Estonian Observer Reports that the Russian-Belarus 2017 Drills Appear to have conformed to the OSCE Vienna document Guidelines

MINSK REGION, BELARUS. A helicopter insertion during Zapad 2017, joint Russian and Belarusian military exercises, at Borisovsky range. Ramil Nasibulin/BelTA/TASS

TALLINN, Sep 20, BNS – Representatives of seven countries invited to observe the Zapad large-scale Russia-Belarus joint military exercise in Belarus under the Vienna document were shown action of defensive nature and also the number of personnel that they saw was smaller than the declared maximum numbers, an Estonian observer who was present at the exercise said.

“What we saw was basically of defensive nature by all means,” the observer, Lt. Col. Kaupo Kiis, told BNS on Wednesday. He said that the joint Russia-Belarus exercise, just like the military exercises held in Estonia, started with an imitated invasion by an enemy, which was then halted and the enemy eventually driven out of the country.
On the first day operations of the air force took place, on the second day it was action by the ground forces and on the third day an air defense operation took place. On the last day, Wednesday, a large-scale operation took place that was watched also by the president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, foreign defense attaches and representatives of NATO, the UN, the Red Cross and the OSCE.

Kiis said that the number of personnel seen by the observers was smaller than what Belarus had declared.
“The kind of number of people that was declared by the different sides we never saw. There may have been more, because Belarus is big, but I guess that I didn’t see 5,000 on different days combined,” the officer said.

Moscow and Minsk have said that 12,700 personnel were to take part in Zapad, including about 7,200 from Belarus and about 5,500 from Russia. Of the Russian personnel up to 3,000 were to take part in the exercise in Belarus. Representatives of NATO meanwhile have questioned these numbers as too small.

Kiis pointed out that the exercise was held in two stages, of which the observers invited under the OSCE Vienna document saw the second stage. “We don’t know what happened in the first stage because Russian soldiers were given honors after the end of the first stage,” he said.

Kiis said that the actions of offensive nature spoken about in international media may have taken place in the first stage, but since he did not see it, he can not confirm of deny this

“This is all that was shown to us, that was spoken to us. I can speak about these things,” he said.
The active phase of the exercise lasted from Sept. 14 through 20.

“And one more thing — we could not speak to conscripts, regardless of our repeated requests, to ask about their opinion. We could speak though to senior officers of various ranks on both the Russian and the Belarusian side,” the Estonian observer said.

The Estonian officer was an observer at Zapad alongside officers from Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, Sweden and Norway. Each of the countries sent two observers.


NATO voices skepticism over size of Russia’s Zapad military exercise

NATO has welcomed recent dialogue with Russia, but the alliance has serious doubts Moscow is revealing the true extent of its military exercises. Last time this training took place was just before the invasion of Crimea.

Russia’s NATO ambassador told reporters last week his government would be completely transparent about the Zapad military exercises that have begun in western Russia and Belarus, near the alliance’s border. At this point, Aleksander Grushko said, it’s not envisioned that any of the planned Zapad (West) drills will utilize more than 13,000 troops, the number at which Russia would be obliged under an OSCE agreement to allow other governments to formally view the exercises. “If [the exercises] meet the threshold established by the Vienna Document, observation will be provided,” Grushko said. “If not, not.”

Read more: Zapad games ‘peaceful and defensive’ Russia assures West

The ambassador said his report to the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) should put to rest all the rumors that the Kremlin could be planning to amass as many as 100,000 military personnel in total in the joint Russian-Belarusian training mission, simply carved up into groups below the reporting requirement. “If such speculations continue … about the intentions of Russia and Belarus,” he said, “this would mean that this practice of briefings doesn’t give results on the political front. We believe that everything we do in this platform within the NRC and OSCE should really contribute to mutual trust.”

Ambassador Aleksander Grushko

Size matters

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg welcomed Russia’s voluntary disclosure of numbers of participating troops, planes and ships, allowing that it’s “too early to say” whether they’re accurate since Zapad hasn’t taken place. But, he noted, “from previous experiences related to previous exercises, we have every reason to believe it may be substantially more troops participating than the official reported numbers.”

NATO officials point out Russia has officially declared every military exercise since 1991 to be below the threshold of 13,000 so that it doesn’t have to allow inspections nor observers. Zapad 2013 followed that model, with official Russian announcements declaring the troop presence to be “12,000” or perhaps “12,500.” Various reports after the exercises estimate there were at least 75,000 boots on the ground, training in operations that were quite useful a few months later when Russia invaded Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula.

