Finland will conduct a confidence-and-security-building inspection conform to the Vienna Document 2011 in Turkey from 10 to 13 October 2017.
The inspected area is located west of Istanbul and according to the annual reports it is home to 13 military units. The inspection team consists of three Finnish and one Swedish officer. The team is headed by Lieutenant Colonel Joakim Salonen from Defence Command Finland.
The aim of the inspection is to verify that there are no military activities in the specified area that are subject to prior notification according to the Vienna Document.
The aim is also to verify the information about units in the inspection area that Turkey supplied to the OSCE and to train our own personnel for arms control duties and to show Finland’s involvement in multinational arms control as well as its impartiality.
TALLINN, Sep 20, BNS – Representatives of seven countries invited to observe the Zapad large-scale Russia-Belarus joint military exercise in Belarus under the Vienna document were shown action of defensive nature and also the number of personnel that they saw was smaller than the declared maximum numbers, an Estonian observer who was present at the exercise said.
“What we saw was basically of defensive nature by all means,” the observer, Lt. Col. Kaupo Kiis, told BNS on Wednesday. He said that the joint Russia-Belarus exercise, just like the military exercises held in Estonia, started with an imitated invasion by an enemy, which was then halted and the enemy eventually driven out of the country.
On the first day operations of the air force took place, on the second day it was action by the ground forces and on the third day an air defense operation took place. On the last day, Wednesday, a large-scale operation took place that was watched also by the president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, foreign defense attaches and representatives of NATO, the UN, the Red Cross and the OSCE.
Kiis said that the number of personnel seen by the observers was smaller than what Belarus had declared.
“The kind of number of people that was declared by the different sides we never saw. There may have been more, because Belarus is big, but I guess that I didn’t see 5,000 on different days combined,” the officer said.
Moscow and Minsk have said that 12,700 personnel were to take part in Zapad, including about 7,200 from Belarus and about 5,500 from Russia. Of the Russian personnel up to 3,000 were to take part in the exercise in Belarus. Representatives of NATO meanwhile have questioned these numbers as too small.
Kiis pointed out that the exercise was held in two stages, of which the observers invited under the OSCE Vienna document saw the second stage. “We don’t know what happened in the first stage because Russian soldiers were given honors after the end of the first stage,” he said.
Kiis said that the actions of offensive nature spoken about in international media may have taken place in the first stage, but since he did not see it, he can not confirm of deny this
“This is all that was shown to us, that was spoken to us. I can speak about these things,” he said.
The active phase of the exercise lasted from Sept. 14 through 20.
“And one more thing — we could not speak to conscripts, regardless of our repeated requests, to ask about their opinion. We could speak though to senior officers of various ranks on both the Russian and the Belarusian side,” the Estonian observer said.
The Estonian officer was an observer at Zapad alongside officers from Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, Sweden and Norway. Each of the countries sent two observers.
NATO has welcomed recent dialogue with Russia, but the alliance has serious doubts Moscow is revealing the true extent of its military exercises. Last time this training took place was just before the invasion of Crimea.
Russia’s NATO ambassador told reporters last week his government would be completely transparent about the Zapad military exercises that have begun in western Russia and Belarus, near the alliance’s border. At this point, Aleksander Grushko said, it’s not envisioned that any of the planned Zapad (West) drills will utilize more than 13,000 troops, the number at which Russia would be obliged under an OSCE agreement to allow other governments to formally view the exercises. “If [the exercises] meet the threshold established by the Vienna Document, observation will be provided,” Grushko said. “If not, not.”
The ambassador said his report to the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) should put to rest all the rumors that the Kremlin could be planning to amass as many as 100,000 military personnel in total in the joint Russian-Belarusian training mission, simply carved up into groups below the reporting requirement. “If such speculations continue … about the intentions of Russia and Belarus,” he said, “this would mean that this practice of briefings doesn’t give results on the political front. We believe that everything we do in this platform within the NRC and OSCE should really contribute to mutual trust.”
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg welcomed Russia’s voluntary disclosure of numbers of participating troops, planes and ships, allowing that it’s “too early to say” whether they’re accurate since Zapad hasn’t taken place. But, he noted, “from previous experiences related to previous exercises, we have every reason to believe it may be substantially more troops participating than the official reported numbers.”
