The drill involves almost 12,700 servicemen, about 70 planes and helicopters and up to 680 equipment units, including about 250 tanks, almost 200 weapons, multiple launch rocket systems and mortars, as well as 10 ships.
Under the scenario of the exercise small groups of militants had infiltrated into Russia’s territory across the border to have merged into several large units each having a strength of up to 500 men for staging terrorist attacks and acts of sabotage.
They seized a large number of light aircraft and drones at airfields near the border. For this reason air defense artillery systems Pantsir-S1, air defense missiles Strela-1 and other counter-weapons had to be used.
On the ground, the enemy was attacked with support provided by artillery and armored vehicles, including T-90 tanks, the newest tank support vehicles Terminator, front-line bombers Sukhoi-24, fighter-bombers Sukhoi-34 and also Mi-24, Mi-28 and Ka-52 helicopters.
The concerted attack against the hypothetical terrorists on the ground was accompanied by an air assault. The intruder forces were sealed off and eliminated.
The strategic exercise Zapad-2017 is the last phase of joint training by the armed forces of the Union State of Russia and Belarus this year.
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.
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.
The Swedish Armed Forces kicked off Aurora 17 today, the international exercise has been dubbed as Sweden’s “biggest drill in decades”.
While Sweden itself is not a member of NATO, over 20,000 troops from the country and other NATO members, including the US, are set to participate in the three-week exercise. Naval, air and land services will be taking part in the drill.
The exercise coincides with the start of the major Russian drill Zapad 2017 this week. The week-long exercise will include Russian and Belarusian military forces and will take place in Russia’s Kaliningrad district and across Belarus.
Taking place along the borders of NATO member states, Zapad has caused greater concern for the West given Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Sweden’s defense minister Peter Hultqvist told Financial Times the drill reflected Sweden’s new military strategy which is a consequence of Russian actions, adding that Sweden plans more drills in the future.
Concurrently with Aurora 17, Sweden is hosting a total of 16 countries for the 2017 edition of the German Navy-sponsored exercise Northern Coasts 2017.
The international exercise is taking place between September 8 and 21 off Gotland and in the Southern Baltic Sea.
A general goal of the drill is to develop skills in maritime surveillance, anti-surface, anti-air, anti-submarine and mine counter-measures. At a tactical stage, a fictitious but realistic scenario will see participants respond to a multinational crisis in maritime areas.
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.”
On 5 September, during a press conference at the BRICS (Russia, China, Brazil, India and South Africa) summit in China, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin announced that Russia would propose a draft resolution to the UN Security Council on the deployment of UN peacekeeping forces in Donbas.
A relevant document was submitted on the same day. Moscow’s initiative, however, does have a few conditions. The peacekeeping forces would offer protection to the OSCE mission in Donbas and be deployed only on the demarcation line between the Ukrainian forces and the forces of the separatists backed by Russia.
Furthermore, their deployment would take place after both parties to the conflict have withdrawn heavy matériel. President Putin also emphasised that the deployment of the UN peacekeeping forces should be agreed during direct negotiations with separatist leaders and must be approved by the UN Security Council.
The Ukrainian side has been probing the possibility of the deployment of UN forces in Donbas as an alternative to the Minsk Accord since 2015. However, it was only on 3 February 2017 that the draft proposal for deployment of an armed UN peacekeeping mission was presented in the speech of Kostiantyn Yeliseyev, deputy head of the administration of President Petro Poroshenko.
Officially, Kyiv announced it during a telephone conversation of the participants of the so-called Normandy Format (France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia) during a summit of its heads of state on 24 July this year.
According to President Poroshenko, the need to deploy UN peacekeeping forces and to vest them with the UN Security Council’s mandate is an effect of “Russia’s categorical unwillingness to achieve peace in Donbas.” On 22 August, the Ukrainian president stated that he intended to present a detailed plan for the deployment of the mission in Donbas during the next session of the UN General Assembly (12–25 September). Before that, Ukraine also suggested that an armed OSCE mission be deployed in the region.
The Russian proposal is above all of a tactical character because Moscow’s primary goal is to torpedo Kyiv’s initiative concerning the deployment of peacekeeping forces in the occupied part of Donbas and at the same time to put the blame on Ukraine and the USA for the expected failure of the Russian proposal.
