at one of the sites in Russia. Belarus also stated that it had sent out invitations to UN, OSCE, NATO, the post-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States, and military attaches accredited in Belarus.
Where will the drill be staged?
The bases will involve seven locations in Belarus, one location in the heavily militarized Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, and two in western Russia. In order to reduce tensions with neighboring countries, the authors of the drill made an effort to pick the areas “at a significant distance from the border.”
NATO’s eastern members are concerned over the deployment of Russian troops near their territory, as Moscow has been known to stage large drills ahead of conflict in Georgia in 2008 and the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Some have even speculated that Russia might use the troops to occupy Belarus, its closest European ally. Most observers, however, consider this move to be extremely unlikely.
The drill has “strictly defensive character, its execution will not present any threat for the European community as a whole, nor for the neighboring countries,” the Russian defense ministry said. The Belarusian side has ensured that after the drills are over “by September 30 the military personnel, weapons, military equipment and specialized devices of Republic of Belarus will be returned to its permanent deployment locations, and the elements of the Russian military will leave Belarusian territory.”
VILNIUS – The goal of Zapad 2017, a large-scale military exercise that Russia and Belarus will hold later this month, is “to frighten us”, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, who will be visiting the United States during the drills, said on Friday.
“Let’s not get frightened, because this is what the goal of the Zapad exercise is: to frighten us, to break our will to defend ourselves so that we are paralyzed and can do nothing in our state,” Grybauskaite said at a news conference when asked about her response to criticism from some politicians over the timing of the visit.
“The recommendations of all the relevant structures are that the level of security is unchanged, and (this is) an opportunity to go the United Nations and to address two hundred nations from its rostrum to draw attention to the problems of our region today when the whole world thinks only about conflicts with North Korea,” she said, commenting on the aim of her visit.
According to the president, this will be an opportunity to say that “the aggressor — no matter where it is, whether it is in North Korea or it is our neighbor, must not and cannot do whatever it wants”.
“Aggressive actions against one’s neighbors, wars and seizures of territories have no justification and will always be disgraceful and deplorable. I am going to say this to the whole world,” she said.
Russia and Belarus will hold the joint exercise on Sept. 14 to 20. Moscow says that the war games will involve fewer than 13, 000 troops, but Western officials believe that around 100,000 soldiers may take part.
Extension of the European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI 2.0) and EU defense cooperation were the main topics discussed at a meeting between Estonian Prime Minister Jüri Ratas and European Commissioner Jyrki Katainen in Tallinn on Thursday.
“The European Fund for Strategic Investments is of great importance to us, and during our presidency, we will work towards adopting the proposal on extending the lifespan of the European Fund for Strategic Investments as soon as possible.
The purpose of the fund is to involve private investments in projects relating, for example, to infrastructure, research, and innovation, and Estonian companies have benefitted greatly from the fund,” the Estonian prime minister said at the meeting with the European Commission vice-president for jobs, growth, investment and competitiveness.
Ratas and Katainen also spoke about issues related to security and European defense cooperation.
“We certainly hope that defense cooperation in the European Union will be closer, and during our presidency, we will contribute to further steps for PESCO and the European Defense Fund,” Ratas said.
“The European Defense Fund helps member states spend more effectively on defense capabilities, and through it, strengthen the security of the citizens of Europe.”
“This morning we conducted the first strategic cyber exercise, EU CYBRID 2017, for defense ministers who have come to Tallinn. I hope the experience gained from the exercise will provide input for discussions on cyber defense,” Ratas added.
Katainen is taking part in the informal meeting of EU defence ministers being held in Tallinn on Thursday and Friday.
French Defense Minister Florence Parly on Thursday condemned a major upcoming Russian military exercise Zapad 2017 on the borders of the EU and NATO as a deliberate “strategy of intimidation”.
The Zapad 2017 exercise which Russia will hold from next week in Belarus and its western exclave of Kaliningrad has caused alarm in the Baltic states and Poland and drawn criticism from the US and NATO for a lack of transparency.
Russia has said the exercises will involve about 12,700 Russian and Belarusian troops and are “purely defensive” in nature — an assessment rejected by many Western observers.
Parly, speaking at a gathering of EU foreign ministers in Tallinn, said it was clear Moscow was pursuing a “deliberate, intentional” strategy of showing off its military might.
“It is particularly important in this context that we reaffirm our presence in the face of this expression and this demonstration the Russians are making which is a strategy of intimidation — we must not hide that fact,” she said.
German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said it was clear that Zapad was in fact about showing off Russian force.
“It is undisputed that we see a demonstration of capabilities and power of the Russians. Anyone who doubts that only has to look at the high numbers of the participating forces in the Zapad exercise: more than 100,000,” she said.
To counter growing Russian assertiveness in recent years, particularly since the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, NATO has stationed about 4,000 troops in the three Baltic countries and Poland.
Parly said the deployment sent a clear signal that the Baltic states and Poland were covered by the NATO alliance.