Russia and Belarus are set to stage the Zapad 2017 war games, and the operation’s size is causing concern among Western observers. Moscow’s heavy troop presence has some worrying whether Minsk’s sovereignty is at risk.
Russian troops have been gathering in Belarus since Monday. The Zapad 2017 (West 2017) war games are slated to begin in September, with roughly 12,700 Russian soldiers officially participating, according to Moscow. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg thanked Russian officials for providing them with troop information, but said the games will nonetheless be closely monitored.
War games exceeding 13,000 troops require the presence of external observers, as stipulated by the Vienna Document, a security agreement among the participating states of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which includes Russia. Western observers fear Russia will break the agreed limit on troop participation. Opposition voices in Belarus, a Russian ally, worry that Russian troops will remain in the country following the exercises to de facto occupy the country.
Regional concern grows
Russia’s military build up to its West is worrying Belarus’ neighbors – Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic states – which were all under Moscow’s control during the Soviet era. Lithuanian Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis said there are 100,000 Russian troops that President Vladimir Putin wants to use to “put NATO to the test.”
That number may refer to Russia’s total troop presence in the larger region for the exercises, Margarete Klein of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) told DW. The military exercises are taking place both in Russia and Belarus, she said, however a lot of speculation surrounds the operation.
“We just have to wait to see what happens,” Klein said. “It’s difficult to talk in advance about what the numbers may mean.”
Doubting the numbers
Russian military expert Alexander Golz pointed out that the Zapad war games extend beyond Belarus, as the Belarusian military announced they are to stretch from Russia’s Kola Peninsula near Finland to the western exclave of Kaliningrad in the Baltic region. Thus troops are being amassed not just in Belarus, but in Russia as well, he said, adding that Moscow has a history of playing fast and loose with troop numbers.
“Russia had a curious interpretation of the Vienna Document during the conflict in the Donbass,” Golz told DW, explaining that Moscow’s troop deployment to the country’s border with eastern Ukraine was said to be part of a military exercise so that the Kremlin could claim its soldiers’ presence did not exceed the Vienna Document’s limit.
Everything above board?
Russia’s Defense Ministry has ordered about 4,000 rail cars, according to media reports, for troop transports to Belarus – more than previous exercises, including 1,000 more than for Zapad 2013, Alexander Alessin, a Belarusian military expert, told DW. Zapad 2017 would remain within the permissible limits, he said, calculating for up to 30 tons of equipment per soldier.
Prospects for Belarusian sovereignty
A post-operation occupation of Belarus is unlikely, Alessin said, because “occupying [Russia’s] only ally would undermine faith in the Kremlin, including with its potential partners.” It would also undermine Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s credibility – at home and abroad, which is in neither side’s interest. Alessin cited Belarus’ denial of Russia’s 2013 request to maintain airbases there.
Lukashenko is unlikely to allow Russian troops to remain in the country following the September maneuvers, Alexander Golz said. For 20 years, Lukashenko has been receiving money from Russia, he said, and therefore has always underscored Belarus’ strategic importance to Russia as an outpost. “As far as Russian military bases in Belarus go,” Golz added, “Lukashenko turned 180 degrees. Interestingly, Putin had to swallow that.”
Estonia has not received an invitation from Russia to observe Zapad, a large-scale joint Russian-Belarusian military exercise to take place in September. Russian authorities, however, will present the exercises to military attaches accredited to other countries’ diplomatic missions in Moscow at a separate event.
“Military attaches accredited to Moscow have been invited to attend an event at Luga Training Camp on Sept. 18-19, in the course of which Russia will present the Zapad joint military exercise,” Ministry of Defence spokesperson Susan Lilleväli told BNS on Wednesday. “The Estonian defense attaches are ready to take part in the event.”
The joint Russian-Belarusian military exercise will be held in the territory of both countries from Sept. 14-20. The exercise has sparked concern in other countries as, in similar exercises in 2009 and 2013, Russia, among other things, allegedly rehearsed an attack on its neighbors.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in mid-July that, “based on previous experiences related to previous exercises, we have every reason to believe that substantially more troops are participating than the official reported numbers.” He encouraged Russia to allow NATO observers to monitor the maneuvers.
Minister of Defence Jüri Luik has expressed the same concern, telling weekly Maaleht in July that Russia should declare the exercise on the basis of the Vienna Document, according to which any exercise involving more than 9,000 participants should be declared. Russia has stated that 13,000 troops will be participating in the September exercise.
