The large-scale Dragon-17 military exercises, in which more than 17 thousand servicemen from Poland, NATO countries, and other countries are taking part, began in Poland, Radio Poland reported.
According to the Deputy Minister of Defense of Poland Michael Dvorchik, the purpose of the exercises is to work on joint actions of Polish and foreign troops in a threatening situation.
“The scenario assumes that a neighboring country intends to gain access to resources in the territory of our country. An attempt is made to destabilize the political situation and disrupt the work of state administrative bodies and local authorities. An attempt to seize the territory is undertaken through hybrid actions,” he said.
Dvorchik noted that, although this is a hypothetical scenario, it is based on situations that have been observed recently.
“We are talking, for example, about the situation in Ukraine and the annexation of the Crimea,” he said.
Some 58% Europeans support Ukraine’s joining NATO, and only 48% are for Ukraine’s joining the European Union.
This is evidenced by the findings of an opinion poll held by KANTAR PUBLIC and commissioned by Yalta European Strategy (YES).
Citizens of seven EU member states were polled within the survey – Germany, France, Italy, Lithuania, Great Britain, Poland and the Netherlands – based on a sample that was representative for each country (more than 1,000 people per country).
The findings of the public opinion poll were presented today, on the 16th of September, at the plenary session of Yes 14th Annual Meeting “Is This a New World? And What Does It Mean for Ukraine?”
Similar opinion polls, commissioned by YES, had been held in 2005 and 2007. 12 years ago, when the first poll was held, the situation was different: majority was for Ukraine’s becoming an EU member: 55% Europeans polled.
Today, the idea of Ukraine joining the EU is best supported in Lithuania and Poland (68% and 67% respectively), and least supported in the Netherlands (27%). The level of support in France, Germany and the UK is less than half of the people polled.
“Those who are against Ukraine’s joining the EU are explaining it using various reasons. One-third of the people polled believe that at this stage of development, the EU cannot afford a further enlargement. And a comparable number (31%) think that Ukraine’s accession would cause economic issues in the European Union,” the press release says.
Some 40% of those who support Ukraine’s membership believe that Ukraine is part of Europe. And 34% of the accession supporters stress that this step would boost democracy in Ukraine.
With regards to Ukraine’s joining NATO, the situation is different. In almost every country where the survey was held, most people are for accepting Ukraine as a member of the North-Atlantic Alliance.
“Even in France and the Netherlands, there are 49% people supporting this, and in other countries, the level of support is higher. In Lithuania and Poland, this number is 72% and 76% respectively,” the press service says.
The main argument for Ukraine’s integration with NATO, according to the Europeans, is its countering Russia (40% of those who support joining). Also, there are 8% who believe that Ukraine’s joining NATO will boost the ability of Europe to counter the Russian aggression.
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.
NATO has said it is not expecting a major increase in Russian air activity during the country’s Zapad military exercises. However, the alliance has accused Moscow of not “playing by the rules” on the ground.
From a Baltic point of view, when NATO’s second-highest military commander in Europe says he expects the Zapad 2017 exercises to be a “pattern of normal Russian activity,” it’s not exactly reassuring. Frequent buzzing of allied and international airspace by Russian aircraft is one reason there’s a regular rotation of NATO Airborne Warning And Control System (AWACS) planes in the sky over the alliance’s northeastern border. Deputy Supreme Allied Commander for Europe, British Gen. Sir James Everard, was aboard the first one in the air on Zapad’s opening day, and DW’s Teri Schultz was invited along for the ride.
‘Status quo’ expected for Zapad air activity
Speaking with DW aboard the AWACS plane that flew from its Geilenkirchen base in western Germany to its Latvian mission, Everard clarified that he means he’s not anticipating a spike in Russian warplanes buzzing NATO airspace or performing provocative maneuvers over the Baltic states. That said, the existing level of engagement means there are already incidents every week of Russian planes flying near or occasionally into Baltic airspace, often with transponders off and no contact with air traffic controllers on the ground.