The Kremlin’s initiative can also be linked with the recently observed hardening of the US stance on the conflict, particularly including with the announcement that arms supplies to Ukraine are possible.
Signs of this include President Putin’s ambiguous statement in which he warned that US weapons supplies to Ukraine might lead to the conflict spilling over onto the territory of Ukraine and to “the separatists sending weapons to other conflict areas critical for those who pose problems to them.” President Putin’s statement, which was in essence blackmail addressed to the USA, may suggest that Russian weapons will be supplied to other areas where US forces are engaged.
Moscow in fact is not interested in the deployment of UN peacekeeping forces in Donbas. Their presence would not be beneficial to the Kremlin as it would potentially restrict Russia’s full freedom of action in the conflict area, which includes periodically escalating the conflict in order to apply pressure on Kyiv. However, Moscow is trying to simulate efforts to end the conflict, thus manifesting its constructive stance on the Ukrainian conflict to the West. This is partly effective, one proof of which is the statement of the German minister of foreign affairs, Sigmar Gabriel, who called the draft resolution “a change in Russia’s previous policy that we cannot waste.”President Putin’s words have met with a negative reaction in Ukraine. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement that Russia, being the aggressor country, cannot be a participant of the peacekeeping mission under the aegis of the UN and that its deployment does not require consent from the self-proclaimed ‘republics’ in Donbas.
Iryna Herashchenko, deputy speaker of the Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian parliament) and Ukraine’s representative in the Trilateral Contact Group in Minsk, rejected Putin’s initiative, viewing it as an attempt to distort the idea of the deployment of the UN peacekeeping forces in the conflict area in Donbas announced in Kyiv.
The conditions of deployment of the peacekeeping forces put forward by the Kremlin are unfavourable to Ukraine, because this would mean recognising the separatists as a subject of international negotiations, while the UN mission would only extend to the contact line that would maintain the situation of the lack of international supervision on the Ukrainian-Russian border in Donbas (currently controlled by Russian services and separatist forces).
Not all the details of the Ukrainian initiative concerning the UN peacekeeping mission are known at present. It envisages the deployment of peacekeeping forces across the entire territory that is outside the central government’s control between the demarcation line and the Ukrainian-Russian border. Peacekeeping forces would monitor the security situation and the demilitarisation process in the region.
In Kyiv’s intention, the deployment of the international mission will contribute to freezing the conflict. The Ukrainian ideas of deploying an armed UN or OSCE armed mission which have appeared since 2015 have never been officially presented in the form of an open concept nor have they been ever presented in the form of a coherent concept or put forward as a resolution on the UN forum.
Most likely, Kyiv was probing these issues via diplomatic channels but they did not receive support from France and Germany and were in fact sabotaged by Russia (despite the suggestions that it might support them which Russia made from time to time).
The Ukrainian proposal of deploying peacekeeping forces fits in with the context of Kyiv’s other actions concerning Donbas. Since spring, the government has been preparing an act under which Russia will be recognised as an aggressor and the territories of Donbas which are currently outside the central government control will be recognised as temporarily occupied territories.
The act is also expected to vest the president with the right to announce martial law and to use armed forces in Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts. The final wording of the act has not been agreed as yet; the government is planning to put the document to a vote in parliament already this year.
The Russian Defense Ministry is surprised at the statement made by German’s Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen claiming 100,000 Russian military will be involved in the Russia-Belarus West-2017 exercise, spokesman of the Russian authority Igor Konashenkov said on Saturday.
“We are surprised at the statement, made by the German defense minister, Ms. Ursula von der Leyen, as she quoted the unreasonable figures concerning claimed 100,000 Russian military to be involved in the West-2017 exercise and about consequent threats to Europe,” the spokesman said. “The German side was notified and it has received all the exhaustive information about the plot, defense character and real numbers of the Russian military involved in the West-2017 exercise.”
According to the spokesman, the German side has received detailed information both by the Belarussian side and directly to the German embassy’s military attache in Moscow during a special briefing on August 29 by Russia’s Deputy Defense Ministry Alexander Fomin in the presence of hundreds of foreign reporters.