Belarus has sent invitations to Estonia and other countries, which Estonia has already chosen to accept, to observe the exercise on its territory. It has not offered any details, however.
Estonia will accept the invitation by Belarus to send observers to the Zapad military drill to be jointly held by Russian and Belarusian armed forces this September, the Commander of the Estonian Defence Forces has stated.
Estonian public broadcaster ERR reports that the Commander of the Estonian Defence Forces General Riho Terras has said this week in an interview with Eesti Päevaleht newspaper that Zapad exercises have taken place for decades already, also during the Soviet times.
Terras noted that this summer, Belarus and Russia have already conducted preparatory joint exercises testing communications in July and currently a demonstrative drill is taking place in Pskov, not far from Estonia and Latvia.
«It is important that we know what is going on. (..) That we know in detail what is going on, that we keep track of it and be prepared. But we must also be prepared when exercises aren’t being conducted. I don’t think that anything will occur in the framework of field exercises which could spill over to our side or which we will tangibly be able to see,» ERR cited Terras as evaluating in the interview.
STRUGI KRASNYE /Pskov region/, August 10. /TASS/. Russia’s Airborne Force and the Belarusian Special Operations Force (SOF) plan to hold joint military exercises near the western Russian city of Pskov, near the Estonian border in September, SOF First Deputy Chief of Staff Colonel Viktor Gulevish said on Thursday.
“We have been considering issues concerning our joint military drills, they are going to be battalion task exercises,” the Belarusian colonel said that a battalion of the Vitebsk Regiment would represent the country in the drills.
According to the Russian Defense Ministry, the military exercises are planned to be held at the base where the 76th Guards Air Assault Division of the Russian Airborne Force is deployed, which is located on the outskirts of the city of Pskov, as part of the Zapad-2017 (or West 2017) strategic drills.
A delegation of the Belarusian Special Operations Force has arrived to monitor the drills of Russia’s 104th Air Assault Regiment, currently taking place near Pskov.
Gulevich, who heads the Belarusian delegation, said that he had been greatly impressed by the large scale of the military exercises. “We have the same training system, only our tasks slightly differ,” he said. “We could never imagine any task that would stipulate such large-scale drills,” he added.
The Belarusian colonel also commended the efficiency of new military hardware being used during the drills, which particularly includes the BMD-4M airborne assault vehicles and Rakushka armored personnel carriers.
VILNIUS, Jul 31, BNS – The United States may station seven fighter-jets in Lithuania for the time of the large-scale Russian-Belarusian war games Zapad 2017 this fall, President Dalia Grybauskaite said in Tallinn on Monday.
“We expect as many as seven jets, almost double in the nearest future,” Grybauskaite told Lithuanian journalists during the meeting of her Baltic counterparts with US Vice-President Mike Pence in the Estonian capital.
US fighter-jets should arrive in Lithuania in late August or early September for the NATO air-policing mission.
The NATO air-policing mission is currently conducted from Lithuania and Estonia by four fighter-jets in each country.
Grybauskaite said the Baltic states were happy with the US guarantees that go beyond words.
In her words, more US troops and equipment will be deployed in Lithuania during Zapad 2017.
Officials in Lithuania are mainly concerned over the actual number of troops involved in the exercise and the scenario or training.
The US already increased the presence of its air-policing jets in Lithuania in early 2014 in response to Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea.
The vice president of the United States, Mike Pence, and the Estonian prime minister, Jüri Ratas, discussed the possibility of deploying the Patriot anti-missile defence system in Estonia.
Ratas, having met Pence, who was visiting the tiny Nordic NATO member from 30-31 July, told the main news programme of the Estonian public broadcasting that he discussed the deployment of the Patriot anti-missile system, but there were no talks about a potential date when the system would be deployed.
“We discussed it today,” Ratas said, replying to a reporter’s question about the defence system. “We didn’t discuss specifically when it would happen,” he added.
“The main messages from both sides were that both Estonia and the United States are active allies in NATO,” Ratas told the public broadcasting.
“We also discussed the [Russian] military exercise to take place at the Estonian border – Zapad – and how Estonia, the United States and NATO monitor it and exchange information,” Ratas added.