During the almost four-hour surveillance mission, there were two suspicious aircraft spotted by the specialists aboard. They transmitted the location to counterparts on the ground, who “scrambled” into the air to identify the aircraft and put the pilots on notice that they were being tracked by NATO.
German Air Force Lt. Col. Alex Herrmann, the mission’s technical director, said he couldn’t reveal any information that had been gained from the scramble. Herrmann, who’s been flying AWACS for almost 20 years, also sought to ratchet down tension over Russian activities even as he notes the number of AWACS flights has steadily grown over his tenure. Herrmann compared the surveillance flights with police checking for speeders on the road. “This is a question of making it safe in the air,” he explained. “Right now we are living in peacetime; there’s no hostile flying around – it’s just ‘neutral’ or ‘friendly’ or ‘of interest to us.'”
US provides pre-Zapad boost to Baltic air patrol
Nevertheless, the US has boosted its “police” force in anticipation of Zapad. Late last month, leadership of the “Baltic Air Policing” mission, which provides cover for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, rotated to the US and Belgium. The US, replacing Poland, decided to increase its fleet to seven F-15s over the four jets Poland used in the previous period. US Army Gen. Ben Hodges, commander of American forces in Europe, told DW recently that this boost would be the only US ramp-up due to Zapad.
Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics agrees with Everard that Russia won’t likely launch any direct military aggression, but he doesn’t rule out other destabilizing activities.
Everard: Zapad forces highest in 36 years
While portraying the calm, unrattled exterior NATO is seeking to project during Zapad 2017, Everard conveys there hasn’t been such a huge massing of Russian troops in more than three decades, since deep in the Cold War days. “You’d have to go back to 1981 to see one the scale of this particular exercise,” Everard said, revealing more than mere skepticism about the figure of “12,700” given out by Moscow.
So what “scale” is that? Even the AWACS can’t tell, as it detects aircraft within 400 kilometers (250 miles) of airspace in all directions, but can’t view objects on the ground, which is where open-source reporting is disputing Kremlin claims of a modest-sized exercise. Self-designated observers are tracking and publicizing Russian troop movements on Twitter.
“If very close to those [reportedly 12,700] troops, several thousand more troops are exercising, it doesn’t look very honest or transparent,” Everard said, hypothesizing about Russia’s official scenario. “One of our regrets is the fact that Russia hasn’t played by the rules.” He said NATO has “bent over backwards” to be transparent about its own drills.
And despite Moscow’s obfuscation, Everard believes with the AWACS above and what he calls a “very comprehensive intelligence platform” elsewhere, “we have a good handle on what the Russians are doing.” At the same time, he acknowledged, “I know people are scared and that’s a concern.”
Many observers say that’s a military success for Moscow already.
As Russia began large military exercises on its western border, the U.S. Army was unloading tanks in Poland, the first time these military vehicles have arrived directly by sea.
The tanks, which arrived on Wednesday, are part of a routine troop swap. Soldiers and equipment from the 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division from Fort Riley, Kansas, are replacing the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division that has been in Europe for nine months.
The replacement is part of what the military calls a continuing “heel-to-toe” rotation to maintain a U.S. armored brigade in Europe.
As for the tanks, they typically are shipped to Germany and then taken by rail or truck to their next location.
Maj. Gen. Steven Shapiro of the 21st Theater Sustainment Command said using Poland’s port of Gdansk “helps test the Army’s capacity of the port, and to make sure that the Army knows how to operate inside Poland.”
The delivery includes 87 M1 Abrams tanks, 103 Bradley Fighting Vehicles, 18 Paladin self-propelled Howitzers, and other trucks and equipment, according to U.S. European Command (EUCOM).
“The continuous presence of an armored brigade bolsters the collective defense capability of NATO,” EUCOM said. “EUCOM forces live, train, and fight alongside and partners from strategic positions that enable more timely and coordinated response if needed to defend Europe.”
The U.S. military rotation occurred as Russia began week-long military drills, called Zapad 2017, which are joint exercises with its ally Belarus.
According to the Russians, the drills involve fewer than 12,000 troops, just below the threshold that would require them to invite international observers. But, according to the U.S. and NATO, the drills could involve as many as 100,000 troops, making it one of the largest Russian exercises since the Cold War.
