A Lithuanian military inspection group is set to visit Belarus, BelTA learned from the press service of the Defense Ministry of Belarus.
The inspection will be held on 10-12 October in line with the provisions of the Belarus-Lithuania agreements on additional confidence- and security-building measures.
The Lithuanian military will inspect the 19th separate mechanized brigade. The inspection will verify the level of reliable information provided by Belarus within the agreement in respect to the military personnel, armament systems and hardware of the chosen military unit.
US troops are currently taking part in a multinational military exercise in Ukraine, an exercise that comes just days before Russia is scheduled to launch their own massive military maneuvers that have put the region on edge.
Approximately 1,650 service members from 15 different countries are participating in Exercise Rapid Trident 2017 which began Monday and will last until September 23, Pentagon spokesman Johnny Michael told CNN.
The US involvement will include approximately 250 soldiers from the Oklahoma Army National Guard, 80 soldiers from the California Army National Guard, 45 airmen from the California Air National Guard, and some additional Army and Air Force personnel in support and control roles.
The annual exercise focuses on peacekeeping and stability operations and helps promote interoperability among the partner militaries of Ukraine and the United States as well as its NATO allies, according to US Army Europe. It also serves to validate aspects of the Ukraine’s military training program.
The exercise in Ukraine comes as Russia is gearing up for its major military exercise, Zapad 2017, which is expected to involve tens of thousands of troops operating along NATO’s borders in Western Russia, the Russian European enclave of Kaliningrad and Belarus.
Military analysts see such war games as a possible rehearsal for a Russia-NATO armed conflict as it is taking place very close to an area that analysts consider to be the most likely target of a Russian offensive.
ZAPAD 2017 has also sparked concerns among NATO’s easternmost members that Russian forces may stay in the area following the conclusion of the exercise.
Russian officials have said that only 13,000 troops will participate but western observers have said that as many as 100,000 Russian and Belorussian forces could be involved.
NATO has been critical about how transparent Moscow has been about Zapad 2017, saying it has failed to adhere to international treaties by not allowing observers to monitor the exercise to ensure that it is not a cover for an aggressive military operation.
NATO’s easternmost members have been wary of an increasingly aggressive Russia, particularly following Russia’s 2014 military invasion and annexation of Crimea and Moscow’s support of separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine.
“We urge Russia to share information regarding its exercises and operations in NATO’s vicinity to clearly convey its intentions and minimize any misunderstandings,” Pentagon spokesman US Army Lt. Col. Michelle Baldanza told CNN.
“In response to this uncertainty, the US has built a joint, persistent rotational presence of air, land, and sea presence in the region to support our Allies,” she added.
It is being billed as a military exercise, but when Russian and Belarusian forces start Zapad-2017 this week, many neighbouring countries will be looking on nervously.
Zapad-2017 (“West-2017”) is a joint strategic-level exercise involving Russian and Belarusian military forces, expected to begin on 14 September in Russia’s western military district Kaliningrad, and across Belarus.
It is scheduled to last about a week, but may well go on for longer. The exercise is part of a four-year rolling cycle of manoeuvres that focus each year on one broad region or “front” (“West”, “Eastern”, “Central” or “Caucasus”). This year’s Zapad exercise though is drawing much greater attention than did its predecessor in 2013.
The context has changed significantly. Russia has seized and annexed Crimea; it has supported a separatist war in eastern Ukraine with weaponry, training and, for periods, its own combat units. Russia is thus seen by several Nato countries as much more threatening.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has described Russia’s build-up for the exercise as “preparations for an offensive war on a continental scale”. Ukrainian border defences, he said, are being bolstered.
He also pointed to the fact that in his view, Russia has form here, using the pretext of an exercise to mobilise and position forces to conduct offensive operations. President Poroshenko said he could not rule out the possibility that the drill “may be used as a smokescreen to create new Russian army assault groups to invade Ukrainian territory”.
Units on the move
Nato watchers and insiders do not necessarily share this concern about an all-out invasion of Ukraine.
Russia expert Keir Giles, a fellow at Chatham House think tank, acknowledges that “previous Russian exercises on this scale have prepositioned troops for undertaking military operations, against Georgia in 2008 and against Ukraine in 2014”.
However, he says, “both of those moves were precipitated by an immediate political crisis – currently absent in Europe.
“And there have been plenty of other major Russian exercises in between,” he says, “which did not end up with somebody getting invaded”.
Nonetheless, the fear of a resurgent and more aggressive Russia is real enough. That is why, over the past year, Nato has sent small multi-national units to Poland and to each of the three Baltic republics to underline its deterrent message. And that is why this year’s war games will be watched so closely.
Just how closely is a contentious issue. Russia, unlike Belarus, has been far more reluctant to invite Western observers in any number. This despite the fact that, as a member of the OSCE international security body, it is obliged to send out broad invitations if an exercise numbers more than 13,000 troops.
Mr Giles notes that, while Russia may be “content to see Europe alarmed at the prospect of Moscow throwing its military weight around”, Belarus seeks instead to calm the situation. The siting of the exercise in ranges across the middle of the country – not near the Polish and Lithuanian borders – was a deliberate policy decision intended to reduce the chances of misinterpretation, or incidents when Russian troops and aircraft come close to Nato borders.