Increased cooperation in cyber security
The two leaders also discussed opportunities for increased cooperation in the digital field and cyber security. Pence praised Estonia as a model for innovation and the use of technology to develop solutions for global economic, security and social challenges, and he thanked the country for hosting the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence in Tallinn.
After meeting with the presidents of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in Tallinn on 31 July, the US vice president again offered reassurances.
“Under President Donald Trump, the United States stands firmly behind our Article 5 pledge of mutual defence – an attack on one of us is an attack on us all,” Pence told reporters.
In Tallinn, he also met allied troops from France, the UK and the US that are stationed in Estonia.
WASHINGTON — Russia is preparing to send as many as 100,000 troops to the eastern edge of NATO territory at the end of the summer, one of the biggest steps yet in the military buildup undertaken by President Vladimir V. Putin and an exercise in intimidation that recalls the most ominous days of the Cold War.
The troops are conducting military maneuvers known as Zapad, Russian for “west,” in Belarus, the Baltic Sea, western Russia and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. The drills will feature a reconstituted armored force named for a storied Soviet military unit, the First Guards Tank Army. Its establishment represents the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union that so much offensive power has been concentrated in a single command.
The military exercise, planned for many months, is not a reaction to sweeping new economic sanctions on Russia that Congress passed last week. So far, Russia has retaliated against the sanctions by forcing the expulsion of several hundred employees in American diplomatic posts in the country.
But the move is part of a larger effort by Mr. Putin to shore up Russia’s military prowess, and comes against the backdrop of an increasingly assertive Russia. Beyond Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election in support of the Trump campaign, which has seized attention in the United States, its military has in recent years deployed forces to Syria, seized Crimea and intervened in eastern Ukraine, rattled the Baltic States with snap exercises and buzzed NATO planes and ships.
Punishing sanctions by the United States and European allies that have isolated Russia further have done nothing to stop Mr. Putin’s saber-rattling, as illustrated by the long-scheduled Zapad exercise.
Even more worrying, top American military officers say, is that the maneuvers could be used as a pretext to increase Russia’s military presence in Belarus, a central European nation that borders three critical NATO allies: Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.
“The great concern is they’re not going to leave, and that’s not paranoia,” Gen. Tony Thomas, the head of the United States Special Operations Command, told a national security conference in Aspen, Colo., in July.
Peter B. Zwack, a retired one-star Army general who was the American defense attaché in Moscow from 2012 to 2014, said: “First and foremost, the messaging is, ‘We’re watching you; we’re strong; we’ve learned a lot; don’t mess with Russia.’”
Western military officials caution that the United States and Russia are not on the brink of war. But they expressed concern that the heightened Russian military activity could lead to unintended confrontations.
For this installment of the Zapad maneuvers, a Cold War relic revived in 1999 and held again in 2009 and 2013, Russia has requisitioned enough rail cars to carry 4,000 loads of tanks and other heavy equipment to and from Belarus.
The Russians already have about 1,000 air defense troops and communications personnel stationed in Belarus, and logistical teams are surveying training sites there. By mid- August, advance elements of the thousands of Russian Army, airborne and air defense troops that are to participate in the exercise are expected to arrive. The rest of the force is expected to reach Belarus by early September ahead of the Zapad exercises, scheduled for Sept. 14 to 20.
The United States is taking precautions, including sending 600 American paratroopers to NATO’s three Baltic members for the duration of the Zapad exercise and delaying the rotation of a United States-led battle group in Poland.
“Look, we’ll be ready; we’ll be prepared,” said Lt. Gen. Frederick B. Hodges, the head of United States Army forces in Europe. “But we’re not going to be up on the parapets waiting for something to happen.”
In 2014, Russia’s stealthy forays into eastern Ukraine and its rapid capture of Crimea were seen as skillful exercises in “hybrid warfare,” a combination of cyberwarfare, a powerful disinformation campaign and the use of highly trained special operation troops and local proxy forces.
But there is nothing subtle about the tank-heavy unit at the heart of the coming Zapad exercise.
The First Guards Tank Army, made up mainly of forces transferred from other units, including elite motorized and tank divisions near Moscow, has an extensive pedigree. The unit battled the Germans during World War II on the Eastern Front and eventually in Berlin before becoming part of the Soviet force that occupied Germany. In 1968, it participated in the invasion of Czechoslovakia to crush the Prague Spring.