Russian troops occupying Crimea 2014

No NATO countermoves

The US Army’s top commander in Europe, Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, is taking things coolly. “There’s nothing evil about Zapad,” Hodges told DW. “It’s an exercise scheduled every four years and it’s certainly Russia’s right to exercise.” The problem, he emphasizes, is the lack of transparency. “I’ve never met in three years a single journalist who’s covered a Russian exercise,” he said.

Read more: NATO in Europe needs ‘military Schengen’ to rival Russian mobility

“So if Russia were serious about wanting stability and security along their western border, they would invite journalists out there to demonstrate, ‘hey, we’re just defensive.'” Hodges notes that instead, Russia has moved in 800 tanks “which exist only to attack.”

Still, Hodges says, during Zapad, NATO’s only change to its current beefed-up deterrence will be to move one airborne battalion – about 650 soldiers – up to the Baltics.

Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, commanding general of the US Army in Europe is seen during a press conference after NATO Saber Strike military exercises on June 16, 2017 in Orzysz, Poland. / AFP PHOTO / Wojtek RADWANSKI

Deploying expert eyes

With no visibility coming from Moscow, NATO and other observers are relying on their own methods to keep track of the Kremlin’s maneuvers. Magnus Nordenman is the director of the Transatlantic Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council, which has launched a “ZapadWatch” program to analyze what’s happening on the ground and what that will mean for Europe and NATO.

“With this initiative we are bringing together the Atlantic Council’s European security experts with our capabilities to do digital forensics in order to shine a light on Zapad,” Nordenman told DW. “Previous iterations of Zapad have given us important clues about Russia’s growing military capabilities, Moscow’s intents, and political signaling to Europe, the United States, and NATO. It’s important that American and European policy makers and the broader public pay attention to this.”

Magnus Nordenman, Director of the Transatlantic Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council

Even as NATO continues calling on Moscow to be honest about its military activity, the alliance has been engaged in a long-term effort to strengthen the notification process. Dominik Jankowski, the head of the OSCE unit in the Polish foreign ministry, says the Vienna Document is still a “crucial element of transparency and risk reduction in Europe” even with Russia’s “selective implementation” of it.

“We need to continue efforts to modernize the Vienna Document, even if we are still waiting for a Russia willing to engage in that issue,” Jankowski told DW. “There are numerous vital proposals on the table: ranging from greater transparency regarding snap exercises to risk reduction mechanisms and incident prevention efforts.” He says the OSCE is the best forum to work on reforming multilateral security policy as all allies and Russia are members.

Estonia’s outgoing NATO ambassador Lauri Lepik even suggests the alliance could look at the Russian activity as an opportunity, after all the upgrades and reconfiguration of allied defense and deterrence.  “Zapad is a perfect stress test,” Lepik said “for the whole NATO machinery on situational awareness and intelligence gathering.”


Amid Western Concerns, Belarus Says Zapad Drills Will Comply With International Agreements

Opposition supporters take part in a rally during a protest against the upcoming Russian-Belarussian Zapad-2017 military exercises, and to mark the Day of Belarussian Military Glory in Minsk, Belarus, 08 September 2017. EPA-EFE/TATYANA ZENKOVICH

MINSK — Belarus says its upcoming military maneuvers with Russia won’t violate international agreements, amid Western concerns about the war games.

The chief of the Belarusian Defense Ministry’s department for international cooperation, Major General Aleh Voinau, told journalists in Minsk on September 13 that international organizations and governments — including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and NATO member states — have been informed in a timely fashion about the Zapad (West) 2017 exercises in accordance with OSCE rules known as the Vienna Document.

Voinau said that the number of personnel, weapons, and military hardware involved in the Zapad 2017 exercises, which are set to be held in Belarus and parts of western Russia on September 14-20, will comply with the Vienna Document as well.

Under the Vienna Document, states conducting maneuvers involving more than 13,000 troops must notify other nations in advance and be open to observers.

Russia and Belarus say Zapad 2017 will involve about 12,700 troops. But Western military officials and experts say that the true numbers could be far higher, with as many as 100,000 military personnel involved.

Russia charges that Western concerns about the exercises are unfounded, saying they are “purely defensive” and pose no threat to Russia’s neighbors, NATO, or the West.

