Polish Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz came up with the assertions on Friday that Ukrainian officials were perfectly well informed on the Russian-Belarusian military exercise Zapad 2017 and hence their allegations that Russian troops had stayed back on the territory of Belarus after completion of the maneuvers were to be treated seriously.
“We’re examining the information from the Ukrainian side very attentively,” he told Polish television. “The Ukrainians are very competent in the affairs of the Russians and I personally would evaluate their information seriously.”
He admitted along with it he was unprepared either to confirm or to disprove the claims of the Kiev officials.
As it follows from Macierewicz’s claims, a total of 120,000 servicemen took part in Zapad 2017 and the pullout of so many military units should take up a long enough period of time.
“It’s always possible to say the process is incomplete and we’re witnessing the procedure of the troops’ return home rather than with the stationing them for long,” he said. “I think we’ll have an opportunity at the end of next week to assess if some troops have stayed back on the territory of Belarus or if the Ukrainians made an error.”
The strategic Russian-Belarusian exercise Zapad 2017 was held in Belarus from September 14 through September 20. Engaged in it was a contingent of up to 12,700 men and officers. The Belarusian Defense Ministry said on Thursday, September 28 the last echelon carrying the troops that had taken part in the maneuvers had left railway station of Borisov in Belarus.
The chief of the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Force, Viktor Muzhenko told Reuters earlier Russia had left behind some troops on the territory of Belarus after completion of Zapad 2017.
Gen Igor Konashenkov, the official spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry said on Thursday the information stood at variance with reality.
He said Muzhenko’s information on the troops Russia had ostensibly hidden in Belarus exposed the degree of degradation of the Ukrainian General Staff and the professional inaptitude of its top official.
About 20 ships and support vessels of Russia’s Baltic Fleet went to sea to perform tactical tasks of the Zapad-2017 strategic exercise, head of the Western Military District’s press service on the Baltic Fleet Captain 1st rank Roman Martov said on Saturday.
“Corvettes, small missile and anti-submarine ships, minesweepers and missile boats, and various vessels of the auxiliary fleet have formed a few tactical groupings,” he said. “They are ready to fulfil task as assigned – in anti-submarine and air defense, to carry out test artillery firing on different types of targets, simulating sea and air targets.”
A large-scale exercise Zapad-2017 began in Russia and Belarus on Thursday at three proving grounds in Russia and six in Belarus with 12,700 troops (7,200 Belarussian and 5,500 Russian ones taking part). Also involved in the exercise are about 70 planes and helicopters, 680 ground vehicles, including about 250 tanks, 200 artillery pieces, multiple rocket launchers and mortars and ten ships.
The main purpose of the exercise is to improve the compatibility of command and control centers, test new documentation and let commanders of all levels practice planning and control of operations on the basis of experience gained in the latest military conflicts.
The biggest Swedish military exercise in over 20 years has started in Gothenburg, with French and US air defence units as well as other overseas troops joining the Swedes in the Aurora 17 drill of more than 20,000 military personnel.
Taking place between September 11th and 24th, Aurora 17 involves a total of 19,000 Swedish troops, as well as 1,435 soldiers from the US, 120 from France, and other units from Finland, Denmark, Norway, Lithuania and Estonia. The exercise starts on Sweden’s west coast and will also cover the Stockholm area, Mälaren Valley and Baltic island Gotland.
The first event, practising “Host Nation Support” in Gothenburg, involves testing the “capability of receiving and providing support to other nations, an important element at a time of crisis”, according to the Swedish Armed Forces.
Starting on September 11th and running until the 20th, around 1,200 Swedish personnel as well as 200 from French and US air defence units are taking part in the first phase at Gothenburg’s Landvetter Airport, as well as the city’s harbour and Hisingen island.
The show of force comes in a period where Swedish defence is in sharp focus following an increase in military activity from Russia in the Baltic region. In June, Sweden summoned Russia’s ambassador after an SU-27 jet flew unusually close to a Swedish reconnaissance plane in international airspace above the Baltic Sea.
Aurora 17 will cost Sweden around 580 million kronor, about twice as much as the Armed Forces usually spends on military exercises in an entire year, according to SVT. The Swedish Government argues that a worsening security policy situation in Europe means that Sweden’s defence capabilities and cooperation with other nations in the area need to be strengthened.