NATO officials point out Russia has officially declared every military exercise since 1991 to be below the threshold of 13,000 so that it doesn’t have to allow inspections nor observers. Zapad 2013 followed that model, with official Russian announcements declaring the troop presence to be “12,000” or perhaps “12,500.” Various reports after the exercises estimate there were at least 75,000 boots on the ground, training in operations that were quite useful a few months later when Russia invaded Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula.
No NATO countermoves
The US Army’s top commander in Europe, Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, is taking things coolly. “There’s nothing evil about Zapad,” Hodges told DW. “It’s an exercise scheduled every four years and it’s certainly Russia’s right to exercise.” The problem, he emphasizes, is the lack of transparency. “I’ve never met in three years a single journalist who’s covered a Russian exercise,” he said.
“So if Russia were serious about wanting stability and security along their western border, they would invite journalists out there to demonstrate, ‘hey, we’re just defensive.'” Hodges notes that instead, Russia has moved in 800 tanks “which exist only to attack.”
Still, Hodges says, during Zapad, NATO’s only change to its current beefed-up deterrence will be to move one airborne battalion – about 650 soldiers – up to the Baltics.
Deploying expert eyes
With no visibility coming from Moscow, NATO and other observers are relying on their own methods to keep track of the Kremlin’s maneuvers. Magnus Nordenman is the director of the Transatlantic Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council, which has launched a “ZapadWatch” program to analyze what’s happening on the ground and what that will mean for Europe and NATO.
“With this initiative we are bringing together the Atlantic Council’s European security experts with our capabilities to do digital forensics in order to shine a light on Zapad,” Nordenman told DW. “Previous iterations of Zapad have given us important clues about Russia’s growing military capabilities, Moscow’s intents, and political signaling to Europe, the United States, and NATO. It’s important that American and European policy makers and the broader public pay attention to this.”
Even as NATO continues calling on Moscow to be honest about its military activity, the alliance has been engaged in a long-term effort to strengthen the notification process. Dominik Jankowski, the head of the OSCE unit in the Polish foreign ministry, says the Vienna Document is still a “crucial element of transparency and risk reduction in Europe” even with Russia’s “selective implementation” of it.
“We need to continue efforts to modernize the Vienna Document, even if we are still waiting for a Russia willing to engage in that issue,” Jankowski told DW. “There are numerous vital proposals on the table: ranging from greater transparency regarding snap exercises to risk reduction mechanisms and incident prevention efforts.” He says the OSCE is the best forum to work on reforming multilateral security policy as all allies and Russia are members.
Estonia’s outgoing NATO ambassador Lauri Lepik even suggests the alliance could look at the Russian activity as an opportunity, after all the upgrades and reconfiguration of allied defense and deterrence. “Zapad is a perfect stress test,” Lepik said “for the whole NATO machinery on situational awareness and intelligence gathering.”
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.
Russian planes were scrambled nine times during the past ten days to intercept foreign aircraft near Russian borders, the Russian Defense Ministry said in its weekly infographics published on Friday.
According to the ministry’s data, 30 foreign aircraft conducted air surveillance near the Russian borders. “Any violation of the Russian airspace was prevented,” the ministry said.
Last week, the Russian military conducted two inspections in foreign states – in Poland as part of the Open Skies Treaty and in Czech Republic under the Vienna Document 2011 on confidence and security-building measures in Europe.
Four foreign military inspections were carried out on the Russian territory in the reported period. An inspection by Finnish military experts was carried out as part of the Open Skies Treaty and a joint Polish-Italian mission took place in line with the Vienna Document 2011. Besides, OPCW experts also visited Russia, as well as US military officials who monitored its compliance with the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START).
Together with Estonian Prime Minister Jüri Ratas, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg visited NATO’s UK-led battlegroup in Tapa on Wednesday (6 September 2017).
Addressing troops, the Secretary General called the multinational force “a very strong signal of NATO unity, NATO resolve and NATO strength”. Mr. Stoltenberg also commended Estonia for its operational contributions to the Alliance, and for “leading by example” by spending more than 2% of its GDP on defence.