“Moreover, Russia’s Head of the General Staff General Valery Gerasimov only the day before yesterday in Baku during a meeting with head of NATO’s Military Committee informed additionally General Petr Pavel about the Zapad-2017 exercise, stressing it is a planned action and it is not aimed against third countries,” the Defense Ministry’s spokesman said. “It is difficult to imagine that colleagues of Ms. Ursula von der Layen at NATO, or from other involved German authorities or her office deliberately mislead the German defense minister.”
“It is much easier to suppose the opposite,” he added.
Earlier, Germany’s military spokesman Jens Flosdorff in a comment on the statement by Minister Ursula von der Layen about the number of personnel involved in the Zapad-2017 exercise said those were estimations of NATO’s experts.
The joint strategic exercise Zapad-2017 is scheduled for September 14-20. Six proving grounds in Russia and Belarus will be used. It is expected that 12,700 troops will take part (about 10,200 in Belarus) and 680 pieces of military equipment.
The Belarussian Defense Ministry has dispatched invitations to monitors from seven countries and a number of international organizations, including NATO, CSTO, CIS, UN and OSCE. Russia, too, has invited senior officials from a number of foreign defense ministries to see the final phase of the exercise.
Armoured battle groups trained in Canada will be reduced from four to three and light infantry battle groups sent to Kenya, will be cut from five to three. In addition, 12 Lynx helicopters will taken out of service.
General Sir Richard Barrons, a former commander, told the Times that there should be a public debate with top brass and ministers over the state of the Britain’s military.
“There are potential risks to our homeland and our vital interests abroad that we cannot address with our capability,” he said.
Underestimating the cost of new equipment, a drop in the value of the pound and a funding gap in the defence review of 2015 has led to a need for Britain to make savings.
However there is concern that the savings come at a time when there is sabre rattling between North Korea and the US and as Russia is set to conduct a military exercise along Nato’s flank later in September.
1]The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) pointed to great gains made in military capability by China and Russia, which has closed the gap on Western military dominance. Its report said that cheap missiles costing less than £500,000 could disable the multi-billion pound vessel HMS Queen Elizabeth .
1] Note from the editor; it should be pointed out that if the Chinese, Russians and Indians were so concerned that a ‘cheap missile’ could sink an aircraft carrier, it makes little sense that the Chinese navy has recently commissioned the Liaoning and soon the Shandong, with future plans to build ‘super carriers’.
Likewise, the Indian Navy has recently commissioned the INS Vikramaditya and the Vikrant-class is currently under construction with a planned commissioning date of 2023. India also plans to build super carriers.
The Flagship of Russia’s largest fleet, the Northern Fleet based at Severomorsk in Murmansk is the Kiev-class Admiral Kuznetsov. Russia’s ‘concerns’ over cheap missiles do not seem to have dissuaded them from investigating building future aircraft carriers either.
The threat posed by ‘cheap missiles’ is designed to be dealt with by anti-air missile destroyers, which accompany the carrier as part of an integrated fleet which typically includes, frigates and an SSN in addition to the vessels already mentioned.
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 Russian-Belarusian Zapad-2017 (West-2017) exercises, scheduled for 14–20 September, have for many months been the core of an information war between Russia and NATO, in which Ukraine and Belarus have also participated.
The media have presented these exercises as allegedly the biggest military undertaking carried out in recent years by the armed forces of the Russian Federation (together with its Belarusian ally) in the immediate vicinity of the borders of NATO states, which could form the basis for the annexation of Belarus and/or a strike at Ukraine.
Although it is hard to dispute the scale and breadth of these exercises, they are only a small part of Russia’s preparation for a potential military showdown with NATO. The real engagement of troops in these exercises will not be the largest, in terms of the scale and the force employed, or the most important in the Russian army’s preparation to carry out its plans during wartime in (from its perspective) the western strategic direction.
The training exercises reported in the media, which have mainly been carried out on Russian training grounds from May to August this year, have not been an essential element of these preparations in 2017. These exercises, held jointly with the Belarusian component (in operational terms the Belarusian army should be considered as an integral part of the Russian armed forces in the western strategic direction), were nominally merely a preparatory stage to the Zapad-2017 exercises.
The exercises involving Russian troops alone should be considered as more important, especially those checking the combat readiness of the units which have been newly created or expanded in the last three years. Compared to the period in which the previous exercises (Zapad-2013) were held, Russia’s military potential in the western strategic direction, especially its land forces, has doubled in size.