After the end of the Cold War, the unit was withdrawn to Smolensk, near the border with Belarus, before being disbanded in 1998. But it was reconstituted by Mr. Putin to give the Russian military more offensive punch and present a visible demonstration of Russian power.
“That name was chosen for a reason,” said Philip M. Breedlove, a retired four-star Air Force general who served as NATO commander. “It sends a very clear message to the Baltics and Poland.”
In addition, the Russians have fielded a new motorized division near Smolensk, close to the border with Belarus, which could be used in conjunction with the tank unit. In combination with the highly mobile tank army, that force has about 800 tanks, more than 300 artillery pieces and a dozen Iskander tactical missile launchers.
That is more tanks than NATO has in active units deployed in the Baltic States, Poland and Germany put together, not including armor in storage that would be used by reinforcements sent from the United States, noted Phillip A. Karber, the president of the Potomac Foundation, who has studied Russian military operations in and around Ukraine.
“There is only one reason you would create a Guards Tank Army, and that is as an offensive striking force,” General Hodges said. “This is not something for homeland security. That does not mean that they are automatically going to do it, but in terms of intimidation it is a means of putting pressure on allies.”
Mr. Karber cautioned against exaggerating the First Guards Tank Army’s capability, noting that not all of its units were fully manned and that some of the most modern tanks earmarked for it have not arrived.
“There is only one reason you would create a Guards Tank Army, and that is as an offensive striking force,” General Hodges said. “This is not something for homeland security. That does not mean that they are automatically going to do it, but in terms of intimidation it is a means of putting pressure on allies.”
But if fully deployed into Belarus, he said, it will be a powerful offensive formation and a way for the Russian military to rapidly project power westward, which is all the more important for Moscow. The collapse of the Soviet Union meant that Russian forces lost Belarus and Ukraine as buffers.
“Just the presence of the First Guards Tank Army near the Polish border would put NATO on the horns of a dilemma,” Mr. Karber said. “Does NATO reinforce the Baltics or defend eastern Poland? NATO does not have enough forces to do both in a short period of time. It adds to the political pressure Russia can bring to bear to keep the Baltic nations and Poland in line”.
The Russians have also announced that the First Guards Tank Army will be the first formation to receive the T-14 Armata tank, a new infantry fighting vehicle, as well as advanced air defense and electronic warfare equipment.
A more immediate concern, however, is whether Russia will use the Zapad exercise to keep Belarus in line. Belarus has long worked closely with Moscow, and its air defense units are integrated with Russia’s to the east.
But with friction between the nation’s autocratic president, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, and Mr. Putin have come reports that Belarus is reluctant to host more Russian forces permanently.
As part of the maneuvers, units of the First Guards Tank Army are expected to establish a forward command post in western Belarus, and to hold exercises in training areas near Brest, on the Polish border, and Grodno, near Poland and Lithuania.
Russian officials have told NATO that the maneuvers will be far smaller than Western officials are anticipating and will involve fewer than 13,000 troops. But NATO officials say the exercise is intended to test Russia’s contingency plans for a major conflict with the alliance and will also involve Russian civilian agencies.
“We have every reason to believe that it may be substantially more troops participating than the official reported numbers,” Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary general, said in July.
Adding to the concern, the Russians have yet to agree that international observers can monitor the Zapad exercise. American officials have long said that monitoring is important, given the difficulty of Western intelligence in determining whether Russian military activity is merely an exercise or a preparation for an armed intervention.
The United States, in contrast, allowed Russian, Chinese and even North Korean observers to monitor a recent Army exercise, called Saber Guardian, in Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria.
At least two battalions of First Guards units, or some 3,000 armored troops, are expected to participate in the Belarus maneuvers. The total number of Russian troops, security personnel and civilian officials in the broader exercise is expected to range from 60,000 to as many as 100,000.
The question NATO officials are asking is whether all of the troops and equipment in Belarus will leave.
Said General Hodges, “I am very interested in what goes in and what comes out.”
The United States will step up its military presence in Lithuania when Russia and Belarus will kick off joint efforts for the West-2017 military exercises, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite stated on national radio on Monday.
“During the West-2017 exercises, the US will double the usual number of fighter aircraft stationed in Lithuania,” she said, noting that also “there will be more military, hardware and ships”.