Stoltenberg remarked in his press conference with Prime Minister Jüri Ratas;
We see a more assertive Russia, which has implemented a significant military built-up over several years. Also with more and bigger exercises. NATO is closely monitoring Russia’s exercise Zapad. We are sending 3 experts to the exercise following invitations from Russia and Belarus, but these invitations fall short from the transparency required by the OSCE: briefings on the exercise scenario and progress, opportunities to talk to individual soldiers and overflights of the exercise. This is something which is part of the Vienna Document, which is the international agreement regulating the transparency, predictability related to military exercises. And even though we are invited to distinguished visitors’ days both in Belarus and in Russia, we are not invited to take fully part in any kind of Vienna Document observation of the exercise. So we call on Russia to observe the letter and the spirit of the Vienna Document, transparency and predictability are even more important when tensions run high, to reduce the risks of misunderstandings and incidents. So NATO remains calm and vigilant, and committed to keep Estonia and all our Allies safe.
He also remarked that NATO’s presence in the Baltic region is defensive, it is proportionate, we are here not to provoke conflict but we are here to prevent conflict.
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.
West-2017 joint military drills between Russia and Belarus are purely defensive, while the actual number of troops and military equipment involved is less than claims made by the foreign media, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Friday.
“The West-2017 combined military exercises involving the Russian and Belarusian armed forces are purely defensive,” the statement reads.
“The hype over the drills is artificial and aimed at justifying the spending on NATO’s military build-up on Poland and the Baltic states in the eyes of the western audience,” the statement adds.
“We would like to point out that it is these actions that raise military tensions in Europe – a fact that the western ‘soldiers of the pen and mic’ have been complaining about recently,” the ministry said.
Number of troops
The Russian Foreign Ministry rejected the allegations which said that the number of the troops expected to participate in the military exercises had been deliberately understated, while the drills’ transparency was not ensured.
“The total number of troops and military equipment does not exceed the level subjected to mandatory monitoring of certain military activities, as it is stipulated by the 2011 Vienna document,” the Russian Foreign Ministry added.
According to the statement, “the drills, scheduled to take place on September 14-20, will involve up to 12,700 troops [7,200 Belarusian and 5,500 Russian, including 3,000 troops in Belarus], as well as around 70 planes and helicopters, up to 680 pieces of military equipment, including about 250 tanks, around 200 cannons, multiple launch rocket systems and mortars, and up to ten ships.”
“It is far less that the claims being made by the media in connection with the upcoming military exercises,” the statement says.
At the same time, the Russian Foreign Ministry pointed out that Belarus, acting on its own initiative, had invited representatives of the United Nations, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), NATO, Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), as well as diplomats and military observers from Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, Estonia, Sweden and Norway, to monitor the drills. Moreover, Belarus held a briefing on the sidelines of the OSCE Forum for Security Cooperation. “We welcome the steps taken by Belarus,” the Russian Foreign Ministry noted.
Russian military experts, in turn, held a briefing dedicated to the drills in NATO headquarters on July 13. Until the end of August, the Russian Defense Ministry planned to organize another briefing for foreign diplomats and military experts accredited in Russia.
West-2017 military drills, scheduled to take place at six training ranges in Russia and Belarus on September 14-20, will involve around 12,700 troops. The number of troops expected to participate in the drills is less than that stipulated by the 2011 Vienna document (13,000). This is the reason why it is not mandatory to invite foreign observers to monitor the military exercises.
However, a number of western countries have been voicing their concern over the upcoming drills.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has urged Moscow to meet its international commitments to be fully transparent about war games planned for next month in Belarus and western Russia.
“We are going to be watching very closely the course of these exercises,” Stoltenberg told journalists in Warsaw on August 25 following talks with Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo.
He was referring to the Zapad 2017 joint Belarusian-Russian military exercises that are expected to take place September 14-20.
“All nations have the right to exercise their forces, but nations should also respect their commitments to transparency,” Stoltenberg said.
NATO’s secretary-general said that “predictability, transparency, is especially important when we have increased military activity along our borders.”
Russia has dismissed concerns over the drills.
Stoltenberg wrapped up his trip to Poland by visiting troops contributing to NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence at a military training facility headquarters in Orzysz, 60 kilometers from the border with Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave on the Baltic Sea that borders Poland and Lithuania.
NATO has deployed four multinational battalion-size battlegroups to Poland and the three Baltic states — Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania — to protect and reassure Eastern European member states that are worried about increasingly aggressive moves by Russia following its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region in March 2014 and its continued support for separatists in the country’s east.
Stoltenberg told Polish Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz in Orzysz that the four battlegroups showed “NATO’s resolve, NATO’s unity” and also sent a “strong message of deterrence,” according to the alliance’s press office.