Voinau said that by September 30, all Belarusian military personnel and equipment will return to their bases and all Russian troops and equipment will leave Belarus.

Dialogue with NATO and Belarusian National Security

He also insisted that the drills will be held far from the borders with foreign countries.

Last week, British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon and German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said that Zapad 2017 will involve about 100,000 troops and accused Moscow of seeking to show off military might on the borders of the EU and NATO.

In an interview with the Russian Defense Ministry’s newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda on September 13, the commander of Russia’s Western Military District said such statements were made “without any evidence.”

“It is a defensive training and it is the final stage of the joint training of the armed forces of Russia and Belarus,” Colonel General Andrei Kartapolov said. “We conduct such events regularly in accordance with decisions made by our heads of state.”

Fallon told the BBC on September 10 that Zapad 2017 aims at “provoking” NATO and “testing” its defenses.

Speaking on September 7 in the Estonian capital, Tallinn, von der Leyen said, “It is undisputed that we see a demonstration of the capabilities and power of the Russians.”

NATO says it will send three observers to Belarus and Russia to monitor Zapad 2017 but has repeatedly called on the two countries to allow broader monitoring of the drills.

Belarus borders NATO members Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, as well as Ukraine. The area in which the upcoming exercises are due to take place also includes the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, which lies between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea.

Russia’s military actions in Ukraine have increased concerns about Moscow’s intentions in NATO nations, particularly former Soviet republics or Warsaw Pact satellites of the Soviet Union.

Russia occupied and seized the Crimean Peninsula in March 2014 and backs separatists whose war against Kyiv’s forces has killed more than 10,000 people in eastern Ukraine since April of that year.

Those actions have prompted NATO to step up its defenses in the east, deploying four multinational battlegroups in the three Baltic states and Poland — totaling approximately 4,500 troops.

With reporting by Interfax


Zapad-2017 drills in Belarus to involve 98 Russian tanks

MINSK, September 13. /TASS/. The Zapad-2017 (or West 2017) Belarusian-Russian military drills, scheduled to be held in Belarus, will involve 138 tanks, including 98 Russian ones, says the data presented at the Wednesday briefing by Head of the Belarusian Defense Ministry’s International Military Cooperation Department Oleg Voinov.

According to the Belarusian Defense Ministry, the drills that will be held on the country’s territory, will involve 231 armored fighting vehicles, including 104 Russian ones. Out of 241 artillery and missile systems, 32 have been brought from Russia. Besides, 40 aircraft, including 27 Russian planes and helicopters, will fly air patrols over the country.

The Zapad-2017 joint Russian-Belarusian drills will take place on September 14-20 at six training ranges in Belarus and three training ranges in Russia. Around 12,700 troops are expected to participate in the military exercises, with 10,200 of them deployed to Belarus. The drills will also involve 680 pieces of military hardware.

The Belarusian Defense Ministry has invited several countries and international organizations, including United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), NATO, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), to monitor the drills.

Russia, in turn, has sent invitations to defense ministers of a number of countries to attend the final stage of the exercises.


Estonia to send observers to Zapad drills

TALLINN, Sep 12, BNS – Estonia is to send observers to the Belarusian-Russian joint exercise Zapad 2017, the daily Postimees writes.

Russia has decided to introduce the exercise at a training range in Luga on Sept. 17-18 to defense attaches who have been accredited in Moscow, spokesperson for the Estonian Ministry of Defense Andres Sang said.

Estonia’s defense attache will also participate in the event. Official Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) invitations for observation have not been issued.

Belarus has formally notified the OSCE that Zapad will be held in the territory of Belarus on Sept. 14-20. In addition Belarus has, under the principle of voluntariness of the Vienna document, invited two observers from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Ukraine and Sweden each to take part in a program lasting from Sept.16-20.

Estonia has accepted the invitation of Belarus and will send two people to participate in the program. The Ministry of Defense does not have information on the extent of the access that the participants will have to the drills.

Additionally, the Estonian defense attache will participate in a Zapad related program to be organized by the Belarus Ministry of Defense on Sept. 19-21.


Rush for media briefing on Belarusian-Russian strategic army exercise Zapad 2017

Dmitry Mironchik. Archive photo

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.”

OSCE Forum for Security Cooperation in Vienna

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.”


