Tag: Crimea

As Russia threatens, Sweden ponders joining NATO

Vladimir Putin’s mock attacks on Scandinavia could make the Swedes end 200 years of neutrality

SWEDEN’S Aurora-17 drill, which continues until the end of September, is the biggest war game that the supposedly neutral country has carried out for 23 years. Not only does it involve 19,000 of Sweden’s armed forces (about half of them), including its Home Guard, but also more than 1,500 troops from Finland, Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, France, Norway and America.

All except Finland are members of NATO, the big western alliance.

The size of the exercise and its main focus, the defence of Gotland, an island in the Baltic Sea some 350km (220 miles) from the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, is a reflection of how insecure Sweden feels.

Vladimir Putin, having gobbled up Crimea and attacked Ukraine, is flexing his muscles near the Baltics and Scandinavia. Russia’s massive Zapad-17 military exercise, which finished this week, involved sending 100,000 troops to Belarus and the Baltic to practise repelling the “Western Coalition”.

Foreign observers were banned, as they never are from NATO exercises. (Perhaps luckily: a Russian helicopter reportedly fired missiles at spectators by mistake, though the government denies this.)

There have been plenty of other causes for disquiet. In March 2013 Russia sent two Tupolev Tu-22M3 bombers, escorted by four Sukhoi Su-27 jet fighters, across the Gulf of Finland to within 40km of Gotland.

Su-27UB , Su-27P and Tupolev Tu-22M3

The planes only veered off after carrying out what NATO analysts believed was a dummy nuclear attack on targets in Sweden. After many years of static or declining defence spending, Sweden had to rely on Danish F-16s, part of NATO’s Baltic air-policing operation, to respond.

In 2014 a Russian submarine penetrated the Stockholm archipelago, departing without being found. Since then Russia has stepped up the frequency of menacing, no-notice military drills in the region.

Small wonder many Swedes think they should end 200 years of neutrality by joining NATO. If they did, any Russian attack on Sweden would be treated as an attack on America and its 28 NATO allies.

All the main Swedish opposition parties want to join, apart from the ultra-nationalist Sweden Democrats, who like many European populists have a curious fondness for Mr Putin.

Polls suggest that a plurality of Swedes favour NATO membership. A Pew survey earlier this year found 47% in support of membership and 39% against.

But for now the Social Democratic-Green coalition government, in office since 2014, wants to get as close as possible to NATO without actually joining it.

Peter Hultqvist, Sweden’s defence minister, is the author of a policy that tries to square the contradictions in the country’s security policy.

Part of the “Hultqvist doctrine”, as it is known, is to improve Sweden’s neglected capacity for self-defence. Military spending is rising—by about 5% annually in real terms over the next three years—and conscription is being reintroduced next year.

Peter Hultqvist, Sweden’s defence minister

The other part is building closer defence co-operation with its non-NATO neighbour, Finland, as well as with America and Baltic littoral states in NATO. All of which Aurora-17 is meant to demonstrate.

Both Sweden and Finland also entered into a “host country support agreement” with NATO, which allows alliance forces to move through their territory and pre-position kit by invitation.

Mr Hultqvist himself is suspected of hankering after NATO membership. But for now the government has ruled it out. There is still a good deal of anti-Americanism on the Swedish left (which Donald Trump does little to dispel).

There is also a fear, expressed by the foreign minister, Margot Wallstrom, of provoking Mr Putin (who has promised to “eliminate the threat” were Sweden to join NATO). Many observers doubt that Finland, where popular support for NATO is lower, would be ready to make a joint decision in favour of membership—something Swedish NATO boosters see as crucial.

There are good reasons why NATO itself might be keen for Sweden (and Finland) to join its fold. Defence of its Baltic members would be much harder without guaranteed access to Swedish ground and airspace. As a member, Sweden would be far more integrated with NATO’s command-and-control systems. Interoperability of its forces with those of the alliance would improve, making them more effective in a fight.

Sweden’s NATO question is being fudged for now, but it will loom large in next year’s general election. If the Swedes do eventually make the jump, Mr Putin will have only himself to blame.

This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline “A funny kind of neutrality”


Large-scale multinational Dragon-2017 military exercises begin in Poland

The large-scale Dragon-17 military exercises, in which more than 17 thousand servicemen from Poland, NATO countries, and other countries are taking part, began in Poland, Radio Poland reported.