Zapad-2017 as a tool of information war
Russia treats the Zapad strategic exercises, which have been held every four years since 2009, as part of its information war with the West each time. However, whereas between 2009 and 2013 the propaganda impact of the reports about the exercises was largely local, limited mainly to the three Baltic states and Poland, as a result of the Russian aggression towards Ukraine and the three years and counting of war in the Donbas in 2017, it has now become one of the main factors affecting the relations of Russia with all the North Atlantic Alliance, as well as those Baltic Sea states which do not belong to NATO.
Since the beginning, Russia has treated the preparations for the Zapad-2017 exercises, on the one hand, as part of its intimidation of the general public in the countries directly bordering Belarus and Russia, though reports are transmitted mainly through Belarussian or Ukrainian media.
On the other hand, by gradually the deprecating reports about the scale and nature of the military threat (which have mainly been disseminated via Belarusian or Ukrainian media), it has been deepening the divisions between the ‘new’ and ‘old’ members of the European Union, on a wave of alleged anti-Russian hysteria generated by the former.
Most likely in response to the Russian propaganda machine, the Zapad-2017 exercises have been used for the first time as an essential element in the information policy of NATO (and the United States), and also (in the regional dimension) by Ukraine. Unlike previous Zapad exercises, it is the message from Kiev which should currently be considered the most alarmist, and (thanks to the tension in Russo-American relations) it is being legitimised to a great degree by the North Atlantic Alliance.
The Zapad-2017 exercises are the core of the information war between Russia and NATO which has been going on uninterrupted since November 2016, when the plans of the Russian Federation’s Defence Ministry regarding an increase in military railway transports between Russia and Belarus in 2017 were disclosed.
The number of 4162 cars contracted for the period from 1 January to 30 November 2017 (a figure several times larger than in previous years) was reported in the media as enabling a possible attack on Belarus by up to 30,000 soldiers, i.e. almost the entire Russian 1st Guards Tank Army. The consequence of this was a series of reports over the next few months stating that after the end of the exercises, the Russian group would remain in Belarus as occupation forces.
Such reporting gained particular intensity in the first quarter of this year, when once again the government in Minsk simulated a more intense desire for rapprochement with the West – a move which suggests that this also was an element of Belarus’s own information war. Then comments appeared (particularly in the Ukrainian media) suggesting that the Russian soldiers transported to Belarus would be used to strike at Ukraine.
It was only in August, on a wave of studies (emerging from Poland, among others) justifying the possibility of such a scenario, that Russia issued reports and figures indicating that the actual figure for the use of rolling stock in the Russian-Belarusian military exercises applied to the whole of the year 2017, and not just the Zapad-2017 exercises.
Russian representatives also began to supply data on the number of forces and vehicles planned for involvement in the exercises, including 12,700 soldiers (7200 from Belarus and 5500 from Russia, about 3000 of whom will be based in Belarus), 70 aircraft and helicopters, 680 armoured fighting vehicles (including 250 tanks), 200 artillery units (barrel, missile and mortar) and 10 ships.
These numbers are much lower than those cited in the previous media reports, especially those coming out of Ukraine. According to the National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine, the entire Zapad-2017 exercises were to have included 230–240,000 soldiers, over 10,000 units of heavy weapons, 100 aircraft and helicopters, and 40 ships.
Reports such as these should be considered as an attempt to mobilise Western (particularly American) support for Ukraine (especially in the area of defence).The official Russian data should be considered as being far closer to the real figures, although they have been deliberately reduced to less than 13,000 soldiers, the ceiling figure which would have required the implementation of confidence- and security-building measures, including the mechanisms for observation exercises provided for in the OSCE’s Vienna Document.
This has been backed up not only by the Russian army’s practice up to now, but above all by the conditions, starting with the capacity of the training grounds designated for the exercises in Belarus (4 general military grounds and 2 for air training) and Russia (3 in the Kaliningrad, Leningrad and Pskov oblasts).
Nevertheless, the total number of forces and resources involved in the Russian and Russian-Belarusian training projects in the western strategic direction since spring 2017 may be up to ten times greater than those involved in the Zapad-2017 exercises.
Russian training activity in the western strategic direction in 2017
The Zapad-2017 exercises are the culmination of a series of training projects carried out in the western strategic direction in 2017.