Belarus has been much more open towards international observers. Clearly satellites, airborne radars and other national intelligence collection measures will be used by Nato countries.
In addition, efforts are under way to mobilise concerned citizens in Belarus to observe military movements in their area and post them online for the benefit of non-government, open-source analysts and experts.
How many troops?
So just how big is this exercise and what will Western analysts and observers be watching for? Here assessments differ widely.
The Russians say some 12,700 troops will be involved in total, including a significant contingent from Belarus. (Notice this takes it below the 13,000 OSCE threshold.)
Western experts watching the preparations, especially the marshalling of railway flat-cars – the main way of moving heavy armoured formations to the exercise areas – say it will be considerably more.
Some estimates suggest that up to 100,000 troops could be involved, but since there are a range of drills, exercises and spot mobilisations it is hard to be precise about numbers.
Russia will be testing its capacity to contain and respond to some form of outside aggression and will be deploying units from different services: heavy armour; airborne troops; “spetsnaz” elite reconnaissance teams; and electronic warfare specialists.
The Baltic Fleet will be involved, as will units from the 14th Corps based in Kaliningrad. One point of interest may be the part played at the tactical and strategic levels of “information operations troops” – a relatively new formation in the Russian order of battle.
Indeed, while there may be much to learn about Russia’s use of artillery, its capability in electronic warfare (already manifest in the fighting in Ukraine) and the growing importance of precision-guided munitions in Russia’s thinking, it may be this information aspect that is most important. For beyond the troop movements, Zapad-2017 is part of a wider propaganda effort to influence and shape opinion in the West.
Atmosphere of suspicion
The US analyst Michael Kofman in a fascinating piece on the War on the Rocks website, describes Zapad as “a good window into the Russian mindset.
“For all the modernisation and transformation of the Russian armed forces,” he writes, “in reality the Russian leadership is probably still afraid: afraid the United States will try to make a bid for Belarus, afraid of American technological and economic superiority, afraid the US seeks regime change in Moscow, and afraid Washington desires the complete fragmentation of Russian influence in its near abroad, or even worse, Russia itself.”
“Zapad,” he argues, “is the most coherent manifestation of these fears, and a threat from Moscow to the United States about what it might do if the worst should come to pass.”
And what of those lingering fears in some quarters that this could be much more than just an exercise? Mr Giles remains unconvinced by much of the media hyperbole surrounding Zapad.
But he has this caution: “The time to watch troop deployments most closely,” he says, “is likely to be after the exercise proper has ended.”
The final day of Zapad is 20 September but, he notes, “Russian troops are only scheduled to leave Belarus by 30 September – after the observers have departed, and when the media interest will have died down. That will be the time to decide whether Zapad this year has in fact passed off peacefully.”
The large “Zapad-2017” war games will pit the troops of Russia and Belarus against terrorist infiltrators from three “hypothetical” Eastern European countries. DW gives you an overview of the upcoming drill.
Moscow and Minsk are finalizing their preparations for the week-long “Zapad-2017” drill, which is set to start next Thursday. In it, the two countries will deploy their troops, designated as “the Northern ones” to stand up to the aggression from “the Western ones” – armed attackers from the made-up countries of Vesbaria, Lubenia, and Veishnoria.
According to the scenario released by Russian and Belarusian defense officials, Vesbaria and Lubenia are located in the Baltic region and control the corridor which links the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad with Belarus. In the real world, the corridor roughly corresponds to the border between Lithuania and Poland, both of them NATO members.
The hypothetical state of Veishnoria, however, is located in the Grodno area of Belarus, near the country’s western border.
Independent experts see this as a sign that Minsk and Moscow are preparing scenarios for threats originating in NATO countries as well as from within Belarus. The Grodno area seems to have a special significance as the home for a large population of Poles living in the former Soviet state. However, military officials insist that the scenario was developed “against a hypothetical opponent, unrelated to the concrete region.”
What is the goal of the drill?
“Belarus and the Kaliningrad region have been infiltrated by extremist groups with the intention of committing terrorist attacks. The illegal militias are backed from abroad, providing them with armaments and naval and air capabilities. In order to neutralize the opponents, land forces will be deployed to cut off their access to sea and block air corridors in the region, with the support of the air force, air defense forces, and the navy,” the official plan says.
The goal of the Zapad-2017 maneuvers is to coordinate actions between regional military commands “in the interest of ensuring military safety,” Moscow and Minsk said. “The Republic of Belarus strives to prevent armed conflicts, and the Russian federation is providing it with political backing, financial aid, as well as technical and military support,” according to the Belarusian Defense Ministry.
The drill is set to proceed in two stages. Initially, the military will boost their air force and air defense capabilities to protect key military and state objects, and prepare to “isolate regions of activity by the illegal armed groups and their subversive-reconnaissance squads.” The second stage will be “to work out the issues of managing troops while repelling an aggression” against Russia and Belarus.
How many troops will take part?