Polish Armaments Group is presenting a number of modernization proposals concerning the Leopard 2 and T-72/PT-91 main battle tanks.The ZM Bumar-Łabędy facility belonging to the PGZ Group has created two variants of modernization of the T-72 family tanks, as well as a technology demonstrator of the Leopard 2PL MBT, developed together with the Rheinmetall Defence company.Another proposal is presented by the WZM facility (Military Automotive Works), showcasing a mobile multi-spectral camouflage on the Leopard 2A5 platform.
The first of the presented proposals concerns modernization of the PT-91 (or the older T-72M1) main battle tanks up to the M2 standard, the goal of which would be to expand the combat abilities and battlefield survivability, mobility and operational capabilities and crew comfort ascribable to the said platform.
The hull modernization includes engine replacement – now an S-12U unit is used (modified W-46 engine with a power output of 850HP), coupled with a reinforced gearbox (Cx variant). The drivetrain features reinforced suspension (torsion bars, shock absorbers and elastomer bumpers), moreover the carousel-ammo supply system has also been modernized. The tank has also been retrofitted with a new ERA (modernized Erawa I/II system, being a developed concept of the Ukrainian Nozh armour), and slat armour on the back part and on the sides of the hull. The tank has also received rubberised tracks, extra 8-10 kW APU and KDN-1 reversing camera.
The turret itself has been fitted with the 125 mm 2A46MS cannon (which seems to be best suited for the modernized PT-91 platform), with a barrel length of 48 calibres, 902A smoke grenade dispensers and Obra-3 SSP-1 self-protection suite. To enhance the firepower and situational awareness of the crew SAVAN-15 fire control system has been used, along with TKN-3Z night vision system for the commander and PNK-72 Radomka night vision system for the driver. The tank is also going to be fitted with the PCO’s SOD 360 Degrees Observation System. The secondary ammunition storage has also been rearranged.
PT-17, on the other hand, is a development concept of the former PT-16 demonstrator. It is an in-depth modernization of the tank, with a new turret and Ukrainian KBM-2 120 mm cannon, with a barrel length of 50 calibres and composite armour. The back section of the turret features a primary ammunition storage housing 22 rounds and an automated feeder. The turret also features a panoramic observation system for the commander (VIGY-15), coupled with GOC-1 NIKE and GOD-1 IRIS optronic sensors, SSP-1 Obra-3 self-protection system, ZSMU-1276 weapon station, while the architecture of the tank is open for installation of BMS or extra datalinks and communication systems.
S1000R engine is the heart of the applied powerpack. The tank also features additional APU and A/C system. The driver may use the KDN-1 reversing camera, while the steering takes place with the use of a steering wheel. The tank has been developed in collaboration with the Ukrainian industry.
The Leopard 2PL demo vehicle, in comparison with the defined scope of modernization that is already known, including changes of the fire control system or enhanced armour, also received some enhancements that would improve the crew comfort and everyday use of the tank. A large case for extra equipment has been fitted onto the back side of the turret, the side-covers have a changed shape, with the rear drive wheels being exposed. New mounting points for inspection holes are less visible.
Meanwhile, Poznan-based Military Automotive Works facility, also belonging to the PGZ Group, is presenting a modernization proposal for the Leopard 2A5 tank, assuming that it would receive the Lubawa Group multi-spectral mobile camouflage. Utilizing this type of camouflage makes it more difficult to detect the tank using the eyesight or observation sensors, such as radar or FLIR devices. Considering the common use of thermal vision systems or UAVs that provide artillery with firing solutions, the issue of ensuring detection-safety for the armoured units is becoming more and more important.
The presented PT-91M2 modernization programme (that could be applied also in case of the older T-721 MBTs) seems to be quite realistic, within reach of the Polish industry, and also economically justifiable. Obviously, the said scope of modernization would not make the tank modern enough to compete with the new generation vehicles, nonetheless it would, at an affordable price, secure its abilities and allow for continuity in the training activities, which would make it possible to get ready for acquisition of new platforms. It is also important to introduce new, effective ammunition in parallel.