From the perspective of Minsk, they will be the biggest military event since the Zapad-2013 exercises, although from the perspective of Moscow, Zapad-2017 is just another project involving the forces and vehicles of the Western Military District, which from the training perspective are neither the biggest nor the most important of their kind.
Starting in spring this year, the training grounds in Belarus and the Western Military District of the RF have seen at least several dozen projects in the field of mobilisation and combat readiness, redeployments, troop regrouping and advances, tactical exercises on training grounds etc., involving formations of all types of troops and services, from a minimum of battalion level up to and including division level.
To better evaluate the scale of these projects, it should be noted that the training projects in the Zapad-2017 exercises will mostly be carried out at battalion level, up to brigade level. In terms of the exercises to be carried out jointly with the Belarusian army, special attention should be paid to the projects based on support and security for the general military formations, the scale of which exceeds the requirements to prepare the subunits for the Zapad-2017 exercises.
On 19–25 May, Belarus saw the largest ever exercises by electronic warfare units, which involved a total of 1500 soldiers from both armies. The logistical exercises carried out on 21–25 August, one element of which was a security operation for the pipelines supplying fuel to the frontline troops, should be seen in a similar light. These exercises proceeded on two different tracks, one as a Russian-Belarusian project (2500 soldiers from both countries on the territory of Belarus) and the other as purely Russian (3000 soldiers on the territory of the Russian Federation, which also included interoperability training in wartime with the transmission network operators).
Of the projects preparing for Zapad-2017 carried out on the territory of Belarus, attention should also be paid to the training for engineering (13–15 June), communications (10–14 July), chemical defence (21–25 August) and air defence formations, in which aircraft from bases in Russia were moved to Belarusian airfields (23–25 August).
The summer training period for various kinds of exercise (which started in June) included the majority of the units in the Russian Federation’s Western Military District; this means that the formations comprising units for the Zapad-2017 exercises have effectively been in a state of permanent training.
This principally concerns the Airborne Troops; the Baltic Fleet, together with its subordinate air-land grouping in the Kaliningrad oblast; and the 1st Guards Tank Army. It is also worth noting the two bilateral regimental exercises (in July, the 98th Airborne Division from Ivanov, with the participation of the 31st Air Assault Brigade from Ulyanovsk, at the training ground near Pskov; and in August, the 76th Air Assault Division from Pskov, with the participation of the above-mentioned 31st LAB and the 45th Spetsnaz Brigade), in both cases involving 2500 soldiers, at least 300 units of heavy weapons and several dozen planes and helicopters.
During the Zapad-2017 exercises we can expect a much lower involvement of the airborne troops, at the level of tactical battalion groups.
Of the projects for the 11th Army Corps in the Kaliningrad oblast, attention should be paid to the brigade exercises of the 336th Naval Infantry Brigade from Baltiysk (in June) and the regimental exercises of the 7th Mechanised Regiment from Kaliningrad (in August), as well as the exercises by the 244th Artillery Brigade and the 25th Missile Brigade (nominally a coastal defence unit, armed with Bastion systems capable of destroying ground targets with Kalibr missiles).
It must be stressed, however, that most of the maritime, land and air units which have been deployed in Kaliningrad have been training since June, and the 11th Army Corps has already held exercises four times (including twice in August). The units of the 1st Guards Tank Army, especially its two main tactical formations, the 2nd ‘Tamanskaya’ Mechanised Division and the 4th ‘Kantemirovskaya’ Armoured Division, should also be regarded as active.
The tank crews of the 4th AD have also undergone some exercises in Belarus, conducted in mid-June. The most important elements of the 1st Guards Tank Army’s training, however, took place in August: checking the combat readiness of the tactical formations and the support and security units of the 1st Army (achieving combat readiness and preparation for deployment, 15 August) as well as the new automated command and control system (from 28 August).
Probably the largest tactical exercise carried out in 2017 in the Western Military District involved not the units assigned to participate in the Zapad-2017 exercises, but rather the mechanised divisions formed as part of the newly created 20th Army – the 3rd and the 144th MDs.
On 14–18 August, a bilateral exercise was carried out at the training ground in the Voronezh oblast, including both the above-mentioned tactical formations (the participating units simulated a clash of opposing forces), in which 2000 soldiers and 600 units of heavy weapons took part.