NATO chief says no ‘imminent threat’ in Russia war games

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg

TAPA, Sept 06 (LETA–AFP–BNS) – NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said Wednesday he saw no “imminent threat” from Russia’s military exercises with Belarus next week but condemned Moscow for a lack of openness about the drills.

The Zapad event, which Moscow says will involve some 12,700 troops, has caused unease in Poland and the Baltic states, with Lithuania and Estonia saying as many as 100,000 soldiers could take part, though Russia insists the event is “purely defensive” in nature.

NATO has deployed four battle groups — around 4,000 troops — to Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and Poland in recent years in response to growing Russian assertiveness in the region, particularly after it annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

Stoltenberg, visiting NATO troops at a base in Tapa, northern Estonia, said the troop presence sent a clear message “that an attack on one ally will trigger a response from the whole alliance.”
“We will monitor the (Zapad) activity closely and we are vigilant but also calm, because we don’t see any imminent threat against any NATO ally,” he said.

Western officials have said the preparations for Zapad suggest it could be much bigger than Moscow has admitted, and Stoltenberg said Russia’s openness about the drills did not meet international standards.
Three NATO experts have been invited to attend as observers, but Stoltenberg said this “fell short of the transparency required by the OSCE.”

“Transparency and predictability are even more important when tensions are high, to reduce the risks of misunderstandings and incidents,” Stoltenberg said.

Moscow has said the exercises in western Russia, Belarus and the western Russian exclave of Kaliningrad will involve around 7,200 troops from Belarus and 5,500 from Russia.

Estonian Prime Minister Juri Ratas said Tallinn and the other Baltic states felt “secure and safe” with NATO backing, but echoed Stoltenberg’s concerns about the lack of transparency.


The ZAPAD 2017 Exercise: The Reality, NOT the myth

Russia has several amphibious landers in its Baltic Fleet

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.


Západ prohrává. Do médií jde ruská a čínská propaganda – The West loses, Russia and China controls the media

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[1].

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[2].

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[3].

Koalitsiya-SV 2S35 self-propelled howitzer

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.

Belarussian troops conducting a military training exercise

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.

Baltic Fleet Ship Boiky (532) (Бойкий – Brisk) Steregushchy-class corvette, deployed with the Baltic Fleet, August 30 2017

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.

Estimated Russian military deployments in the Eastern Military District

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[4], 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.

T-14 Armata Main Battle Tanks. Sergei Bobylev/Russian Defence Ministry Press Office/TASS.

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[5]), 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).

2013 2014 2015 2016 2017
Armies 2 2 2 3 4
Corps 2 3
Divisions 2 2 2 3 5
Brigades/regiments[6] 6/7 6/7 7/7 9/13 7/21

[1] See for example Владимир Сергеев, Эшелоны идут на «Запад-2017», http://belvpo.com/ru/8541.html

[2] 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.

[3] О. Турчинов: «Запад-2017»-реальність і загрози, http://www.rnbo.gov.ua/news/2858.html.

[4] 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.

[5] 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.

[6] 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.

OSW Commentary
Andrzej Wilk


Send UN peacekeepers to eastern Ukraine, Putin says

A Ukrainian serviceman patrols at the humanitarian aid center in Avdiivka, Ukraine, Saturday, Feb. 4, 2017. Evgeniy Maloletka

Russia will ask the United Nations to send peacekeeping troops to eastern Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin says.

Putin told journalists Tuesday that armed peacekeepers could provide safety for staff of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) which is monitoring the ceasefire there. “It would help resolve the problem in eastern Ukraine,” said Putin.

More than 10,000 people have died in fighting between Ukrainian soldiers and Russian-backed separatists. A peace deal is in place but fighting has continued on and off.

Ukraine previously asked for peacekeepers but the separatists have opposed that. German officials said Tuesday they were surprised about Putin’s call for peacekeepers but supportive of such a move.

Putin also warned that any decision by the United States to supply weapons to Ukraine would further the fighting and spark a backlash that could see pro-Russian separatists to expand their military campaign in the region. “It’s hard to imagine how the self-declared republics would respond,” Putin said. “Perhaps they would deploy weapons to other conflict zones.”