“Aurora is the biggest operation in 23 years where the army, air force and marines collaborate in a drill. The exercise is an important defence policy signal. It raises the threshold against different types of incidents and provides an important foundation for evaluating our military capabilities,” Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist said in a statement.
Sweden is not a member of Nato, but has strengthened ties with the alliance in recent years in the face of Russian warnings that an expanding Nato would be seen as a “threat”. The Nordic country has a Host Nation Support Agreement (HSNA) with Nato which means helicopters, aircraft and ships can be transported by members across Swedish territory upon Sweden’s invitation.
In July, US Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, who is a commanding general of the US Army in Europe, singled out the importance of Gotland, saying “I do not think there is any island anywhere that is more important”.
At the same time as Aurora 17 gets going, Russian and Belarusian forces are preparing to start their own major joint military exercise on September 14th. Zapad 2017 (“West 2017”) will start in Russian enclave Kaliningrad, then move to Belarus and finally into mainland Russia.
Beginning tomorrow, as many as 100,000 Russian and Belarusian troops will launch major military exercises along the border of three NATO countries.
Russia’s upcoming Zapad military exercise, which will simulate a response to an attempted overthrow of the Belarusian government by an insurgency unfriendly to Russia, has European countries and the United States on edge at a time when relations between the NATO alliance and Moscow are colder than ever.
Zapad has the potential to be the country’s largest military exercise since the Cold War – despite Russian claims that only roughly 13,000 troops will participate, Western defense officials have put forward estimates closer to 100,000. Many suspect the Russians may hold multiple, smaller, simultaneous exercises as unofficial parts of Zapad, to adhere to the letter, if not the spirit, of the official 13,000 limit.
Why 13,000? According to the Vienna document, an agreement among the nations of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe of which Russia is a member, any exercise involving more than 13,000 people – including both military and support personnel – requires that outside observers be allowed to attend. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said last week that Moscow’s offer to allow three international observers access is not sufficient.
What is of more concern than the actual numbers are NATO fears of Russian duplicity. Russia made similar assurances regarding troop numbers in 2013, ahead of the last Zapad exercise, but the number reached nearly 70,000 – and acted as a prelude to the 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
So, is this Russian posturing or a true threat to NATO? According to experts, the exercises pose three major risks: potential positioning for a future attack, as in 2014; diversion for Russian activities elsewhere, such as in Syria and Ukraine; and an opportunity to signal to its Western rivals that it is once more a player on the global stage. None of these options are mutually exclusive, and all also carry the potential for miscommunication or miscalculation that leads to actual conflict.
The exercise comes at a time when the U.S. and Russia are exchanging diplomatic blows by expelling each other’s diplomats (because of the U.S. assertion that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election) and subtly challenging each other across the world from Syria to Afghanistan.
Former U.S. Senior Defense Official and Military Attaché to the Russian Federation, retired Brigadier General Peter Zwack, told The Cipher Brief, “I haven’t seen this level of distrust in my experience since 1999 – Kosovo. It is built on the 2014 crisis points and exacerbated by the very ugly activities – corruption and meddling – in our own body politic.” Given that level of tension, Zwack’s main concern surrounding Zapad is “an accident or an incident in this period of really serious distrust.”
Meanwhile, Russia’s primary objective seems clear: sending an indisputable message of strength to its Western neighbors and their NATO allies. In fact, the name Zapad, which means “West” in Russian, is quite literal – Belarus shares a western border with three NATO countries: Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia.
Speaking to the BBC on Sunday, UK Defense Secretary Michael Fallon indicated that the message was not lost on Europe: “This is designed to provoke us, it’s designed to test our defenses, and that’s why we have to be strong,” he said. “Russia is testing us and testing us now at every opportunity.”
Indeed, the Russian First Guards Tank Army – the historic unit that fought back the German invaders in World War II along the Eastern Front and then went on to occupy Berlin during the Cold War – will participate in the exercise.
The message was certainly not lost on Russia’s eastern European neighbors either. General Jaroslaw Stróżyk, the former Polish Defense Attaché in the United States, told The Cipher Brief that “the major aim of Zapad-17 is to intimidate Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.”