The two countries say that some 12,700 servicemen will be involved in the upcoming drills. “Zapad-2017” will also involve 70 planes and helicopters, 280 tanks, 200 artillery weapons, ten ships, and various other pieces of military equipment. The drills will also include agents of the Russian intelligence service FSB, as well as people working for the Russian Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Emergency Situations.
However, NATO allies have repeatedly disputed these numbers, with German Defense Minister Ursula Von der Leyen claiming the real number is likely to be upwards of 100,000 troops. International accords mandate that countries provide a larger degree of transparency when holding drills with over 13,000 troops.
On Saturday, Russia’s Defense Ministry said it was “bewildered” by Von der Leyen’s assertion, and repeated its claims that drill would stay below the 13,000 threshold. Previously, the Kremlin has asked foreign defense officials and military-diplomatic corps to visit the final stage of the joint exercise at one of the sites in Russia. Belarus also stated that it had sent out invitations to UN, OSCE, NATO, the post-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States, and military attaches accredited in Belarus.
Where will the drill be staged?
The bases will involve seven locations in Belarus, one location in the heavily militarized Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, and two in western Russia. In order to reduce tensions with neighboring countries, the authors of the drill made an effort to pick the areas “at a significant distance from the border.”
NATO’s eastern members are concerned over the deployment of Russian troops near their territory, as Moscow has been known to stage large drills ahead of conflict in Georgia in 2008 and the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Some have even speculated that Russia might use the troops to occupy Belarus, its closest European ally. Most observers, however, consider this move to be extremely unlikely.
The drill has “strictly defensive character, its execution will not present any threat for the European community as a whole, nor for the neighboring countries,” the Russian defense ministry said. The Belarusian side has ensured that after the drills are over “by September 30 the military personnel, weapons, military equipment and specialized devices of Republic of Belarus will be returned to its permanent deployment locations, and the elements of the Russian military will leave Belarusian territory.”
MINSK, 7 September (BelTA) – A media briefing for heads of diplomatic missions of other countries and international organizations, which are accredited in Belarus, will take place at the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 11 September to discuss preparations for and the actual course of the Belarusian-Russian strategic army exercise Zapad 2017, BelTA learned from Dmitry Mironchik, Head of the Information Office, Press Secretary of the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
As of 7 September 47 representatives of 37 countries and international organizations have been registered as intended participants of the media briefing.
To honor its international commitments and to fulfill clear instructions of the head of state, the Belarusian side continues taking enterprising steps to make the forthcoming Belarusian-Russian strategic army exercise Zapad 2017 transparent.
Dmitry Mironchik said: “As you know, during the OSCE Forum for Security Cooperation in Vienna in July a media briefing was held to inform in detail the participating states about the concept, the scenario, main goals and tasks of military exercises, their locations, forces and assets to be used. On 2 August 2017 we sent all the necessary information about the [Zapad 2017] exercise to the OSCE member states. It was also done in strict compliance with the 2011 Vienna Document on Confidence- and Security-Building Measures — at least 42 days before the start of an exercise. The Belarusian side sent invitations for observation to Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, Estonia, Sweden, and Norway. Invitations were received by representatives of the military and diplomatic corps of foreign nations, who are accredited with the embassies of their nations in Belarus.”
Dmitry Mironchik remarked that although the Vienna Document does not require inviting representatives of international organizations to watch an army exercise at all, Belarus acted in good spirit to invite representatives of the United Nations Organization, the OSCE, NATO, and other international bodies to watch the active phase of the Zapad 2017 exercise.
Dmitry Mironchik also pointed out that foreign reporters were invited to send in applications for accreditation back in July. The step is stipulated by the Vienna Document.
“We are now processing an unprecedented number of applications for accreditation from foreign mass media — about 270. Applications have been received from news agencies, printed media, TV channels from all the neighboring countries as well as the UK, Germany, Denmark, Canada, Netherlands, Norway, the USA, Turkey, Finland, France, and Sweden. The army exercise will also be covered by reporters from Qatar, South Korea, and Japan,” said Dmitry Mironchik. “As far as we know, the organizers are nearly finished preparing the itinerary for reporters. Our colleagues from the Defense Ministry with assistance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will do their best to help the reporters do their jobs, including by organizing regular media briefings, by sending out press releases, distributing videos, and organizing broadcasts.”
The official spokesman of the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs stressed: “Like no one else Belarus is interested in bolstering security and the military and political stability in the region. Belarus honors every letter of its international legal commitments and acts in the spirit of the Vienna Document even when we have no formal obligation to do so.”
The Russian-Belarusian Zapad-2017 (West-2017) exercises, scheduled for 14–20 September, have for many months been the core of an information war between Russia and NATO, in which Ukraine and Belarus have also participated.
The media have presented these exercises as allegedly the biggest military undertaking carried out in recent years by the armed forces of the Russian Federation (together with its Belarusian ally) in the immediate vicinity of the borders of NATO states, which could form the basis for the annexation of Belarus and/or a strike at Ukraine.