A rotating contingent of Lithuania’s NATO allies involving 100 personnel and four fighter jets is stationed at the Lithuanian Zokniai air base. At the present time, a contingent from the Polish Air Force is deployed there, which will be replaced at the start of September by a US Air Force contingent.
The Baltic States have no planes to control their airspace. This is done by their NATO partners. Four more fighter jets are stationed at Estonia’s Amari Air Base.
The US also regularly sends ground units to Lithuania that participate in joint training exercises with Lithuanian military.
The large-scale West-2017 war game will be held at Belarusian firing ranges in September. About 13,000 military personnel and up to 80 pieces of military hardware will participate.
Picture: AFP This month’s G20 meeting in Hamburg showed Western countries still struggling for a strategy to stop suspected Russian meddling in their politics and hacking their elections. Behind the scenes, however, the U.S. and European militaries have been more effective in adapting to the actions of President Vladimir Putin and Moscow’s aggressive new military doctrine.
It’s now just over three years since Russia’s war in eastern Ukraine redefined how Western states see conflict. The result increasingly looks set to revolutionize the U.S. and European armed forces as much as any combat lessons learned in Iraq or Afghanistan.
The process is still in its infancy. Still, troops, aircraft and warships from leading NATO states – most importantly the United States – have become a permanent presence in much of Eastern Europe. And for all the worries about President Donald Trump’s possible Russia links and lukewarm commitment to NATO’s Article 5, U.S. military and diplomatic leaders have been robust in stressing America’s commitment to European security.
NATO’s top priority is defending the most vulnerable northern and eastern European countries, particularly the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – once part of the Soviet Union, now within the Western alliance.
This summer has seen NATO conducting cutting-edge anti-submarine and electronic warfare exercises in the North Atlantic, near daily flights by surveillance aircraft operating in the Baltic and a host of other war games from the Black Sea to the Arctic.
Moscow’s swift, largely bloodless annexation of Ukraine’s Russian-speaking Crimea region grabbed Europe’s attention. That’s been even truer of the deadlier war in the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine – where Russian-backed separatists declared the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in 2014.
For residents there, the results have been devastating. The United Nations estimates more than 2,700 civilians have been amongst an estimated 10,000 killed since April 2014. More than 1.6 million people in the conflict area have fled their homes.
These victims are, of course, the very Russian-speaking Ukrainians Moscow says it is trying to help with its actions. Still, Ukraine has enabled Putin to re-establish Russia’s reputation as a top-tier global power.
This now goes well beyond the deliberately ambiguous Russian strategies of information warfare and hybrid confrontation that have preoccupied many analysts in the West since 2014. Russia may still be reluctant to acknowledge that it has used conventional forces in Ukraine, but evidence on the ground is overwhelming.
When the Ukraine war started, Kiev’s military used U.S.-style military techniques honed against relatively unsophisticated insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. These tactics proved disastrous, particularly for armored vehicles, after Russian artillery batteries used drones and other advanced surveillance equipment to inflict horrific losses.
Russian cyber attacks and electronic jamming also disabled Western-provided equipment, including what Washington had considered state-of-the-art unmanned aerial vehicles.
The effectiveness of Moscow’s techniques shocked U.S. strategists, many of whom had come to believe Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya-style insurgent foes were all they would ever confront.
The challenge now for Western militaries is to devise effective counters to Russia’s actions in Europe while simultaneously building on the lessons learned from the success of the U.S.-backed Iraqi military campaign in Mosul and advances against militants in Syria, Somalia and Nigeria.
That, in turn, leads to tension over resource allocation. France’s top military officer resigned Wednesday, citing dissatisfaction with defense cuts. U.S. and other militaries continue to face an awkward balancing act between ever more expensive high-end equipment such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and money for personnel and training.
Much planning revolves around finding techniques to counter Russia’s so-called “Gerasimov doctrine,” which focuses on political operations rather than conventional military confrontations. But Western strategists have also put renewed focus on classic Cold War-style military deterrence aimed at persuading Moscow of the risks of attacking a NATO member are simply too great.
In its posturing over the last three years, the Kremlin has aggressively used the threat of direct military action – both conventional and nuclear – to intimidate other countries. Major military drills planned for September will be the next example of that. In doing so, however, Putin may have shot himself in the foot.