“We send a clear signal that an attack on one ally will be regarded as an attack on the whole alliance,” he added.
Earlier in Warsaw, Stoltenberg insisted that the troops were deployed to Poland and the Baltic states “to prevent conflict, not to provoke conflict,” denying Moscow’s repeated accusation that NATO has a Cold War, confrontational mentality toward Russia.
“When tensions run high, dialogue is even more important,” he also said. “That’s why NATO has always kept channels of communication open with Russia.”
At last month’s meeting of the NATO-Russia Council — a forum intended to prevent tensions from escalating — the alliance and Moscow briefed one another on upcoming military exercises — NATO’s Exercise Trident Javelin 2017 and Russia’s Zapad 2017.
Under Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) rules known as the Vienna Document, states conducting maneuvers involving more than 13,000 troops must notify other nations in advance and be open to observers.
Belarus has said Zapad 2017 involves 12,700 troops — just under the limit. But NATO members suspect many more troops will end up participating.
Belarus earlier this week said it invited observers from seven countries to the drills.
In an interview with AP on August 24, Stoltenberg said that NATO will send two experts in response to Minsk’s offer, adding that this is not enough.
He also said that Russia is using “loopholes” to minimize the number of NATO personnel allowed to observe the exercises.
NATO routinely invites Russia to watch its war games as a confidence-building measure, Stoltenberg told AP, but “Russia has never, since the end of the Cold War, invited any NATO ally to observe any of their exercises.”
Speaking to the Rossia-24 news channel on August 24, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Aleksandr Fomin described Zapad 2017 as “a regular, routine joint exercise.”
“It is not aggression, as some countries see it,” Fomin added. “I do not see any reason to be afraid. Everything, as usual, will be open and friendly.”
A NATO official earlier this week told RFE/RL that greater transparency is important to “prevent misperceptions and miscalculations” in response to military exercises.
Russia and Belarus are choosing a “selective approach” to transparency that does not provide observers with opportunities to talk to individual soldiers about the exercises or conduct overflights, this official said.
Lithuanian Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis warned in June that Moscow might use the maneuvers as cover for an aggressive troop buildup on NATO’s eastern flank.
Karoblis said his government estimated that 100,000 Russian troops would be involved in the exercises, rather than the official 12,700.
With reporting by Reuters, AP, Interfax, and Richard Jozwiak in Brussels.
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.
MINSK, 24 August (BelTA) – Officers of the Latvian army carried out an inspection in Belarus, the press service of the Belarusian Defense Ministry told BelTA.
In line with the Belarus-Latvia agreement on additional trust and security measures a Latvian inspection team visited Belarus.
The inspectors went to see the 11th Independent Mechanized Brigade and evaluated the authenticity of the information Belarus had submitted to the OSCE member states about the personnel, primary weapon systems, and military hardware of the army unit as part of the 2011 Vienna Document on Confidence- and Security-Building Measures.
The inspection confirmed that Belarus unswervingly honors its commitments as part of the agreement.
Estonia has not received an invitation from Russia to observe Zapad, a large-scale joint Russian-Belarusian military exercise to take place in September. Russian authorities, however, will present the exercises to military attaches accredited to other countries’ diplomatic missions in Moscow at a separate event.
“Military attaches accredited to Moscow have been invited to attend an event at Luga Training Camp on Sept. 18-19, in the course of which Russia will present the Zapad joint military exercise,” Ministry of Defence spokesperson Susan Lilleväli told BNS on Wednesday. “The Estonian defense attaches are ready to take part in the event.”
The joint Russian-Belarusian military exercise will be held in the territory of both countries from Sept. 14-20. The exercise has sparked concern in other countries as, in similar exercises in 2009 and 2013, Russia, among other things, allegedly rehearsed an attack on its neighbors.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in mid-July that, “based on previous experiences related to previous exercises, we have every reason to believe that substantially more troops are participating than the official reported numbers.” He encouraged Russia to allow NATO observers to monitor the maneuvers.
Minister of Defence Jüri Luik has expressed the same concern, telling weekly Maaleht in July that Russia should declare the exercise on the basis of the Vienna Document, according to which any exercise involving more than 9,000 participants should be declared. Russia has stated that 13,000 troops will be participating in the September exercise.
Belarus has sent invitations to Estonia and other countries, which Estonia has already chosen to accept, to observe the exercise on its territory. It has not offered any details, however.