Although it is hard to dispute the scale and breadth of these exercises, they are only a small part of Russia’s preparation for a potential military showdown with NATO. The real engagement of troops in these exercises will not be the largest, in terms of the scale and the force employed, or the most important in the Russian army’s preparation to carry out its plans during wartime in (from its perspective) the western strategic direction.
The training exercises reported in the media, which have mainly been carried out on Russian training grounds from May to August this year, have not been an essential element of these preparations in 2017. These exercises, held jointly with the Belarusian component (in operational terms the Belarusian army should be considered as an integral part of the Russian armed forces in the western strategic direction), were nominally merely a preparatory stage to the Zapad-2017 exercises.
The exercises involving Russian troops alone should be considered as more important, especially those checking the combat readiness of the units which have been newly created or expanded in the last three years. Compared to the period in which the previous exercises (Zapad-2013) were held, Russia’s military potential in the western strategic direction, especially its land forces, has doubled in size.
Zapad-2017 as a tool of information war
Russia treats the Zapad strategic exercises, which have been held every four years since 2009, as part of its information war with the West each time. However, whereas between 2009 and 2013 the propaganda impact of the reports about the exercises was largely local, limited mainly to the three Baltic states and Poland, as a result of the Russian aggression towards Ukraine and the three years and counting of war in the Donbas in 2017, it has now become one of the main factors affecting the relations of Russia with all the North Atlantic Alliance, as well as those Baltic Sea states which do not belong to NATO.
Since the beginning, Russia has treated the preparations for the Zapad-2017 exercises, on the one hand, as part of its intimidation of the general public in the countries directly bordering Belarus and Russia, though reports are transmitted mainly through Belarussian or Ukrainian media.
On the other hand, by gradually the deprecating reports about the scale and nature of the military threat (which have mainly been disseminated via Belarusian or Ukrainian media), it has been deepening the divisions between the ‘new’ and ‘old’ members of the European Union, on a wave of alleged anti-Russian hysteria generated by the former.
Most likely in response to the Russian propaganda machine, the Zapad-2017 exercises have been used for the first time as an essential element in the information policy of NATO (and the United States), and also (in the regional dimension) by Ukraine. Unlike previous Zapad exercises, it is the message from Kiev which should currently be considered the most alarmist, and (thanks to the tension in Russo-American relations) it is being legitimised to a great degree by the North Atlantic Alliance.
The Zapad-2017 exercises are the core of the information war between Russia and NATO which has been going on uninterrupted since November 2016, when the plans of the Russian Federation’s Defence Ministry regarding an increase in military railway transports between Russia and Belarus in 2017 were disclosed.
The number of 4162 cars contracted for the period from 1 January to 30 November 2017 (a figure several times larger than in previous years) was reported in the media as enabling a possible attack on Belarus by up to 30,000 soldiers, i.e. almost the entire Russian 1st Guards Tank Army. The consequence of this was a series of reports over the next few months stating that after the end of the exercises, the Russian group would remain in Belarus as occupation forces.
Such reporting gained particular intensity in the first quarter of this year, when once again the government in Minsk simulated a more intense desire for rapprochement with the West – a move which suggests that this also was an element of Belarus’s own information war. Then comments appeared (particularly in the Ukrainian media) suggesting that the Russian soldiers transported to Belarus would be used to strike at Ukraine.
It was only in August, on a wave of studies (emerging from Poland, among others) justifying the possibility of such a scenario, that Russia issued reports and figures indicating that the actual figure for the use of rolling stock in the Russian-Belarusian military exercises applied to the whole of the year 2017, and not just the Zapad-2017 exercises.
Russian representatives also began to supply data on the number of forces and vehicles planned for involvement in the exercises, including 12,700 soldiers (7200 from Belarus and 5500 from Russia, about 3000 of whom will be based in Belarus), 70 aircraft and helicopters, 680 armoured fighting vehicles (including 250 tanks), 200 artillery units (barrel, missile and mortar) and 10 ships.
These numbers are much lower than those cited in the previous media reports, especially those coming out of Ukraine. According to the National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine, the entire Zapad-2017 exercises were to have included 230–240,000 soldiers, over 10,000 units of heavy weapons, 100 aircraft and helicopters, and 40 ships.
Reports such as these should be considered as an attempt to mobilise Western (particularly American) support for Ukraine (especially in the area of defence).The official Russian data should be considered as being far closer to the real figures, although they have been deliberately reduced to less than 13,000 soldiers, the ceiling figure which would have required the implementation of confidence- and security-building measures, including the mechanisms for observation exercises provided for in the OSCE’s Vienna Document.
This has been backed up not only by the Russian army’s practice up to now, but above all by the conditions, starting with the capacity of the training grounds designated for the exercises in Belarus (4 general military grounds and 2 for air training) and Russia (3 in the Kaliningrad, Leningrad and Pskov oblasts).
Nevertheless, the total number of forces and resources involved in the Russian and Russian-Belarusian training projects in the western strategic direction since spring 2017 may be up to ten times greater than those involved in the Zapad-2017 exercises.
Russian training activity in the western strategic direction in 2017
The Zapad-2017 exercises are the culmination of a series of training projects carried out in the western strategic direction in 2017.