According to the Deputy Minister of Defense of Poland Michael Dvorchik, the purpose of the exercises is to work on joint actions of Polish and foreign troops in a threatening situation.

“The scenario assumes that a neighboring country intends to gain access to resources in the territory of our country. An attempt is made to destabilize the political situation and disrupt the work of state administrative bodies and local authorities. An attempt to seize the territory is undertaken through hybrid actions,” he said.

Dvorchik noted that, although this is a hypothetical scenario, it is based on situations that have been observed recently.

“We are talking, for example, about the situation in Ukraine and the annexation of the Crimea,” he said.


Vladimir Putin’s Would-Be Replacements Are Playing the Long Game

When it comes to Russian politics, it seems that what’s old is new again, and again, and again, and again.

Vladimir Putin has already spent almost 14 years as president — and boasts two other stints as the country’s prime minister.

But when Russians cast their votes in the presidential election six months from Monday, polls suggest Putin will almost certainly be re-elected to a fourth term running the world’s largest nation in terms of landmass.

And while the subsequent election in 2024 may seem far away, analysts say some of his opponents are under no illusions about their prospects at the ballot box this March.

“The scenarios for Putin running and losing are hard to spin. People will run against him, but nobody honestly thinks they can beat Putin,” said Olga Oliker, the director of Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They know they can’t win the election, but they can demonstrate their presence and plan for a future when winning elections becomes possible.”

Social-Media Star

While several candidates are expected to throw their hat into the ring, the one who has unnerved the Kremlin the most appears to be Alexei Navalny, a 41-year-old Russian lawyer, activist and anti-corruption blogger.

Navalny has been found guilty of embezzlement — charges he says were fabricated to deny him a slot on the ballot.

Alexei Navalny

Navalny announced his candidacy in December but the Russian Election Commission later effectively barred him from participating in the election, concluding that he committed a “serious crime” and was therefore not eligible to run for president.

While not being allowed much time on state television, Navalny uses his blog, with 1.5 million subscribers on YouTube and more than 2 million followers on Twitter, to get his message out.

Mark Galeotti, a research fellow at the Institute of International Relations Prague, says the Kremlin may have initially contemplated the possibility of allowing Navalny to run before deciding he was “too dangerous.”

“Giving him the kind of national platform that would allow him to become a registered candidate would be considered too risky,” Galeotti said.

In 2013, after Navalny was charged with embezzlement, the White House said it was “deeply disappointed and concerned” by the “politically motivated” ruling.

“Navalny’s harsh prison sentence is the latest example of a disturbing trend aimed at suppressing dissent in civil society in Russia,” then-White House spokesman Jay Carney told a news briefing.

According to Galeotti, Navalny is looking beyond 2018 and is trying to grow his personal brand.

The opposition politician is also ramping up his anti-corruption efforts.

“Corruption is the absolute Achilles heel of [Putin’s] government,” Galeotti said. “Everyone knows about it and everyone resents it. It’s one of the few issues that can unite people across the board. But up to now, it has been regarded much like the Russian weather — something that’s to be endured rather than changed.”

He said Navalny would aim to convince Russians that “it is conceivable that something can be done about it.”

Galeotti added: “He is playing the long game.”

‘This Is Not a Real Election’

Putin remains very popular. One poll conducted by a Russian non-governmental research organization found that 66 percent of respondents wanted Putin to remain president after the 2018 election.

His 83 percent approval rating would be the envy of any Western leader. The number has been hovering above 80 percent since spring 2014, when Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula and endorsed a bloody pro-Russian uprising in eastern Ukraine.

However, analysts have long questioned Russian approval polls.

Studies show that in authoritarian states, polls can overstate the popularity of incumbent leaders by between 5 and 20 percent because many respondents give the answers that they think are expected of them.

Pollsters have also long complained that many people refuse to speak to them — which means no one, not even the Kremlin, knows what many Russians really think about the government.


The 64-year-old Putin has not officially declared his candidacy yet, but experts suggest little should be read into that.

“This is not a real election,” Galeotti said, adding that few doubted that Putin would run and emerge victorious on March 18.