PT-17 modernization is much more expensive, and this upgrade, or some of its elements, could become a part of the PGZ’s export offer.
Leopard 2PL, in line with the adopted schedule, is to be received by the WITPIS (Military Institute of Armoured and Automotive Technology), where a comparative test programme is to take place. The vehicle will be received by the military in the third quarter of the year.
Is the Russia-Belarus exercise Zapad 2017 is a reason for concern for NATO?
Russia-Belarus exercise Zapad 2017 started today. Experts are asked what the most important strategic objectives of the Russia-Belarus exercise Zapad 2017 are, especially from the Russian point of view and whether Zapad 2017 is a reason for concern for NATO.
Will tensions between the West and Russia run high during the exercise?
This is what they said:
Johan Norberg, Senior Analyst at FOI (Swedish Defence Research Agency)
The main strategic objective is to train and if possible consolidate the capability to launch and wage high-intensity war fighting operations on the war-theatre level. I base this on an analysis of Russia’s strategic military exercises in 2011 – 2014 report and on (yet unpublished) work covering 2015 and 2016. The West should worry about Russia’s capability intentions, what type of wars they want to be able to fight, not that this exercise takes place in Western Russia and Belarus right now (it does once every 4 years).
Tensions are political. The military exercises are in my understanding primarily for building military capabilities. I do not expect the exercise as such to create more tension than there already is. Yes, there is a theoretical higher risk of incidents since there will probably be more reconnaissance aircraft and ships active than usual.
Michael Kofman, Research Scientist, CNA Corporation, Fellow, Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center
There are three elements to this exercise. First, Russia is testing its ability to command combined arms formations and the logistics involved in moving heavy ground forces into the Baltic region. Second it is a large civil-defense drill designed to test how the military and civilian authorities would behave at a time of total war, de facto mobilization of the state for a conflict with an existential threat. In that respect it tests the National Guard and other authorities in their response to internal instability, protests and the like. Finally the exercise is important in signaling to the United States that Russia has the capability and resolve to intervene in Belarus, defend its interests, and see NATO down in a potential fight. The scenario is defensive but some elements of Russian strategy are principally offensive since they involve compelling the adversary during a crisis or conflict.
Absolutely, any time a country conducts large scale military exercises it is a time for prudent vigilance and caution on the part of neighbours. This is especially so because Russia has a mixed history of having used some announced and unannounced exercises in the past to prepare for combat operations against another state, most notably Kavkaz-2008 and the snap readiness inspection in February 2014. Tensions do run high in the context of the wider confrontation between Russia and the West, but few truly expect this exercise to be a prelude to some nefarious plan, or risky adventure. Most of the reactions among NATO members have been calm, although there is always some unfortunate panic and media sensationalism that takes place during such events.
Paal Hilde, Associate Professor, Centre for Norwegian and European Security, Institute for Defence Studies/Norwegian Defence University College
A major military exercise like Zapad 2017 generally has many objectives, ranging from narrow military aims to overtly political ones. What the most important strategic objectives of Zapad 2017 are from the Russian point of view is hard to determine with certainty. There are probably several such objectives and their relative significance will likely vary among different actors. From the military perspective, the exercise will be another occasion to test new concepts, including lessons learned in Ukraine and Syria. On the more political level, to show the Russian population, notably in Kaliningrad, as well as NATO that the Russian military is able to move quickly to defend the exclave may be another objective. Russia might also want to intimidate Belarus and other neighbours. More generally, military prowess has been a key tool in Putin’s attempt to re-establish Russia’s status as a “great power” in international affairs; including in Europe and the Middle East. Showing off military force, including in highly publicised exercises, is seemingly also useful for the Putin administration in domestic political mobilisation. The massive attention Zapad 2017 has gained in both Russian and international media is in itself a sign that such exercises are a highly useful political tool.