Beyond messaging, the West will also be watching closely for signs that Russia may be leaving military equipment in Belarus as pre-positioning for a future attack on one of the bordering nations – making Zapad-17 a modern-day Trojan Horse.
The Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, General Tony Thomas, stated in July that “the great concern is that [the Russians] are not going to leave” Belarus after the conclusion of the exercise. “And that’s not paranoia,” he added.
Moreover, after the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea and its intervention in Syria, experts noted similarities between tactics used in those actions, such as the use of unmanned aerial systems, and maneuvers practiced in Zapad-13.
But that also creates an opportunity for NATO, according to Cipher Brief expert and former member of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service Steven Hall. “There’s going to be the entire breadth of NATO collection capabilities aimed at Zapad to try to find out what the Russians are capable of,” he told The Cipher Brief.
So what does NATO have planned during the exercise?
According to NATO officials, the alliance will “closely monitor exercise Zapad-17 but we are not planning any large exercises during Zapad-17. Our exercises are planned long in advance and are not related to the Russian exercise.”
Instead, NATO will maintain normal military rotations, while carrying out previously scheduled exercises in Sweden, Poland, and Ukraine. Sweden, which is not a NATO member but is a member of the European Union, began its Aurora 17 exercise on Monday – which consists of 20,000 people from nine Western countries, including around 1,000 U.S. Marines, training to counter a hypothetical attack by Russia.
There will also be an additional six-week deployment of three companies of 120 paratroopers to each of the three Baltic countries for ‘low-level’ exercises. And, based on a 2016 agreement, four deployments of U.S., UK, German, and Canadian troops maintain an “Enhanced Forward Presence” in Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Estonia.
However, according to Zwack, NATO’s readiness needs to go beyond the military component. The alliance must be “absolutely ready” from a political and economic perspective as well, and prepared to lay down “mind-bending sanctions” if the Russians move beyond exercises to “a permanent dwell” in Belarus.
Russian adventurism, he believes, must have consequences that would put the Russian regime – and the monied interests that support that regime – at risk. It would need to be, according to Zwack, an existential threat to the controlling powers in Russia: in other words, “bad for business.”
But even if the exercise concludes without incident, the current climate is simply unsustainable, according to General Philip Breedlove, the former U.S. Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, who retired in 2016.
“I would hope that cooler heads and better judgment would prevail. But we can’t live in this way,” he told The Cipher Brief, adding, “The glib saying you often hear is ‘hope is not a strategy.’”
Callie Wang is the vice president of analysis at The Cipher Brief.
British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon has said Russia’s upcoming military maneuvers with Belarus are aimed at “provoking” NATO and “testing” its defenses.
“Russia is testing us and testing us now at every opportunity,” Fallon said on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show on September 10. “We’re seeing a more aggressive Russia. We have to deal with that.”
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.
Russia and Belarus say the Zapad (West) 2017 exercises, which are set to be held in Belarus and parts of western Russia on September 14-20, 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 the war games will be defensive and pose no threat to Russia’s neighbors, NATO, or the West.
“This is [Russia’s] biggest exercise I think for four years — over 100,000 Russian and Belarusian troops … on NATO’s borders,” Fallon said. “This is designed to provoke us, it’s designed to test our defenses, and that’s why we have to be strong.”
NATO says it will send three observers to Belarus and Russia to monitor Zapad 2017, but it has repeatedly called on the two countries to allow broader monitoring of the drills.
The alliance’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, called on Russia to be “fully transparent,” telling the BBC on September 10 that Russia has a history of “under-reporting” the number of troops in its exercises and “using loopholes in international agreements to avoid international observation.”
“We have seen before that Russia has used big military exercises as a disguise or a precursor for aggressive military actions against their neighbors,” Stoltenberg also said. “That happened in Georgia in 2008 when they invaded Georgia, and it happened in Crimea in 2014 when they illegally annexed [Ukraine’s] Crimea [region].”
Speaking on September 7 in the Estonian capital, Tallinn, the French and German defense ministers condemned the Zapad 2017 exercises, saying Moscow is seeking to show off military might on the borders of the EU and NATO.
“It is particularly important in this context that we reaffirm our presence in the face of…this demonstration the Russians are making which is a strategy of intimidation,” France’s Defense Minister Florence Parly said.