Mathieu Boulegue, a research fellow with the Russia and Eurasia program at the London-based Chatham House think tank, said Navalny and other liberal opposition leaders know Putin voters are a “lost cause.”

But Boulegue said that they “can appeal to the younger voters — those who don’t feel they recognize themselves politically in Putin’s Russia.

It’s all about the appeal and mobilizing the forces towards winning at some point when the moment will be right, but right now, the moment is not right for them.”

Galleotti says the list of candidates running against Putin is likely to include “usual suspects” like ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Sergey Mironov of the “A Just Russia” faction and Gennady Zyuganov of the Communists.

Chairman of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia Vladimir Zhirinovsky

The latter finished second in the 2012 election and captured 17.2 per cent of the vote — compared to around 64 percent for Putin.

Galeotti said there is a strong youth-driven youth movement within the Communist Party made up of people who don’t align with the traditional Marxist-Leninist ideology and want to see real change.

“They are unhappy with this sort of dinosaurian Communist party elite and the way that they have allowed themselves to become house-trained,” he said.

Galeotti also predicted that several potential successors to Putin will get “road-tested” to see if they are a good fit at some point.
“Right now though, there is no one around whom Putin sees as a potential successor,” he said.

Boulegue said he expects Putin to remain in the picture of Russian politics for a very long time.

“Whether it is as a kingmaker for someone else, by controlling Russian politics from the shadows, or actually staying in the spotlight by becoming a prime minister and changing the constitution to give the prime minister all the power,” he said.

Experts see little chance of a dark-horse candidate who can give Putin a run for his money emerging between now and March.

“Absent something cataclysmic, this will be a very managed election,” Oliker said. “So no one will run who isn’t allowed to run.”



AURORA 17 is underway, ZAPAD 2017 Starts Tomorrow, what can we expect from these Exercises?


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.

An Ilmavoimat (Finnish Air Force) F-18MLU2 Hornet

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.”

Dismounted Swedish soldiers clearing a valley. The weapons used are, from left to right: Ak 5C (a Swedish variant of the FN FNC), Ksp 90B (Swedish version of the FN Minimi) and an Ak 5C with a 40mm grenade launcher. Stridsfordon (Combat Vehicle) 9040C.

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[3] 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 U.S. Army will participate in AURORA 17 (US Army Rangers Pictured)

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.

He told Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter: “Russia has changed the security environment.

“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.

Swedish Fallskärmsjägarna during a static-line military para-drop

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.

Stridsvagn 122 bataljon

Sunday, 24/9: Consequences of Conflict (Total Defense), Gotland.

Sunday 24/9: Supreme Commander will attend the Defence Information Day at Gärdet, Stockholm.

Wednesday 27/9: Coastal Defence Operation (conflict), Oxelösund.

Saab RBS-15 anti-ship missile system, Sweden



Russia’s Looming Military Exercise: A 21st Century Trojan Horse?

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.”

UK Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon, MP. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

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.

A Swedish combat team from an armored regiment trains on the island of Gotland on Sept. 14, 2016. (Photo: Soren Andersson)

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.

Kaitlin Lavinder contributed to this report.


Sweden’s “biggest drill in decades” coincides with Russia’s Zapad 2017

Saab JAS 39 Gripens

The Swedish Armed Forces kicked off Aurora 17 today, the international exercise has been dubbed as Sweden’s “biggest drill in decades”.

While Sweden itself is not a member of NATO, over 20,000 troops from the country and other NATO members, including the US, are set to participate in the three-week exercise. Naval, air and land services will be taking part in the drill.

The exercise coincides with the start of the major Russian drill Zapad 2017 this week. The week-long exercise will include Russian and Belarusian military forces and will take place in Russia’s Kaliningrad district and across Belarus.

A CB-90 Fast-Attack Patrol class in the foreground with a Visby-class Corvette in the background

Taking place along the borders of NATO member states, Zapad has caused greater concern for the West given Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Sweden’s defense minister Peter Hultqvist told Financial Times the drill reflected Sweden’s new military strategy which is a consequence of Russian actions, adding that Sweden plans more drills in the future.

Concurrently with Aurora 17, Sweden is hosting a total of 16 countries for the 2017 edition of the German Navy-sponsored exercise Northern Coasts 2017.

The international exercise is taking place between September 8 and 21 off Gotland and in the Southern Baltic Sea.