From the perspective of Minsk, they will be the biggest military event since the Zapad-2013 exercises, although from the perspective of Moscow, Zapad-2017 is just another project involving the forces and vehicles of the Western Military District, which from the training perspective are neither the biggest nor the most important of their kind.
Starting in spring this year, the training grounds in Belarus and the Western Military District of the RF have seen at least several dozen projects in the field of mobilisation and combat readiness, redeployments, troop regrouping and advances, tactical exercises on training grounds etc., involving formations of all types of troops and services, from a minimum of battalion level up to and including division level.
To better evaluate the scale of these projects, it should be noted that the training projects in the Zapad-2017 exercises will mostly be carried out at battalion level, up to brigade level. In terms of the exercises to be carried out jointly with the Belarusian army, special attention should be paid to the projects based on support and security for the general military formations, the scale of which exceeds the requirements to prepare the subunits for the Zapad-2017 exercises.
On 19–25 May, Belarus saw the largest ever exercises by electronic warfare units, which involved a total of 1500 soldiers from both armies. The logistical exercises carried out on 21–25 August, one element of which was a security operation for the pipelines supplying fuel to the frontline troops, should be seen in a similar light. These exercises proceeded on two different tracks, one as a Russian-Belarusian project (2500 soldiers from both countries on the territory of Belarus) and the other as purely Russian (3000 soldiers on the territory of the Russian Federation, which also included interoperability training in wartime with the transmission network operators).
Of the projects preparing for Zapad-2017 carried out on the territory of Belarus, attention should also be paid to the training for engineering (13–15 June), communications (10–14 July), chemical defence (21–25 August) and air defence formations, in which aircraft from bases in Russia were moved to Belarusian airfields (23–25 August).
The summer training period for various kinds of exercise (which started in June) included the majority of the units in the Russian Federation’s Western Military District; this means that the formations comprising units for the Zapad-2017 exercises have effectively been in a state of permanent training.
This principally concerns the Airborne Troops; the Baltic Fleet, together with its subordinate air-land grouping in the Kaliningrad oblast; and the 1st Guards Tank Army. It is also worth noting the two bilateral regimental exercises (in July, the 98th Airborne Division from Ivanov, with the participation of the 31st Air Assault Brigade from Ulyanovsk, at the training ground near Pskov; and in August, the 76th Air Assault Division from Pskov, with the participation of the above-mentioned 31st LAB and the 45th Spetsnaz Brigade), in both cases involving 2500 soldiers, at least 300 units of heavy weapons and several dozen planes and helicopters.
During the Zapad-2017 exercises we can expect a much lower involvement of the airborne troops, at the level of tactical battalion groups.
Of the projects for the 11th Army Corps in the Kaliningrad oblast, attention should be paid to the brigade exercises of the 336th Naval Infantry Brigade from Baltiysk (in June) and the regimental exercises of the 7th Mechanised Regiment from Kaliningrad (in August), as well as the exercises by the 244th Artillery Brigade and the 25th Missile Brigade (nominally a coastal defence unit, armed with Bastion systems capable of destroying ground targets with Kalibr missiles).
It must be stressed, however, that most of the maritime, land and air units which have been deployed in Kaliningrad have been training since June, and the 11th Army Corps has already held exercises four times (including twice in August). The units of the 1st Guards Tank Army, especially its two main tactical formations, the 2nd ‘Tamanskaya’ Mechanised Division and the 4th ‘Kantemirovskaya’ Armoured Division, should also be regarded as active.
The tank crews of the 4th AD have also undergone some exercises in Belarus, conducted in mid-June. The most important elements of the 1st Guards Tank Army’s training, however, took place in August: checking the combat readiness of the tactical formations and the support and security units of the 1st Army (achieving combat readiness and preparation for deployment, 15 August) as well as the new automated command and control system (from 28 August).
Probably the largest tactical exercise carried out in 2017 in the Western Military District involved not the units assigned to participate in the Zapad-2017 exercises, but rather the mechanised divisions formed as part of the newly created 20th Army – the 3rd and the 144th MDs.
On 14–18 August, a bilateral exercise was carried out at the training ground in the Voronezh oblast, including both the above-mentioned tactical formations (the participating units simulated a clash of opposing forces), in which 2000 soldiers and 600 units of heavy weapons took part.
In the training projects which will make up the Zapad-2017 exercises, we should not expect any simulated clashes between formations of more than 1000 soldiers. In addition to those mentioned, we should note what will probably turn out to be the biggest Russian air defence exercises this year, which were carried out in the Western Military District at the beginning of July (5000 soldiers and 2000 units of arms and military equipment, including 100 aircraft and helicopters), as well as exercises by the Railway Troops in building crossings (on 1 August, they constructed a bridge 400 m in length across the Oka River; and on 24 August, a 1-km-long bridge on the Volga; for comparison, the crossing built on the Dnieper by engineering units in the context of the exercises in Belarus was 300 m in length).