“It is undisputed that we see a demonstration of capabilities and power of the Russians,” German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said. “Anyone who doubts that only has to look at the high numbers of the participating forces in the Zapad exercise: more than 100,000.”
The Russian Defense Ministry said on September 9 that it was “bewildered by the statements of Ursula von der Leyen, publicly talking through her hat and making arbitrary allegations about 100,000 Russian troops …and about hidden threats to Europe.”
On September 7, the ministry said that Russia’s Armed Forces General Staff chief Valery Gerasimov used a meeting in Azerbaijan with the chairman of the NATO military committee, Petr Pavel, to reassure him about the war games.
Gerasimov told Pavel that the joint exercises with Belarus were “long-planned and defensive” and “not aimed against any third country,” a statement carried by Russian news agencies said.
NATO said the September 7 meeting in Baku “demonstrates a clear mutual interest to maintain the military lines of communication,” but did not give any details on what was discussed.
Russia holds the Zapad exercises every four years, rotating them with drills in three other parts of the country.
Belarus borders NATO members Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, as well as Ukraine. The area 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 battle-groups in the three Baltic states and Poland — totaling approximately 4,500 troops.
The Northern Fleet, the most powerful of Russia’s five fleets, is unfolding a special exercise which includes key parts of fleet capacities.
The drills will be headed directly by Russian Navy Head Commander Vladimir Korolyev and will last «for several days», the Northern Fleet informs.
Included are about 50 ships, submarines and support vessels. Also aircraft, helicopters from the Air Force and Air Defense Force will be deployed, a Naval representative reported to Interfax.
The drills will be held as several of the most powerful Northern Fleet vessels return to their home port of Severomorsk after their participation in the Navy parade outside St.Petersburg. Among them are the battle cruiser Pyotr Veliky and the typhoon-class submarine Dmitry Donskoy.
It is likely that the returning vessels will take part in the exercise.
In the course of the training exercises, anti-submarine and anti-sabotage activities will be conducted along with navigational, hydrographical, anti-mine and search and rescue operations.
According to the Navy representatives, the exercise is held as a preparatory phase to the large-scale joint Russian-Belarus drills Zapad-2017 which are scheduled for the 14thto 20th September.
Estonia will accept the invitation by Belarus to send observers to the Zapad military drill to be jointly held by Russian and Belarusian armed forces this September, the Commander of the Estonian Defence Forces has stated.
Estonian public broadcaster ERR reports that the Commander of the Estonian Defence Forces General Riho Terras has said this week in an interview with Eesti Päevaleht newspaper that Zapad exercises have taken place for decades already, also during the Soviet times.
Terras noted that this summer, Belarus and Russia have already conducted preparatory joint exercises testing communications in July and currently a demonstrative drill is taking place in Pskov, not far from Estonia and Latvia.
«It is important that we know what is going on. (..) That we know in detail what is going on, that we keep track of it and be prepared. But we must also be prepared when exercises aren’t being conducted. I don’t think that anything will occur in the framework of field exercises which could spill over to our side or which we will tangibly be able to see,» ERR cited Terras as evaluating in the interview.
STRUGI KRASNYE /Pskov region/, August 10. /TASS/. Russia’s Airborne Force and the Belarusian Special Operations Force (SOF) plan to hold joint military exercises near the western Russian city of Pskov, near the Estonian border in September, SOF First Deputy Chief of Staff Colonel Viktor Gulevish said on Thursday.
“We have been considering issues concerning our joint military drills, they are going to be battalion task exercises,” the Belarusian colonel said that a battalion of the Vitebsk Regiment would represent the country in the drills.
According to the Russian Defense Ministry, the military exercises are planned to be held at the base where the 76th Guards Air Assault Division of the Russian Airborne Force is deployed, which is located on the outskirts of the city of Pskov, as part of the Zapad-2017 (or West 2017) strategic drills.
A delegation of the Belarusian Special Operations Force has arrived to monitor the drills of Russia’s 104th Air Assault Regiment, currently taking place near Pskov.
Gulevich, who heads the Belarusian delegation, said that he had been greatly impressed by the large scale of the military exercises. “We have the same training system, only our tasks slightly differ,” he said. “We could never imagine any task that would stipulate such large-scale drills,” he added.