A Swedish combat team from an armored regiment arrives on the island of Gotland. (Photo: Soren Andersson)

A general goal of the drill is to develop skills in maritime surveillance, anti-surface, anti-air, anti-submarine and mine counter-measures. At a tactical stage, a fictitious but realistic scenario will see participants respond to a multinational crisis in maritime areas.


Russian Zapad military exercise in Belarus raises tension

Mil Mi-24P Russian Air Force

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”.

Russia’s T-90A Main Battle Tank

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”.

US backs Baltics against Russia ‘threat’

Nato fears fast-moving Russian troops

Eastern Ukraine: A new, bloody chapter

Russia’s information warfare in Europe

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.

Yuri Smityuk/TASS

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.”


Germany disputes size of Russian wargames, predicts 100,000 troops

FILE PHOTO: German German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

TALLINN (Reuters) – Germany said on Thursday that Russia was planning to send over 100,000 troops to war games on NATO’s eastern flank this month, disputing Moscow’s version that only 13,000 Russian and Belarussian servicemen would participate.

The Sept. 14-20 exercises known as Zapad, or “West” in Belarus, the Baltic Sea, western Russia and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, are stirring unease in NATO despite Moscow’s assurances troops would rehearse a purely defensive scenario.

“It is undisputed that we are seeing a demonstration of capabilities and power of the Russians,” German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen told reporters at an EU defense ministers’ meeting in Tallinn.

“Anyone who doubts that only has to look at the high numbers of participating forces in the Zapad exercise: more than one hundred thousand,” she said in a joint news conference with her French counterpart Florence Parly.

While Baltic nations have voiced concerns about a bigger-than-reported exercise and while NATO’s secretary-general expects more than 13,000 troops, Von der Leyen’s remarks are the first time a top Western politician has called out Russia publicly on what NATO sees as the true size of the war games.

Such numbers would be legal under international treaties on war games, but would require inviting international observers.

With less than 13,000 troops, international observation of the drills is not mandatory, Russia says.


An exercises on that scale is one of NATO’s most pressing concerns. France, for one, believes the war games are no simple military drill, even though Russian Deputy Defence Minister Alexander Fomin told Western military attaches in Moscow in August the West had nothing to fear.

Russia accuses NATO of building up forces on its frontiers in a manner reminiscent of the Cold War. But NATO says it is protecting the interests of member states bordering Russia who are troubled by Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea and links to pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.

Previous large-scale exercises in 2013 employed special forces training, longer-range missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles that were later used in the Crimea annexation and in actions in eastern Ukraine and Syria, NATO diplomats said.

“Russia has a global strategy of a visible, deliberate demonstration of force,” Parly said before heading to meet French troops in Estonia as part of NATO’s deployment of deterrent forces in the Baltics and Poland.

“They have a strategy of intimidation,” Parly said, warning that any attack on a Baltic country or Poland by Russia would be considered an attack on all of the U.S.-led NATO alliance.

Reporting by Robin Emmott; editing by Ralph Boulton


Canadian troops in Latvia prepare for Russia’s largest military exercise since the Cold War

A Canadian soldier fires the C7A2 Rifle

Scheduled to start Sept. 14 and run for a week, the so-called Zapad exercise is being billed as Russia’s largest war game since the end of the Cold War.

OTTAWA—Canadian troops in Latvia will have front-row seats to a massive Russian military exercise this month that has set NATO on edge and sparked calls for calm across eastern Europe.

Scheduled to start Sept. 14 and run for a week, the so-called Zapad exercise is being billed as Russia’s largest war game since the end of the Cold War more than 25 years ago.

It’s also the first of its kind since NATO decided to send four brigades to eastern Europe to prevent further Russian aggression, after Moscow annexed Crimea and began to support separatist forces in Ukraine.

Canada is leading one of those multinational brigades, with 450 troops based in Latvia alongside counterparts from fellow NATO members Albania, Spain, Italy, Poland, and Slovenia.

Slovenian soldiers discuss their plan of action during exercise Combined Resolve 2013 at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Hohenfels, Germany, Nov. 14, 2013. Combined Resolve is an annual U.S.-led combined arms exercise designed to prepare U.S. and European forces for multinational operations. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Tristan Bolden/Released)

Zapad has already caused jitters in eastern Europe, with Poland announcing this week that it will close the airspace on its border with Belarus — which is taking part in Zapad with Russia — for the entire month.