The growth of Russia’s military potential in the western strategic direction
In the period between the Zapad-2013 and Zapad-2017 exercises, the Russian groupings in the western strategic direction changed diametrically. In all types of troops and services, the potential for growth has mainly been achieved through extensive large-scale technical modernisation, although in the case of the Land Forces, and to an extent the Airborne Troops, the most important factor was the formation of new units and the expansion of those already existing.
It is noteworthy that the Western Military District is hosting most of the tactical formations which have been newly created in recent years, and those created in the other military districts have also been deployed in the western strategic direction (in the Rostov oblast, as part of the Southern Military District) or just beyond the Urals as part of the second strategic echelon in the western direction (in the Central Military District).
Meanwhile, no new tactical formations have been created in the Russian Far East. During the period in question, two new army headquarters have been created (the 1st Guards Tank Army in Moscow and the 8th Army in Novocherkassk), as well as three army corps (the 11th in Kaliningrad, the 14th on the Kola peninsula, and the 32nd in Crimea). The 8th Army and the 32nd Corps (both directed towards Ukraine) have received most of the newly created units.
New divisions have also been deployed in the 20th Army (Voronezh). In total, between 2015 and 2017 four new divisions have been created (three mechanised: the 3rd, 144th and 150th MDs in the western strategic direction, in the Western and Southern Military Districts; and one armoured: the 90th AD in the Central Military District).
The Russian army’s tactical formations are being systematically expanded up to wartime status; the newly-created divisions each have four regiments of combat potential which are comparable to brigades (which have the same structures and sizes of general military subunits), and additional regiments have also been created in the previously existing 2nd MD and 4th AD of the 1st Guards Tank Army.
The creation of new military formations has been accompanied by the formation of brigades and regiments to provide support and security at army level. The nature and structure of the airborne troops have also been changed; at present they are defacto mechanised formations with increased capacity for rapid redeployment, with a destructive force comparable to the classic mechanised formations (especially after the divisions and brigades of air assault tank companies, and ultimately of tank battalions, are included).
The newly created reconnaissance brigades, which combine various elements including electronic surveillance, should be associated with the western military direction (so far only the Eastern Military District has not received any such units). As of June this year, thirty battalion and company tactical groups from Western Military District units had the status of immediate response forces. Fifteen of them have also received the status of so-called shock subunits.
The technical modernisation of the western strategic direction is proceeding at a rate comparable with that observed in the other strategic directions, although the process is distinct from those others in several ways. Units in European Russia have been the main recipients of new command and communications systems and electronic warfare equipment, as well as Ratnik personal equipment for the ‘soldier of the future’; they are also the first to have received the elements of the integrated command structure, together with equipment for tactical data exchange for ranks up to and including private (with the Ratnik equipment).
The western strategic direction is also getting the majority of the new or modernised arms of the Land Forces (including T-72B3 tanks, which since their upgrade now have the same battle potential as T-90 tanks), as well as Su-34 battlefield support aircraft (frontline bombers) and Mi-28 attack helicopters. As of mid-2017, the proportion of new and modernised weaponry in units in the Western Military District was 45%; therefore, we should see the rate of modernisation observed as guaranteeing that the planned ceiling of 70% will be achieved by 2020.
In the first half of 2017 the Western Military District received 500 units of offensive heavy weapons, and another 500 units should reach those groupings in the second half of the year.We should assume that the Western Military District will be the first recipient of the new generations of weapons, including T-14 tanks on the Armata platform (the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation have ordered 100 tanks of this type, to be delivered by 2020; at present one test company has been equipped with sixteen T-14 tanks) and Su-57 fifth-generation multi-role combat aircraft (T-50 PAK FA).It is noteworthy that the rearmament of units in the Kaliningrad region is proceeding at relatively the slowest pace in the western strategic direction.
On the one hand this can be seen as a political demonstration (for example, the rearmament of the 152nd Missile Brigade with the Iskander system is still being treated as an element of gameplay with the United States, i.e. as a ‘response’ to the deployment in Poland of elements of the American missile defence system); on the other, it represents a rational assessment of the military situation in the region (increasing the range of destructive weaponry, mainly by introducing Kalibr rockets, allows the Russian army to achieve any aim it wishes in the area of Central Europe without the need to use the infrastructure in the Kaliningrad region, which is potentially the most vulnerable to destruction by the local forces of NATO states).
Russia’s use of the Zapad-2017 exercises as the starting point for a military operation – the occupation of Belarus, a strike at Ukraine or even blocking the Suwalki Gap (which the exercises’ political scenario, disclosed on 29 August, might suggest), and the possible amputation of the three Baltic states from the rest of the NATO area – SHOULD BE CONSIDERED AS EXTREMELY UNLIKELY.
Undertaking such an action, along the model of 2008 (the attack on Georgia after the Kavkaz-2008 exercises), would mean that Moscow had acknowledged as essential the military necessity to counter the actual (or even formal) integration of Ukraine with Western structures, or the presence of the US military in that country (or in the Baltic states to any significant degree).
Carrying out such an operation would be accompanied by non-military measures: in the first place, a massive information campaign to discredit the potential enemy, which as a result would justify the use of military force – at least to the Russian public.