In the training projects which will make up the Zapad-2017 exercises, we should not expect any simulated clashes between formations of more than 1000 soldiers. In addition to those mentioned, we should note what will probably turn out to be the biggest Russian air defence exercises this year, which were carried out in the Western Military District at the beginning of July (5000 soldiers and 2000 units of arms and military equipment, including 100 aircraft and helicopters), as well as exercises by the Railway Troops in building crossings (on 1 August, they constructed a bridge 400 m in length across the Oka River; and on 24 August, a 1-km-long bridge on the Volga; for comparison, the crossing built on the Dnieper by engineering units in the context of the exercises in Belarus was 300 m in length).
The growth of Russia’s military potential in the western strategic direction
In the period between the Zapad-2013 and Zapad-2017 exercises, the Russian groupings in the western strategic direction changed diametrically. In all types of troops and services, the potential for growth has mainly been achieved through extensive large-scale technical modernisation, although in the case of the Land Forces, and to an extent the Airborne Troops, the most important factor was the formation of new units and the expansion of those already existing.
It is noteworthy that the Western Military District is hosting most of the tactical formations which have been newly created in recent years, and those created in the other military districts have also been deployed in the western strategic direction (in the Rostov oblast, as part of the Southern Military District) or just beyond the Urals as part of the second strategic echelon in the western direction (in the Central Military District).
Meanwhile, no new tactical formations have been created in the Russian Far East. During the period in question, two new army headquarters have been created (the 1st Guards Tank Army in Moscow and the 8th Army in Novocherkassk), as well as three army corps (the 11th in Kaliningrad, the 14th on the Kola peninsula, and the 32nd in Crimea). The 8th Army and the 32nd Corps (both directed towards Ukraine) have received most of the newly created units.
New divisions have also been deployed in the 20th Army (Voronezh). In total, between 2015 and 2017 four new divisions have been created (three mechanised: the 3rd, 144th and 150th MDs in the western strategic direction, in the Western and Southern Military Districts; and one armoured: the 90th AD in the Central Military District).
The Russian army’s tactical formations are being systematically expanded up to wartime status; the newly-created divisions each have four regiments of combat potential which are comparable to brigades (which have the same structures and sizes of general military subunits), and additional regiments have also been created in the previously existing 2nd MD and 4th AD of the 1st Guards Tank Army.
The creation of new military formations has been accompanied by the formation of brigades and regiments to provide support and security at army level. The nature and structure of the airborne troops have also been changed; at present they are defacto mechanised formations with increased capacity for rapid redeployment, with a destructive force comparable to the classic mechanised formations (especially after the divisions and brigades of air assault tank companies, and ultimately of tank battalions, are included).
The newly created reconnaissance brigades, which combine various elements including electronic surveillance, should be associated with the western military direction (so far only the Eastern Military District has not received any such units). As of June this year, thirty battalion and company tactical groups from Western Military District units had the status of immediate response forces. Fifteen of them have also received the status of so-called shock subunits.
The technical modernisation of the western strategic direction is proceeding at a rate comparable with that observed in the other strategic directions, although the process is distinct from those others in several ways. Units in European Russia have been the main recipients of new command and communications systems and electronic warfare equipment, as well as Ratnik personal equipment for the ‘soldier of the future’; they are also the first to have received the elements of the integrated command structure, together with equipment for tactical data exchange for ranks up to and including private (with the Ratnik equipment).
The western strategic direction is also getting the majority of the new or modernised arms of the Land Forces (including T-72B3 tanks, which since their upgrade now have the same battle potential as T-90 tanks), as well as Su-34 battlefield support aircraft (frontline bombers) and Mi-28 attack helicopters. As of mid-2017, the proportion of new and modernised weaponry in units in the Western Military District was 45%; therefore, we should see the rate of modernisation observed as guaranteeing that the planned ceiling of 70% will be achieved by 2020.
In the first half of 2017 the Western Military District received 500 units of offensive heavy weapons, and another 500 units should reach those groupings in the second half of the year.We should assume that the Western Military District will be the first recipient of the new generations of weapons, including T-14 tanks on the Armata platform (the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation have ordered 100 tanks of this type, to be delivered by 2020; at present one test company has been equipped with sixteen T-14 tanks) and Su-57 fifth-generation multi-role combat aircraft (T-50 PAK FA).It is noteworthy that the rearmament of units in the Kaliningrad region is proceeding at relatively the slowest pace in the western strategic direction.