Karlis Eihenbaums, Latvia’s ambassador to Canada, said his countrymen are trying to “stay calm and carry on,” but he acknowledged that there are worries there, too.

“They’re trying to check our central nervous system,” Eihenbaums said of Russia, which he compared to a neighbourhood bully. “We are keeping a very close eye on the preparations for this exercise.”

NATO and the Canadian military have likewise said they plan to remain, in the words of one NATO official, “vigilant and alert,” but also “calm, balanced and measured.”

An U.S. Soldier from 12th Combat Aviation Brigade shakes hands with an Italian paratroopers from the Folgore Parachute Brigade after rehearsals for an air assault on Lielvarde Airbase, Latvia, during NATO exercise Steadfast Javelin II. Steadfast Javelin II is a NATO exercise involving over 2,000 troops from 10 nations and takes place across Estonia, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. The exercise focuses on increasing interoperability and synchronizing complex operations between allied air and ground forces through airborne and air assault missions. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Venessa Hernandez/Released)

But Canadian Forces spokesperson Col. Jay Janzen said Russia’s “lack of respect for the sovereignty of its neighbours,” including Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, has created an atmosphere of distrust.

“It’s not about exercises per se, or Exercise Zapad 2017,” Janzen said. “It’s about the climate that Russia has created over the past number of years with regards to its actions on the world stage.”

The fact Russia has largely barred international observers from watching the Zapad exercise except in an extremely limited way has only exacerbated that those concerns.

Canada and Russia are among several dozen countries that have signed an international agreement that requires any military exercise involving more than 13,000 soldiers be open to outside observers.

But while NATO estimates that between 60,000 and 100,000 soldiers will be involved in Zapad, Russia says it is running several exercises concurrently, all of which will contain fewer than 13,000 troops.

Russian Paratroopers in action in Ukraine 2014

Russia has said it will host a handful of foreign observers during one day of the exercise. But they will be limited on what they can see and do, which NATO says falls far short of Moscow’s legal requirements.

That has sparked complaints from the alliance as well as countries like Canada.

“All nations have the right to exercise their forces, but nations should also respect their commitments to transparency,” said the NATO official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss sensitive details.

“Predictability and transparency are especially important when there is increased military activity along our borders to reduce risks and avoid any miscalculations, misperceptions or incidents.”

In addition to sending troops to Latvia to deter Russia, Canada has also recently deployed four CF-18s to patrol the airspace over Romania for the next month and has kept a frigate in the region for years.



Russia’s risky military exercise

Russian President Vladimir Putin watches the closing stage of Zapad 2013

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.


Massive Russian border drill has U.S., NATO’s attention

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis briefs the press at NATO headquarters in Brussels. DoD photo by Air Force Staff Sgt. Jette Carr

STUTTGART, Germany — Tens of thousands of troops will be on the move next month in Europe in a burst of Cold War-style war gaming as Russian and Western forces launch some of their largest drills in years, raising suspicions between old adversaries and sparking concerns about potential military miscalculation.

From Ukraine and Sweden to the Baltics, Kaliningrad and Belarus, troops will be maneuvering on both sides of the line that divides Russia from NATO and its partners.

“So it will be getting crowded, especially in the Baltic Sea area,” said Lukasz Kulesa, a security analyst with the European Leadership Network’s Warsaw office. “Plus, we will be watching each other’s exercises … so there’s always a risk of an incident or accident.”

The flurry of war games, combined with more NATO and Russian forces based near possible flashpoints, highlights the changed security environment in Europe since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014.

Russia says its Zapad (“West”) maneuvers will include 13,000 troops, but some NATO allies expect as many as 100,000 troops.

The main movements take place mostly in Belarus, but it’s suspected they will coincide with exercises stretching from Moscow’s fortified enclave of Kaliningrad back into contiguous Russia.

Every few years, Moscow moves forces into Belarus for Zapad, the Olympics of Russian war games, which traditionally has focused on rivals in the West. The 2013 iteration involved some 90,000 troops in one of the largest Russian exercises since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Russia has since annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, supported separatists in that country’s east and launched an intervention in Syria that propped up its ally, Bashar Assad.

