Tag: Kaliningrad

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”

 

Baltic Fleet corvettes destroy air, sea and coastal targets during Zapad-2017 drills

Russian Navy Ship Boiky (532) (Бойкий – Brisk) Steregushchy-class corvette, deployed with the Baltic Fleet,

KALININGRAD, September 17. /TASS/.

Corvettes of the Baltic Fleet destroyed aerial, naval and coastal targets during the Russian-Belorussian Zapad-2017 military exercise, fleet spokesman Roman Martov said.

“As part of the joint West-2017 strategic exercise in waters of the Baltic Sea, crews of the Soobrazitelny, Stoikiy, Steregushchiy and Boikiy have successfully trained tasks to repel an aerial attack of a simulated enemy and hit naval and coastal targets,” he said.

He said the ships’ crews fired at simulated targets representing a group of warships and a simulated enemy’s coastal artillery.

In addition, the corvettes repelled an aerial attack, simulated by Su-24 attack aircraft and Ka-27 anti-submarine warfare helicopters.

A large-scale exercise, Zapad-2017, began on Thursday at three training grounds in Russia and six in Belarus. It involved 12,700 troops (7,200 Belarussian and 5,500 Russian servicemen taking part), as well as about 70 planes and helicopters, 680 pieces of military hardware, including about 250 tanks, 200 artillery pieces, multiple rocket launchers and mortars. Ten warships are also taking part.

The exercise will continue until September 20. The second stage begins on Sunday.

 

 

Zapad 2017: Will tensions between the West and Russia run high – What the experts say

By Andrej Matisak

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 NorbergSenior 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 KofmanResearch 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 HildeAssociate 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 MartinProfessorial 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.

Konrad MuzykaEurope and CIS Armed Forces Analyst, IHS Jane’s

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.

Dmitry Gorenburg, Senior Research Scientist, CNA Corporation

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 Launches War Games on NATO’s Eastern Flank

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.

Jonathan JACOBSEN, AFP

“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.

 

 

 

French and US troops head to Gothenburg as Sweden’s biggest military drill in 20 years kicks off

French troops are heading to Gothenburg to join their U.S. and Swedish counterparts in Exercise AURORA 17

The biggest Swedish military exercise in over 20 years has started in Gothenburg, with French and US air defence units as well as other overseas troops joining the Swedes in the Aurora 17 drill of more than 20,000 military personnel.

Taking place between September 11th and 24th, Aurora 17 involves a total of 19,000 Swedish troops, as well as 1,435 soldiers from the US, 120 from France, and other units from Finland, Denmark, Norway, Lithuania and Estonia. The exercise starts on Sweden’s west coast and will also cover the Stockholm area, Mälaren Valley and Baltic island Gotland.

The first event, practising “Host Nation Support” in Gothenburg, involves testing the “capability of receiving and providing support to other nations, an important element at a time of crisis”, according to the Swedish Armed Forces.

Starting on September 11th and running until the 20th, around 1,200 Swedish personnel as well as 200 from French and US air defence units are taking part in the first phase at Gothenburg’s Landvetter Airport, as well as the city’s harbour and Hisingen island.

The show of force comes in a period where Swedish defence is in sharp focus following an increase in military activity from Russia in the Baltic region. In June, Sweden summoned Russia’s ambassador after an SU-27 jet flew unusually close to a Swedish reconnaissance plane in international airspace above the Baltic Sea.

Sukhoi Su-27 Russian Aerospace Force, Air Superiority Fighter

Sweden’s coalition government recently agreed a new defence deal worth 2.7 billion kronor ($334 million) per year until 2020 with two of the centre-right opposition parties. Conscription has also been brought back to strengthen the number of troops available to the Swedish Armed Forces after recruitment drives failed to deliver results.

READ ALSO: New defence deal agreed in Sweden

Aurora 17 will cost Sweden around 580 million kronor, about twice as much as the Armed Forces usually spends on military exercises in an entire year, according to SVT. The Swedish Government argues that a worsening security policy situation in Europe means that Sweden’s defence capabilities and cooperation with other nations in the area need to be strengthened.

“Aurora is the biggest operation in 23 years where the army, air force and marines collaborate in a drill. The exercise is an important defence policy signal. It raises the threshold against different types of incidents and provides an important foundation for evaluating our military capabilities,” Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist said in a statement.