On the other hand, the condition for such an operation would have to be Moscow’s relative certainty that there would be no real combat response from the Western states and structures (especially the US and NATO). It should be assumed that in the present situation, the above-mentioned conditions for Russia to launch another military operation have not been met. However, Russia’s actions in the military sphere over recent years indicate that its preparations for a possible armed conflict in Europe are being carried out consistently, and are permanent in nature.
The armed forces of the Russian Federation have reached a level of ability that would allow the relatively smooth implementation of any military operation in the area of the former Soviet Union (albeit in the case of the three Baltic states, only upon the assumption of the effective disinterest of the US, which currently must be considered unlikely).
It remains unclear whether Russia could implement its policy objectives by military means, which would in reality need Moscow to use its military factor. It must be assumed that, in the case of a maintenance of the status quo – i.e. the lack of any greater military support from NATO for Ukraine (of a kind which would actually influence the growth of the Ukrainian army’s potential), or the Alliance’s constant, significant military presence in the Baltic States – Russia would disregard the direct use of military force to implement its policy objectives at least until the end of the football World Cup, which it will host in June and July 2018; this event is treated in Moscow as a matter of high prestige. However, we should not expect the Russian Federation to cease or even limit its use of the military factor as a tool of its information war with the West.
Appendix. Changes in the numbers of expanded general military operational formations, tactical formations and units of the Land Forces of the Russian Federation in the western strategic direction between 2013–2017 (as of mid-2017).
 Комментарий Департамента информации и печати МИД России относительно соблюдения в подготовки ходе учениям к транспарентности мер «Запад-2017», http://www.mid.ru/ru/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/2845944. It is noteworthy that previously – as the first to do so – the Russian defence ministry reported about 280 units of heavy weapons (combat vehicles and artillery) and 25 aircraft; we should assume that the data is consistent with the later report by the Russian foreign ministry, and that it applies only to the Russian army’s equipment which was planned for deployment in Belarus.
 According to the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), tanks, combat armoured vehicles, artillery guns of 100-mm calibre and above, combat aircraft and combat helicopters.
 The report by the Russia Deputy Defence Minister, Aleksandr Fomin, deserves attention for its reference to the participation in Zapad-2017 by units of the FSB and the National Guard, which hitherto had been standard practice only in internal Russian exercises. The participation of groups from outside the Defence Ministry confirms that the exercises also include scenarios for possible pacification (occupation) after the attack by operating forces, and that the National Guard is preparing for tasks which in Soviet times had been performed by the troops of the NKVD.
 In the armoured and mechanised brigades and regiments of the Land Forces of the Russian Federation, the number and structure of the general military subunits (mechanised battalions or tank battalions) is identical.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
MINSK, 24 August (BelTA) – Officers of the Latvian army carried out an inspection in Belarus, the press service of the Belarusian Defense Ministry told BelTA.
In line with the Belarus-Latvia agreement on additional trust and security measures a Latvian inspection team visited Belarus.
The inspectors went to see the 11th Independent Mechanized Brigade and evaluated the authenticity of the information Belarus had submitted to the OSCE member states about the personnel, primary weapon systems, and military hardware of the army unit as part of the 2011 Vienna Document on Confidence- and Security-Building Measures.
The inspection confirmed that Belarus unswervingly honors its commitments as part of the agreement.
MINSK, 22 August (BelTA) – A tactical exercise for Belarusian and Russian air force units will take place on 23-25 August, BelTA learned from the Belarusian Defense Ministry website.
The air force exercise will be part of preparations for the Belarusian-Russian strategic army exercise Zapad 2017. Aircraft and helicopters will be redeployed from Russia to Belarusian airfields for practicing joint actions during the exercise.
The exercise will focus on using the Belarusian-Russian united regional air defense system to ensure the security of the Union State of Belarus and Russia, prepare air force units for combat missions, and carry out training missions in army exercise areas in Belarus. Landing on a motorway will be practiced as well.
The exercise will help improve the combat skills of the personnel in the course of preparing and managing air force units, practicing and improving the tactics and ways of employing air force units.
There are growing concerns large-scale war games planned next month by Russia with its neighbor Belarus could be a cover for something very sinister by Vladimir Putin — perhaps another Crimea.
There is alarm in Europe that the Russian president could use the military exercises as a sort of Trojan horse or pretext for an annexation of Belarus, a former Soviet republic. Putin has had an increasingly acrimonious relationship with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, particularly since Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea.
“Russia is billing it as modest exercises under 13,000 troops, but everything points to probably the largest military exercise in post-Soviet history,” said Leon Aron, resident scholar and the director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank.
According to Aron, these types of exercises preceded Russia’s invasion and later conflict with Georgia, a former Soviet republic that before the war was getting closer to Washington. Similarly, Russia used military exercises as a cover for its assault on the former Soviet republic of Ukraine.
Russia insists its quadrennial Zapad (or Russian for west) joint military drills scheduled Sept. 14-20 will include 12,700 troops and are designed to “test military coordination.” However, the New York Times reported last month the entire exercise could involve up to 100,000 people when also including “security personnel and civilian officials.”