The Belarusian colonel also commended the efficiency of new military hardware being used during the drills, which particularly includes the BMD-4M airborne assault vehicles and Rakushka armored personnel carriers.
WASHINGTON — Russia is preparing to send as many as 100,000 troops to the eastern edge of NATO territory at the end of the summer, one of the biggest steps yet in the military buildup undertaken by President Vladimir V. Putin and an exercise in intimidation that recalls the most ominous days of the Cold War.
The troops are conducting military maneuvers known as Zapad, Russian for “west,” in Belarus, the Baltic Sea, western Russia and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. The drills will feature a reconstituted armored force named for a storied Soviet military unit, the First Guards Tank Army. Its establishment represents the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union that so much offensive power has been concentrated in a single command.
The military exercise, planned for many months, is not a reaction to sweeping new economic sanctions on Russia that Congress passed last week. So far, Russia has retaliated against the sanctions by forcing the expulsion of several hundred employees in American diplomatic posts in the country.
But the move is part of a larger effort by Mr. Putin to shore up Russia’s military prowess, and comes against the backdrop of an increasingly assertive Russia. Beyond Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election in support of the Trump campaign, which has seized attention in the United States, its military has in recent years deployed forces to Syria, seized Crimea and intervened in eastern Ukraine, rattled the Baltic States with snap exercises and buzzed NATO planes and ships.
Punishing sanctions by the United States and European allies that have isolated Russia further have done nothing to stop Mr. Putin’s saber-rattling, as illustrated by the long-scheduled Zapad exercise.
Even more worrying, top American military officers say, is that the maneuvers could be used as a pretext to increase Russia’s military presence in Belarus, a central European nation that borders three critical NATO allies: Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.
“The great concern is they’re not going to leave, and that’s not paranoia,” Gen. Tony Thomas, the head of the United States Special Operations Command, told a national security conference in Aspen, Colo., in July.
Peter B. Zwack, a retired one-star Army general who was the American defense attaché in Moscow from 2012 to 2014, said: “First and foremost, the messaging is, ‘We’re watching you; we’re strong; we’ve learned a lot; don’t mess with Russia.’”
Western military officials caution that the United States and Russia are not on the brink of war. But they expressed concern that the heightened Russian military activity could lead to unintended confrontations.
For this installment of the Zapad maneuvers, a Cold War relic revived in 1999 and held again in 2009 and 2013, Russia has requisitioned enough rail cars to carry 4,000 loads of tanks and other heavy equipment to and from Belarus.
The Russians already have about 1,000 air defense troops and communications personnel stationed in Belarus, and logistical teams are surveying training sites there. By mid- August, advance elements of the thousands of Russian Army, airborne and air defense troops that are to participate in the exercise are expected to arrive. The rest of the force is expected to reach Belarus by early September ahead of the Zapad exercises, scheduled for Sept. 14 to 20.
The United States is taking precautions, including sending 600 American paratroopers to NATO’s three Baltic members for the duration of the Zapad exercise and delaying the rotation of a United States-led battle group in Poland.
“Look, we’ll be ready; we’ll be prepared,” said Lt. Gen. Frederick B. Hodges, the head of United States Army forces in Europe. “But we’re not going to be up on the parapets waiting for something to happen.”
In 2014, Russia’s stealthy forays into eastern Ukraine and its rapid capture of Crimea were seen as skillful exercises in “hybrid warfare,” a combination of cyberwarfare, a powerful disinformation campaign and the use of highly trained special operation troops and local proxy forces.
But there is nothing subtle about the tank-heavy unit at the heart of the coming Zapad exercise.
The First Guards Tank Army, made up mainly of forces transferred from other units, including elite motorized and tank divisions near Moscow, has an extensive pedigree. The unit battled the Germans during World War II on the Eastern Front and eventually in Berlin before becoming part of the Soviet force that occupied Germany. In 1968, it participated in the invasion of Czechoslovakia to crush the Prague Spring.
After the end of the Cold War, the unit was withdrawn to Smolensk, near the border with Belarus, before being disbanded in 1998. But it was reconstituted by Mr. Putin to give the Russian military more offensive punch and present a visible demonstration of Russian power.