Stridsvagn 122 bataljonen förberedd för AURORA 17

Sweden is not a member of Nato, but has strengthened ties with the alliance in recent years in the face of Russian warnings that an expanding Nato would be seen as a “threat”. The Nordic country has a Host Nation Support Agreement (HSNA) with Nato which means helicopters, aircraft and ships can be transported by members across Swedish territory upon Sweden’s invitation.

In July, US Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, who is a commanding general of the US Army in Europe, singled out the importance of Gotland, saying “I do not think there is any island anywhere that is more important”.

READ ALSO: No island as important as Gotland, US military chief says

At the same time as Aurora 17 gets going, Russian and Belarusian forces are preparing to start their own major joint military exercise on September 14th. Zapad 2017 (“West 2017”) will start in Russian enclave Kaliningrad, then move to Belarus and finally into mainland Russia.

 

 

Russian intelligence-gathering ship Ivan Khurs ready to welcome crew for sea trials

Russian intelligence-gathering ship Ivan Khurs, ready to welcome crew for sea trials. Photo: Severnaya Verf Shipyard.

Representatives of the Russian Navy’s Baltic Fleet naval base in Leningrad inspected the recently-launched intelligence-gathering ship Ivan Khurs deeming it ready to welcome its first crew members.

According to Severnaya Verf Shipyard which built the vessel, the Project 18280 ship is set to be crewed in the coming days.

The official inspection checked the overall state of readiness of the vessel, including berthing, medical provisions and the galley which was tested during the inspection.

Project 18280 manager Anatoly Denisov said the vessel is being prepared to start sea trials in October with delivery to the Russian Navy expected to take place before the end of the year. Ivan Khurs will be starting sea trials one month later than initially expected.

Launched in May this year, Ivan Khurs is the second of overall four planned vessels in the Yury Ivanov-class.

Named after Russian Vice-Admiral Ivan Khurs, the vessel is 95 meters long and displaces 4000 tons. It has a cruising range of 8000 nautical miles and is crewed by 131 sailors.

Project 18280 ships are used for signals intelligence (SIGINT) and electronic warfare in addition to fleet management roles. Leadship Yury Ivanov was launched in September 2013 and entered service with the Northern Fleet in July 2015.

 

 

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.”

 

Russian ‘Zapad-2017’ drill – what does Moscow want?

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.

Read more: Ursula von der Leyen says Russia showing off ‘power’

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.

Read more: Russia readies troops for Zapad war games with Belarus

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.

Mi-24Ps Russian Air Force

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.”

 

 

Diplomat slams Finland’s decision to bar Russia’s Kruzenshtern Barque from docking at Mariehamn

Sergei Fadeichev/TASS

Finland’s decision to bar Russia’s Kruzenshtern barque from docking at the port of Mariehamn, located on the Aland Islands, is unjustified, Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Friday.

“We regret the Finnish authorities’ decision to bar the training ship from docking at the port of Mariehamn, the Aland Islands, on September 18-20, as it was planned, despite the invitation from the city administration,” she said. “This unjustified decision seems strange, since only several weeks ago, the ship visited the Finnish ports of Kotka and Turku during The Tall Ships Races,” Zakharova pointed out. According to the Russian diplomat, “the residents of the Aland Islands have been deprived of the opportunity to see the legendary barque, which always sparks interest, no matter what port it docks at.”

The Hufvudstadsbladet daily reported about the ban on the Russian ship’s visit to Mariehamn on Monday. Finland’s Army Communications Chief Eero Karhuvaara said that the Finnish Defense Forces would not comment on the decision. A thing to note is that in the summer 2017, the Kruzenshtern visited Finland’s Kotka and Turku without facing any issues.

The Kruzenshtern, a four-masted barque, was built in Bremerhaven, Germany, in 1926 as the Padua. In 1945, she was surrendered to the Soviet Union as war reparation and renamed after 19th-century Russian admiral and explorer of Baltic Ivan Kruzenshtern.

The Kruzenshtern has been used as a training ship in the past years. Over its 90-year history, the barque has made two round-the-globe voyages, as well as a trans-Atlantic expedition, and won many sailing races, covering an overall distance of 1.3 million nautical miles.

On August 22, the Kruzenshtern, carrying 120 students of seven naval schools from Kaliningrad, Kerch, Yeysk and Astrakhan onboard (ten of them are girls), sailed off from Russia’s westernmost port of Kaliningrad for its third and final voyage of 2017. The ship is expected to return home on September 24.

 

 

French Defense Minister in Tallinn: Zapad is ”strategy of intimidation”

French Defense Minister Florence Parly

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.

AFP – Baltic News Service.