“We urge Russia to share information regarding its exercises and operations in NATO’s vicinity to clearly convey its intentions and minimize any misunderstandings,” Pentagon spokesman Johnny Michael told CNBC.
Playing out in the background, though, are concerns from Estonia and its other Baltic NATO neighbors that the Russian 2017 Zapad military exercises have a hidden agenda.
Indeed, Vice President Mike Pence during a recent visit to Estonian capital of Tallinn said: “Russia seeks to redraw international borders by force, undermine democracies of sovereign nations and divide the free nations of Europe.”
In April, Reuters quoted then-Estonian Defense Minister Margus Tsahkna as saying his country and other members of NATO obtained intelligence that Russia planned to send troops and resources to Belarus and that when they leave, they will not remove all the equipment and leave some permanent forces behind.
“For Russian troops going to Belarus, it is a one-way ticket,” Tsahkna told Reuters. “This is not my personal opinion, we are analyzing very deeply how Russia is preparing for the Zapad exercises.”
Tsahkna also was quoted as saying Moscow asked for about 4,000 rail cars to Belarus to transport tanks and other military hardware for the war games. German reports have indicated that is 1,000 more rail cars than the 2013 Zapad.
“Unfortunately, the Russians have a big habit of actually doing operational activities under the guise of war games,” said James Carafano, vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the Heritage Foundation, the Washington think tank. “This goes back to the days of the Soviet Union. So it definitely makes people nervous.”
Carafano, who advised the Trump transition team on foreign policy, said the upcoming Zapad military maneuvers also are drawing attention because Russia is getting out from having to invite outside observer nations by claiming it will have less than 13,000 soldiers in the drills. Also, by holding several smaller drills at once Moscow skirts the international treaty known as the Vienna Document and could potentially have the 100,000 people.
“We defer to Russia obviously for anything specific to their military exercises and posture,” the Pentagon official said. He also indicated Russia has “conducted several large-scale snap exercises along NATO’s eastern flank with little to no notice and in a non-transparent manner.”
Then again, Russian media claim Baltic states of Lithuania and Latvia — two former Soviet Republics now part of NATO — are sending observers to the upcoming drills. CNBC reached out to NATO for comment.
Regardless, Putin has been growing uneasy with the West warming to Lukashenko, president of Belarus since 1994. The U.S. has sought to get closer to Belarus by lifting some sanctions it imposed to encourage political forums. Last year, The European Union also lifted its five-year sanctions on Belarus, a country with about 10 million people.
Moscow also isn’t happy that Belarus continues to depend on Russian subsidies because the collapse in oil prices has made Moscow cutback on spending. Moreover, Lukashenko’s ties with Moscow worsened when he positioned himself as a neutral mediator for the Ukraine peace talks.
“This isn’t the kind of stuff that Putin likes to see from a country he expected was a very close ally,” Aron said.
Belarus and Russia entered into a formal “Union State” in 1999 to promote trade and other policies but the goal of a single currency was never realized. Some experts suggest Putin could use this agreement as essentially legal cover to absorb Belarus.
Still, Aron said the Russian people are “not terribly concerned about Belarus” the way they were about Ukraine, which he said is viewed as part of Russian heritage dating back centuries. But he added that polls in Belarus show about a majority of people approve of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and remain generally pro-Russian.
At the same time, there’s a chance Belarusian’s officers might side with Russia in a military conflict. Some of the officers were trained in Russian military schools and tend to be paid less than their peers in Russia.
“One of the issues there is that they (Belarusian soldiers) think that if there is a union with Russia, or Belarus gets incorporated in Russia, they’ll be not only far better paid but they will become part of a military superpower instead of being this sort of backwater army,” said Aron.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Baltic Post.
Estonia has not received an invitation from Russia to observe Zapad, a large-scale joint Russian-Belarusian military exercise to take place in September. Russian authorities, however, will present the exercises to military attaches accredited to other countries’ diplomatic missions in Moscow at a separate event.
“Military attaches accredited to Moscow have been invited to attend an event at Luga Training Camp on Sept. 18-19, in the course of which Russia will present the Zapad joint military exercise,” Ministry of Defence spokesperson Susan Lilleväli told BNS on Wednesday. “The Estonian defense attaches are ready to take part in the event.”
The joint Russian-Belarusian military exercise will be held in the territory of both countries from Sept. 14-20. The exercise has sparked concern in other countries as, in similar exercises in 2009 and 2013, Russia, among other things, allegedly rehearsed an attack on its neighbors.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in mid-July that, “based on previous experiences related to previous exercises, we have every reason to believe that substantially more troops are participating than the official reported numbers.” He encouraged Russia to allow NATO observers to monitor the maneuvers.
Minister of Defence Jüri Luik has expressed the same concern, telling weekly Maaleht in July that Russia should declare the exercise on the basis of the Vienna Document, according to which any exercise involving more than 9,000 participants should be declared. Russia has stated that 13,000 troops will be participating in the September exercise.
Belarus has sent invitations to Estonia and other countries, which Estonia has already chosen to accept, to observe the exercise on its territory. It has not offered any details, however.