The speculations that Zapad 2017 might be a cover for plans to invade the Baltic states or Ukraine seem to be just that – speculations. Russian officials have obviously rejected such accusations and it is hard to see what Russia would want to achieve with such a military adventure. There is thus more reason for worry regarding situations where NATO and Russian military forces come close and where accidents or unplanned and unfortunate events spin out of control. Both sides are aware of this danger and will presumably seek to maintain safe distances and quickly deescalate if necessary. The most tangible and obvious concern from the point of view of NATO is of a political nature, however. Russia has claimed that only 12 700 personnel and a small number of military equipment will be involved in the exercise, bringing it below the threshold in the Vienna Document for inviting observers. Much suggests that the total military manpower and equipment that will be involved in the series of other exercises that run in parallel with the official Zapad 2017 will be vastly larger – perhaps up to 100 000. If this is the case, Zapad 2017 will represent a blatant Russian violation of the spirit if not the letter of the Vienna Document. It will thus represent yet another setback for arms control and confidence building in Europe.
Garret Martin, Professorial Lecturer, School of International Service, Editor at Large at the European Institute, American University
This is a bit of a speculation but we can assume that Zapad 2017 might serve the following interests/objectives for Russia. First, there is the declared aim of conducting an exercise against a simulated terrorist or asymmetric threat. But, in addition to that, it is likely that Russia is also keen to display its power and in particular to emphasize its ability “to impose substantial costs on a technologically advanced adversary, i.e. the United States” (see the very good piece from War on the Rocks that covers Russian thinking – https://warontherocks.com/2017/08/what-to-expect-when-youre-expecting-zapad-2017/ ). To cite the same piece, Zapad is also a way to establish Russia’s coercive credibility.
Is Zapad 2017 a cause of concern for NATO and a possible source of tension? That may be overstating it. Apprehension sure, but tension is too strong a word. It is true that Russia staged large drills before the conflict in Georgia in 2008 and before annexing Crimea in 2014. And Russia is most likely dramatically understating the number of troops involved in Zapad 2017 (announcing 12,700 troops, which puts it just under the threshold of 13,000 by which Russia would have to invite outside observers).
But on the other hand, there are plenty of reasons to keep Zapad 2017 in perspective. Many countries conduct such exercises, and Russia has conducted many before that were not prelude to actual operations. Moreover, part of the exercises will take place well inside Belarus and from a healthy distance away from the Polish and Lithuanian borders. Not to mention that it would be quite foolish for Russia to try and use the exercise as a smokescreen for an actual operation when NATO states are keeping a close eye on the region.
The overall objective of Zapad is to test how Russia, its C2 structures, armed forces units, and civil organisations will react if country went to war with NATO. Zapad has always had an anti-NATO character so it should not at all be surprising that NATO is target here.
That said, Zapad is much more than a military exercise. A significant part of country’s C2 structures, civil organisations are involved in Zapad as Moscow will want to see how they mobilise, move, develop, conduct operations in a state of war or increased emergency. The current movement of troops, readiness tests (such as the one from early September that tested readiness of the 11 ICBM regiments) likely fall under what Russia’s call a “threatening period”. This is when Moscow realises that threats are real. These threats need to be addressed by troop deployments, flexing muscles, and improving readiness. These moves are also a part of Zapad. How Russia mobilises pre-official start of Zapad will also be closely assessed by the civil-military leadership post-exercise.
In short not really. Zapad is going to be provide a great insight on the progress of the Russian Armed Forces reforms, how and how quickly it mobilises, how it seeks to deter potential adversaries. We should learn from it and how to be afraid of it.
It is very likely that aircraft will be intercepted over the Baltic Sea by both sides, NATO will deploy SIGINT and ELINT assets to take a peek into what’s going on in the Kaliningrad Oblast. I don’t expect tensions to run higher compared to what we have experienced in the past two-three years.
In conducting these large capstone exercises, Russia has pursued both military and political aims. On the military side, Russia seeks to highlight its abilities to conduct large-scale joint operations that involve multiple branches of its armed forces and require the activation of logistics networks that include the transfer of forces from one part of the country to another. Zapad 2017 and other exercises in this series also seek to develop military cooperation between Russia and Belarus, since Belarus is Russia’s most capable military ally and serves as a critical buffer zone between Russian and NATO member states. What’s more, a NATO intervention in Belarus is seen in Russia as one of the most likely causes for a major military confrontation between Russia and the West.