Bashar al Assad

Historically, Zapad has given Russian forces a chance to test new equipment and tactics, whether perfecting a tank invasion into NATO territory during the Cold War or doing dress rehearsals for more recent operations, such as the Ukraine invasion or the 2008 war with Georgia.

NATO has intensified its operations since the Ukraine invasion, particularly along the eastern flank in deployments the alliance previously avoided for fear of provoking Russia.

Strengthening the ‘trip wire’

The U.S. and its allies are moving forward with their own ambitious set of exercises. In September, the Army will kick off Rapid Trident, a long-planned exercise in western Ukraine involving 10 nations. In the Baltics, the 173rd Airborne Brigade will deploy 600 troops for the duration of Zapad, conducting drills and keeping watch.

In Sweden, about 20,000 troops will assemble in September. A U.S. Patriot battery and a National Guard tank unit are expected to join them.

Kulesa said that while chances of conflict remain remote, there are risks connected to the heightened activity.

Swedish army on exercise

Russia has gone to great lengths to track NATO activities, using small drones and aircraft flying without transponders to test alliance air defenses, Kulesa said. Russia also has flown close to U.S. reconnaissance aircraft flying in international space over the Baltic Sea.

“It is a big change from 2009, 2010, when NATO allies were pressuring not to have any contingency plans for the Baltics, let alone any troop presence,” said former Estonian President Toomas Ilves, an advocate for a more robust NATO presence in the region.

Yet deterring Russian aggression without provoking it requires a delicate balance. Some analysts warn that large war games raise the risks of miscalculations.

“I worry about the role that exercises such as Zapad play in fueling the action-reaction cycle of Russia-West confrontation,” Kulesa said. “If the Zapad scenario includes sending rapidly massive airborne and tank units to Belarus, or conducing precision strikes with weapons capable of carrying nuclear warheads, then of course this will make (it) more likely that NATO will tailor its defenses accordingly.”

Meanwhile, Russia has moved some of its readiest units near the Baltics in recent years.

Russia has 22 battalions in its Western Military District, 13 of which are tank, wheeled or mechanized infantry units, according to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The Baltic states combined have 11 infantry battalions and no heavy armor units.

Russian T-90 Main Battle Tanks

NATO has moved to close the gap, adding reinforced battalions in all three Baltic countries and Poland, where a U.S. Stryker squadron is positioned.

“Let’s face it, a (NATO) battalion in each country is more of a trip wire,” Ilves said. ”But the troop levels — I think it is appropriate. It does show there is a commitment on the part of NATO (while) at the same time, a battalion doesn’t represent a threat to anybody.”

Reading Russia’s intentions

Russia maintains a decided advantage in firepower, with 10 artillery battalions in the Baltic region. It also has five surface-to-surface missile battalions.

“In comparison, NATO forces suffer from a serious deficit in tubed artillery, rocket launchers, and (submarine-launched missiles). In short, NATO’s lighter forces are outgunned by Russia,” a Carnegie Endowment report stated.

Russia also keeps 27 combat air squadrons in its Western Military District and six battalions of assault helicopters, which NATO would have to scramble to match in a crisis.

The firepower advantage, coupled with an anticipated surge in forces for upcoming war games, has NATO’s attention.

“It is a muscle-flexing exercise. On the other hand, I really don’t think Russia would risk doing anything more than that,” Ilves said. “I think it is a case of psychological pressure.”

Allies worry that Russia could use the Zapad drills to leave a large residual force in Belarus, which would pose a threat to Poland and Lithuania. Moscow has dismissed such suspicions as Western hysteria.

Some analysts think it is unlikely that Russia will seek to leave behind a major force in Belarus, given the country’s desire to strengthen economic ties with the West.

“The Belarusians are not so keen on getting into bed with them (the Russians),” said Pal Dunay, a security expert at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies. “Belarusians are being fully transparent and really don’t want to be in a situation where they are put in a bad light.”

Philip Breedlove, NATO’s former supreme allied commander, said such suspicions stem from Russia’s lack of transparency.

“All nations have the right to exercise,” Breedlove said. “What we don’t have the right to do in Europe is to be irresponsible or overzealous in our exercises.”