Western planning means that Moscow would find it harder to mount any attack than only a few years ago – and the more Putin makes aggressive noise, the more this will be true. Moscow’s forces might outnumber NATO troops in the region, but the alliance hopes it now has enough presence for Moscow to realize it cannot hope to overrun a NATO state without sparking a much wider war.
Any such conflict, all sides realize, might well turn nuclear.
Germany, which is gradually upping its military spending towards the NATO target of two percent of gross domestic product, has made it clear it sees Russia’s actions in Ukraine as a game-changer. Germany’s military is now keen to restore skills in neglected areas such as ground-based air defense and combat engineering. It is also working more closely with other European allies.
Growing numbers of Western strategists believe Putin hopes Russia’s propaganda and political disruption efforts may ultimately cause both NATO and the European Union to collapse. Few see that as likely – but countries most vulnerable to Russia, such as the Baltic states and Finland, are taking few chances.
In the event of an invasion, the plan is for many of their troops – mostly conscripts – to withdraw into forests and mount hit-and-run attacks against Russian troops.
In addition, several Nordic and European nations – Sweden, Finland, Norway, the Netherlands, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Denmark – have quietly come together to form the UK-led Joint Expeditionary Force. It’s a framework that could deploy a substantial, sustainable force to defend the Baltic states – and would still exist even if the NATO and U.S. commitment to Europe vanished.
That may not be enough to stop Russia launching a surprise assault on a slice of NATO territory. However, even that would likely just further intensify Europe’s commitment to defending the rest of its territory.
The fact is that Europe is now better defended than at any point in decades. If Russia feels threatened by that, then Putin has only himself to blame.
‘People are worried, this is a Trojan horse. They say, ‘We’re just doing an exercise,’ and then all of a sudden they’ve moved all these people and capabilities somewhere,’ Hodges said.
According to him, NATO diplomats point out to the fact that Russia already used similar tactics while annexing Crimea, starting the armed aggression in Donbas and Syria. Some of the U.S. allies maintain the Russian drills might include trainings in handling the nuclear weaponry.
Hodges added that the U.S. allies will be closely watching the deployment and movement of Russian military vehicles in Belarus. He added so far it is groundless to say that Russia definitely plans to switch to more aggressive actions.
According to the U.S. General, ‘United States and its allies had been very open about a number of military exercises taking place across eastern Europe this summer involving up to 40,000 troops, but it remained unclear if Moscow would adhere to a Cold War-era treaty known as the Vienna document, which requires observers for large-scale exercises involving more than 13,000 troops’.
The West 2017 drills are planned for September 2017; the armed forces of Russia and Belarus are going to perform jointly, involving up to 100,000 military men in total.
Tens of thousands of troops are on the move from the Baltic to the Black Sea, as NATO and Russia open up a series of massive military exercises the size of which the continent hasn’t seen since the Cold War.
Both sides claim the drills, which involve aircraft, warships, tanks and artillery, are purely defensive in nature. But it is clear the exercises are also meant to show off new capabilities and technologies, and display not only the strength of alliances, but how swiftly troops and heavy equipment can move to squash a threat at the frontier.
The most ambitious undertaking on the NATO side is Saber Guardian 17, a series of over a dozen distinct battle drills being carried out by 25,000 troops from 20 countries moving across Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria.
The scenario presented to ground commanders is that a technologically advanced land force has pushed into NATO territory and is threatening the alliance as a whole. The drills include air defense tests, live fire tank engagements, long advances by armored columns, fighter planes and helicopters supporting ground movements, electronic warfare, and airdrops.
“Deterrence is about capability, it’s about making sure that any potential adversary knows that we are prepared to do whatever is necessary,” U.S. Army Europe commander Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges told reporters during the exercise. “What escalates tensions is when we look weak, not connected, not prepared, that is what invites aggression.”
But increasing military capability doesn’t have to mean war, he added. “The Russians only respect strength, so if we demonstrate cohesion, if we demonstrate that we are together, that we are prepared, then I think we don’t have to worry.”
The general’s blunt comments underscore the planning for Saber Guardian, which doesn’t name Russia as the adversary, but clearly has the Kremlin in mind.
The scenario revolves around an incursion into NATO territory by a militarily advanced enemy intent on seizing the economic assets of Black Sea countries. A battle featuring 5,000 NATO troops at the Cincu training range in Romania saw U.S. Apache and Romanian helicopters coordinate with artillery on the ground, U.S. Abrams tanks, and 650 vehicles in support of a large infantry movement to halt the advance.