Secretary General praises Poland’s contributions to the Alliance, visits NATO battlegroup

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg meets with enhanced Forward Presence troops

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg praised Poland for making important contributions to the Alliance during a visit to Warsaw on Friday (25 August 2017). He highlighted Poland’s contributions to NATO operations in Afghanistan and Kosovo, training in Iraq, and thanked Poland for hosting key NATO commands and capabilities. Mr. Stoltenberg also welcomed Poland’s leadership on defence spending, by meeting the NATO benchmark of investing 2% of GDP in defence.

In Warsaw, Mr. Stoltenberg recalled the importance of the decisions taken by Allies at NATO’s 2016 summit in the Polish capital, which led to the greatest reinforcement of the Alliance’s collective defence since the end of the Cold War. “We have tripled the size of the NATO Response Force, established new headquarters in the east of the Alliance and enhanced our forward presence here in Poland, as well as in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania”, Mr Stoltenberg said.

Commenting on Russia’s ZAPAD military exercise, scheduled for September in Belarus and western Russia, Mr Stoltenberg said NATO would be watching closely. He further urged Russia to respect its commitments to military transparency and the OSCE. “All nations have the right to exercise their forces, but nations should also respect their commitments to transparency,” he said.

While in Warsaw, Mr Stoltenberg held talks with Polish President Andrzej Duda, Prime Minister Beata Szydlo, Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski, and Defence Minister Antoni Macierewicz. He also participated in a trilateral meeting with Polish Foreign Minister Waszczykowski, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and Romanian Foreign Minister Teodor Melesșcanu, which focused on current security challenges and‎ preparations for next year’s NATO summit in Brussels.

The Secretary General wrapped up his trip to Poland by visiting a 1,200-strong multinational NATO battlegroup stationed in the northeastern town of Orzysz. The NATO battlegroup is one of four in the Baltic nations and Poland established following Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. Mr Stoltenberg noted that NATO’s forces in the eastern part of the Alliance were a key outcome of the Warsaw Summit, adding that they show Europe and North America standing united.


West-2017 military drills purely defensive — Russian Foreign Ministry

Russian Foreign Ministry Building in Moscow

West-2017 joint military drills between Russia and Belarus are purely defensive, while the actual number of troops and military equipment involved is less than claims made by the foreign media, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Friday.

“The West-2017 combined military exercises involving the Russian and Belarusian armed forces are purely defensive,” the statement reads.

“The hype over the drills is artificial and aimed at justifying the spending on NATO’s military build-up on Poland and the Baltic states in the eyes of the western audience,” the statement adds.

“We would like to point out that it is these actions that raise military tensions in Europe – a fact that the western ‘soldiers of the pen and mic’ have been complaining about recently,” the ministry said.

Number of troops

The Russian Foreign Ministry rejected the allegations which said that the number of the troops expected to participate in the military exercises had been deliberately understated, while the drills’ transparency was not ensured.

“The total number of troops and military equipment does not exceed the level subjected to mandatory monitoring of certain military activities, as it is stipulated by the 2011 Vienna document,” the Russian Foreign Ministry added.

According to the statement, “the drills, scheduled to take place on September 14-20, will involve up to 12,700 troops [7,200 Belarusian and 5,500 Russian, including 3,000 troops in Belarus], as well as around 70 planes and helicopters, up to 680 pieces of military equipment, including about 250 tanks, around 200 cannons, multiple launch rocket systems and mortars, and up to ten ships.”

“It is far less that the claims being made by the media in connection with the upcoming military exercises,” the statement says.

At the same time, the Russian Foreign Ministry pointed out that Belarus, acting on its own initiative, had invited representatives of the United Nations, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), NATO, Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), as well as diplomats and military observers from Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, Estonia, Sweden and Norway, to monitor the drills. Moreover, Belarus held a briefing on the sidelines of the OSCE Forum for Security Cooperation. “We welcome the steps taken by Belarus,” the Russian Foreign Ministry noted.

Russian military experts, in turn, held a briefing dedicated to the drills in NATO headquarters on July 13. Until the end of August, the Russian Defense Ministry planned to organize another briefing for foreign diplomats and military experts accredited in Russia.

The drills

West-2017 military drills, scheduled to take place at six training ranges in Russia and Belarus on September 14-20, will involve around 12,700 troops. The number of troops expected to participate in the drills is less than that stipulated by the 2011 Vienna document (13,000). This is the reason why it is not mandatory to invite foreign observers to monitor the military exercises.

However, a number of western countries have been voicing their concern over the upcoming drills.