On the one hand this can be seen as a political demonstration (for example, the rearmament of the 152nd Missile Brigade with the Iskander system is still being treated as an element of gameplay with the United States, i.e. as a ‘response’ to the deployment in Poland of elements of the American missile defence system); on the other, it represents a rational assessment of the military situation in the region (increasing the range of destructive weaponry, mainly by introducing Kalibr rockets, allows the Russian army to achieve any aim it wishes in the area of Central Europe without the need to use the infrastructure in the Kaliningrad region, which is potentially the most vulnerable to destruction by the local forces of NATO states).
Russia’s use of the Zapad-2017 exercises as the starting point for a military operation – the occupation of Belarus, a strike at Ukraine or even blocking the Suwalki Gap (which the exercises’ political scenario, disclosed on 29 August, might suggest), and the possible amputation of the three Baltic states from the rest of the NATO area – SHOULD BE CONSIDERED AS EXTREMELY UNLIKELY.
Undertaking such an action, along the model of 2008 (the attack on Georgia after the Kavkaz-2008 exercises), would mean that Moscow had acknowledged as essential the military necessity to counter the actual (or even formal) integration of Ukraine with Western structures, or the presence of the US military in that country (or in the Baltic states to any significant degree).
Carrying out such an operation would be accompanied by non-military measures: in the first place, a massive information campaign to discredit the potential enemy, which as a result would justify the use of military force – at least to the Russian public.
On the other hand, the condition for such an operation would have to be Moscow’s relative certainty that there would be no real combat response from the Western states and structures (especially the US and NATO). It should be assumed that in the present situation, the above-mentioned conditions for Russia to launch another military operation have not been met. However, Russia’s actions in the military sphere over recent years indicate that its preparations for a possible armed conflict in Europe are being carried out consistently, and are permanent in nature.
The armed forces of the Russian Federation have reached a level of ability that would allow the relatively smooth implementation of any military operation in the area of the former Soviet Union (albeit in the case of the three Baltic states, only upon the assumption of the effective disinterest of the US, which currently must be considered unlikely).
It remains unclear whether Russia could implement its policy objectives by military means, which would in reality need Moscow to use its military factor. It must be assumed that, in the case of a maintenance of the status quo – i.e. the lack of any greater military support from NATO for Ukraine (of a kind which would actually influence the growth of the Ukrainian army’s potential), or the Alliance’s constant, significant military presence in the Baltic States – Russia would disregard the direct use of military force to implement its policy objectives at least until the end of the football World Cup, which it will host in June and July 2018; this event is treated in Moscow as a matter of high prestige. However, we should not expect the Russian Federation to cease or even limit its use of the military factor as a tool of its information war with the West.
Appendix. Changes in the numbers of expanded general military operational formations, tactical formations and units of the Land Forces of the Russian Federation in the western strategic direction between 2013–2017 (as of mid-2017).
 Комментарий Департамента информации и печати МИД России относительно соблюдения в подготовки ходе учениям к транспарентности мер «Запад-2017», http://www.mid.ru/ru/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/2845944. It is noteworthy that previously – as the first to do so – the Russian defence ministry reported about 280 units of heavy weapons (combat vehicles and artillery) and 25 aircraft; we should assume that the data is consistent with the later report by the Russian foreign ministry, and that it applies only to the Russian army’s equipment which was planned for deployment in Belarus.
 According to the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), tanks, combat armoured vehicles, artillery guns of 100-mm calibre and above, combat aircraft and combat helicopters.
 The report by the Russia Deputy Defence Minister, Aleksandr Fomin, deserves attention for its reference to the participation in Zapad-2017 by units of the FSB and the National Guard, which hitherto had been standard practice only in internal Russian exercises. The participation of groups from outside the Defence Ministry confirms that the exercises also include scenarios for possible pacification (occupation) after the attack by operating forces, and that the National Guard is preparing for tasks which in Soviet times had been performed by the troops of the NKVD.
 In the armoured and mechanised brigades and regiments of the Land Forces of the Russian Federation, the number and structure of the general military subunits (mechanised battalions or tank battalions) is identical.