On the political side, Zapad-2017 is aimed at deterring the West by highlighting Russia’s preparedness to counter any aggressive actions by NATO or its individual member states. Despite Western perceptions of Russian aggressiveness, Russia continues to feel relatively weak when compared to the United States and its allies. As a result, it seeks to highlight its capabilities to defend itself, against both a direct attack and regime change efforts. The recent Western media stories highlighting the potential size of the exercise are very helpful in Russia achieving this goal.
NATO should treat Zapad 2017 as an opportunity to study the Russian military’s strengths and weaknesses and also its defensive strategy for its Western border. I don’t see any reason for tensions to be high during the exercise, except for the misplaced concerns expressed by politicians in neighboring NATO states about the possibility of the exercise being a cover for a Russian invasion.
Statements that Russian military exercises on its borders are inevitably a precursor to foreign intervention are a prime example of selection bias. Russia conducts military exercises on its borders many times a year, usually with little notice from non-specialists. Only on two occasions have these these exercises been followed by foreign interventions, and in both cases these took place during major international crises, not as a surprise attack. Russia has repeatedly indicated that it is not interested in a forceful intervention in the Baltic, both because it has no desire to occupy hostile territory and because its leaders continue to have faith in NATO’s willingness to back its Article 5 guarantees to its Baltic member states with armed force.
Russia On Thursday began major joint military exercises with Belarus along the European Union’s eastern flank — a show of strength that has rattled nervous NATO members.
Named Zapad-2017 (West-2017), the manoeuvres, scheduled to last until September 20, are taking place on the territory of Moscow’s closest ally Belarus, in Russia’s European exclave of Kaliningrad and in its frontier Pskov and Leningrad regions.
Moscow says the drills will involve 12,700 troops, 70 aircraft, 250 tanks and 10 battleships testing their firepower against an imaginary foe close to borders with Poland and the Baltic States.
In a statement announcing the start of the exercises Russia’s defence ministry insisted the manoeuvres are “of a strictly defensive nature and are not directed against any other state or group of countries.”
But NATO claims Russia has kept it in the dark and seems to be massively underreporting the scale of the exercises, which some of the alliance’s eastern members insist could see more than 100,000 servicemen take part.
The war games come with tensions between Russia and NATO at their highest since the Cold War due to the Kremlin’s meddling in Ukraine and the US-led alliance bolstering its forces in eastern Europe.
Moscow has dismissed fears over the drills — the latest in a series of annual exercises that rotate around the vast country — as fuelled by the “myth about the so-called ‘Russian threat'”.
But for NATO allies, especially jittery members such as Poland and the Baltic States which only broke free from Moscow’s grip 25 years ago, such reassurances have not dampened suspicion.
“This is designed to provoke us, it’s designed to test our defences and that is why we have to be strong,” Britain’s Defence Secretary Michael Fallon told the BBC last week.
“Russia is testing us and testing us now at every opportunity. We see a more aggressive Russia, we have to deal with that.”
– ‘Skillfully manipulates’ –
Moscow has held a stream of exercises since ties with the West plunged in 2014 over Ukraine, with the military claiming some drills included nearly 100,000 troops.
Minsk has said the games will role play a conflict with a made-up rebel region backed by neighbouring European nations. Russia says they will simulate assaults by “extremist groups” trying to carry out “terrorist attacks”.
Russian military expert Alexander Golts told AFP that Moscow “very skillfully manipulates the figures for such drills because it does not want to have to invite foreign observers”.
“Russia at every drill is working on one and the same scenario — how to deploy troops quickly,” he said.
The Kremlin has vigorously defended its right to hold exercises and has long blamed the United States for ratcheting up tensions by expanding NATO up to its borders and holding its own provocative drills.
The Russian war games come as Ukraine on Monday launched annual joint military exercises with the US and a host of other NATO countries.
Meanwhile non-aligned Sweden has mobilised 19,000 soldiers for its biggest drills in 20 years which also include units from across Scandinavia and the US.
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.
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.
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.
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.”