“That name was chosen for a reason,” said Philip M. Breedlove, a retired four-star Air Force general who served as NATO commander. “It sends a very clear message to the Baltics and Poland.”
In addition, the Russians have fielded a new motorized division near Smolensk, close to the border with Belarus, which could be used in conjunction with the tank unit. In combination with the highly mobile tank army, that force has about 800 tanks, more than 300 artillery pieces and a dozen Iskander tactical missile launchers.
That is more tanks than NATO has in active units deployed in the Baltic States, Poland and Germany put together, not including armor in storage that would be used by reinforcements sent from the United States, noted Phillip A. Karber, the president of the Potomac Foundation, who has studied Russian military operations in and around Ukraine.
“There is only one reason you would create a Guards Tank Army, and that is as an offensive striking force,” General Hodges said. “This is not something for homeland security. That does not mean that they are automatically going to do it, but in terms of intimidation it is a means of putting pressure on allies.”
Mr. Karber cautioned against exaggerating the First Guards Tank Army’s capability, noting that not all of its units were fully manned and that some of the most modern tanks earmarked for it have not arrived.
“There is only one reason you would create a Guards Tank Army, and that is as an offensive striking force,” General Hodges said. “This is not something for homeland security. That does not mean that they are automatically going to do it, but in terms of intimidation it is a means of putting pressure on allies.”
But if fully deployed into Belarus, he said, it will be a powerful offensive formation and a way for the Russian military to rapidly project power westward, which is all the more important for Moscow. The collapse of the Soviet Union meant that Russian forces lost Belarus and Ukraine as buffers.
“Just the presence of the First Guards Tank Army near the Polish border would put NATO on the horns of a dilemma,” Mr. Karber said. “Does NATO reinforce the Baltics or defend eastern Poland? NATO does not have enough forces to do both in a short period of time. It adds to the political pressure Russia can bring to bear to keep the Baltic nations and Poland in line”.
The Russians have also announced that the First Guards Tank Army will be the first formation to receive the T-14 Armata tank, a new infantry fighting vehicle, as well as advanced air defense and electronic warfare equipment.
A more immediate concern, however, is whether Russia will use the Zapad exercise to keep Belarus in line. Belarus has long worked closely with Moscow, and its air defense units are integrated with Russia’s to the east.
But with friction between the nation’s autocratic president, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, and Mr. Putin have come reports that Belarus is reluctant to host more Russian forces permanently.
As part of the maneuvers, units of the First Guards Tank Army are expected to establish a forward command post in western Belarus, and to hold exercises in training areas near Brest, on the Polish border, and Grodno, near Poland and Lithuania.
Russian officials have told NATO that the maneuvers will be far smaller than Western officials are anticipating and will involve fewer than 13,000 troops. But NATO officials say the exercise is intended to test Russia’s contingency plans for a major conflict with the alliance and will also involve Russian civilian agencies.
“We have every reason to believe that it may be substantially more troops participating than the official reported numbers,” Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary general, said in July.
Adding to the concern, the Russians have yet to agree that international observers can monitor the Zapad exercise. American officials have long said that monitoring is important, given the difficulty of Western intelligence in determining whether Russian military activity is merely an exercise or a preparation for an armed intervention.
The United States, in contrast, allowed Russian, Chinese and even North Korean observers to monitor a recent Army exercise, called Saber Guardian, in Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria.
At least two battalions of First Guards units, or some 3,000 armored troops, are expected to participate in the Belarus maneuvers. The total number of Russian troops, security personnel and civilian officials in the broader exercise is expected to range from 60,000 to as many as 100,000.
The question NATO officials are asking is whether all of the troops and equipment in Belarus will leave.
Said General Hodges, “I am very interested in what goes in and what comes out.”
The United States will step up its military presence in Lithuania when Russia and Belarus will kick off joint efforts for the West-2017 military exercises, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite stated on national radio on Monday.
“During the West-2017 exercises, the US will double the usual number of fighter aircraft stationed in Lithuania,” she said, noting that also “there will be more military, hardware and ships”.
A rotating contingent of Lithuania’s NATO allies involving 100 personnel and four fighter jets is stationed at the Lithuanian Zokniai air base. At the present time, a contingent from the Polish Air Force is deployed there, which will be replaced at the start of September by a US Air Force contingent.