The U.S. is planning to spend about $23 million on the sprawling Romanian base in order to conduct even larger, more complex battle drills there in the future.
On the other side of the deterrent fence stands Russia, which is preparing to surge as many as 100,000 troops into the field in a series of drills dubbed Zapad, or “West” in the coming weeks.
The Kremlin claims about 12,700 troops will be active in Belarus and Russia for Zapad. But experts and NATO officials say Moscow is more likely to conduct a series of engagements that will swell those ranks by tens of thousands. Under the Vienna Document agreement of 2011, foreign observers must be present for any exercise that exceeds 13,000 troops.
By coming in under that number while conducting several other large drills at the same time, Moscow can avoid the presence of observers and control the narrative of how its troops performed.
But NATO is wary.
Given that Russia used a massive military exercise in 2014 to obscure its incursion into Crimea, and invaded South Ossetia in Georgia in 2008 during another exercise that covered troop movements, the alliance is keeping a close eye on Zapad.
“From previous experiences related to previous exercises, we have every reason to believe there may be substantially more troops participating than the official quoted numbers,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said recently when asked about Zapad.
“We don’t consider this year’s Zapad exercise in itself to be a direct threat to [NATO] or a cover for an attack,” added Kristjan Prikk, undersecretary for defense policy at Estonia’s Ministry of Defense during a conference in Washington on July 11. “But we have to keep in mind that the Russians have the nasty habit of hiding their actual military endeavors behind exercises.”
The last Zapad, in 2014, focused on displaying how quickly Russia could move forces from one part of the country to another, and illustrated how the Kremlin underplays the number of troops involved in its intertwined military drills.
Moscow claimed about 22,000 troops took part in 2014, but outside observers later concluded that up to 70,000 were involved, once all of the smaller but related exercises were added up.
Whatever number of troops ultimately take part, Moscow is “going to very actively signal what they can and cannot do militarily,” said Olga Oliker of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. And the fact that Russia often conducts nuclear exercises in conjunction with conventional movements adds an extra element of uncertainty for NATO and the West.
This year, “I’m looking to see what Kaliningrad’s role is in the exercise, and what supporting and concurrent exercises are being held in Belarus and Kaliningrad,” the Russian exclave on the Baltic Sea, Oliker said.
Three Chinese warships are slated to arrive in Kaliningrad in July 21 to take part in a series of drills with the Russian navy and air force.
The upcoming week’s worth of activities will include anti-submarine and anti-ship operations, and practice between the two nations communicating and coordinating while fighting. “The main aims of the exercise are to increase the efficiency in cooperation of the two fleets to counter threats to security at sea, [and] train compatibility of the crews of Russian and Chinese combat ships,” the Russian Defense Ministry said.
The naval activity in the Baltic comes months after NATO established new brigades in Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, beefed up by prepositioned American tanks and heavy armored vehicles.
In June, the U.S. Air Force also sent B-1 and B-52 bombers to Europe to participate in the massive BALTOPs exercise with Baltic allies, which included 50 allied ships running through a series of defensive maneuvers to protect NATO’s northern flanks.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Army deployed a Patriot anti-aircraft missile system in Lithuania for use in yet another NATO wargame, marking the first time the system has been brought to the Baltic region where Russia enjoys a robust air and missile defense capability. The deployment is temporary, U.S. officials cautioned, but officials in Lithuania are looking at purchasing the system. Romania recently committed to a $3.9 billion deal for seven Patriot missile defense systems in July.
Closer to Russia’s borders and Crimea is another NATO exercise related to Saber Guardian, dubbed Sea Breeze 2017. The 12-day naval exercise currently underway in the Black Sea is co-hosted by the U.S. and Ukraine, and features the U.S. Navy cruiser USS Hue City and the destroyer USS Carney, which join 16 other countries in the Odessa-based undertaking. American surveillance plans and a team of Navy SEALs are also participating.
The naval exercises will be closely watched by Russian forces, who are active in the Black Sea, and have vastly improved their surveillance capabilities in Crimea. Over the past year, Russian aircraft have repeatedly buzzed American warships and aircraft in international waters in the Black Sea, drawing protests from Washington.
In February, an armed Russian aircraft buzzed the USS Porter, and in May armed Russian jets came within feet of U.S. surveillance planes operating over the waterway.