The Baltic States have no planes to control their airspace. This is done by their NATO partners. Four more fighter jets are stationed at Estonia’s Amari Air Base.
The US also regularly sends ground units to Lithuania that participate in joint training exercises with Lithuanian military.
The large-scale West-2017 war game will be held at Belarusian firing ranges in September. About 13,000 military personnel and up to 80 pieces of military hardware will participate.
Picture: AFP This month’s G20 meeting in Hamburg showed Western countries still struggling for a strategy to stop suspected Russian meddling in their politics and hacking their elections. Behind the scenes, however, the U.S. and European militaries have been more effective in adapting to the actions of President Vladimir Putin and Moscow’s aggressive new military doctrine.
It’s now just over three years since Russia’s war in eastern Ukraine redefined how Western states see conflict. The result increasingly looks set to revolutionize the U.S. and European armed forces as much as any combat lessons learned in Iraq or Afghanistan.
The process is still in its infancy. Still, troops, aircraft and warships from leading NATO states – most importantly the United States – have become a permanent presence in much of Eastern Europe. And for all the worries about President Donald Trump’s possible Russia links and lukewarm commitment to NATO’s Article 5, U.S. military and diplomatic leaders have been robust in stressing America’s commitment to European security.
NATO’s top priority is defending the most vulnerable northern and eastern European countries, particularly the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – once part of the Soviet Union, now within the Western alliance.
This summer has seen NATO conducting cutting-edge anti-submarine and electronic warfare exercises in the North Atlantic, near daily flights by surveillance aircraft operating in the Baltic and a host of other war games from the Black Sea to the Arctic.
Moscow’s swift, largely bloodless annexation of Ukraine’s Russian-speaking Crimea region grabbed Europe’s attention. That’s been even truer of the deadlier war in the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine – where Russian-backed separatists declared the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in 2014.
For residents there, the results have been devastating. The United Nations estimates more than 2,700 civilians have been amongst an estimated 10,000 killed since April 2014. More than 1.6 million people in the conflict area have fled their homes.
These victims are, of course, the very Russian-speaking Ukrainians Moscow says it is trying to help with its actions. Still, Ukraine has enabled Putin to re-establish Russia’s reputation as a top-tier global power.
This now goes well beyond the deliberately ambiguous Russian strategies of information warfare and hybrid confrontation that have preoccupied many analysts in the West since 2014. Russia may still be reluctant to acknowledge that it has used conventional forces in Ukraine, but evidence on the ground is overwhelming.
When the Ukraine war started, Kiev’s military used U.S.-style military techniques honed against relatively unsophisticated insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. These tactics proved disastrous, particularly for armored vehicles, after Russian artillery batteries used drones and other advanced surveillance equipment to inflict horrific losses.
Russian cyber attacks and electronic jamming also disabled Western-provided equipment, including what Washington had considered state-of-the-art unmanned aerial vehicles.
The effectiveness of Moscow’s techniques shocked U.S. strategists, many of whom had come to believe Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya-style insurgent foes were all they would ever confront.
The challenge now for Western militaries is to devise effective counters to Russia’s actions in Europe while simultaneously building on the lessons learned from the success of the U.S.-backed Iraqi military campaign in Mosul and advances against militants in Syria, Somalia and Nigeria.
That, in turn, leads to tension over resource allocation. France’s top military officer resigned Wednesday, citing dissatisfaction with defense cuts. U.S. and other militaries continue to face an awkward balancing act between ever more expensive high-end equipment such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and money for personnel and training.
Much planning revolves around finding techniques to counter Russia’s so-called “Gerasimov doctrine,” which focuses on political operations rather than conventional military confrontations. But Western strategists have also put renewed focus on classic Cold War-style military deterrence aimed at persuading Moscow of the risks of attacking a NATO member are simply too great.
In its posturing over the last three years, the Kremlin has aggressively used the threat of direct military action – both conventional and nuclear – to intimidate other countries. Major military drills planned for September will be the next example of that. In doing so, however, Putin may have shot himself in the foot.
Western planning means that Moscow would find it harder to mount any attack than only a few years ago – and the more Putin makes aggressive noise, the more this will be true. Moscow’s forces might outnumber NATO troops in the region, but the alliance hopes it now has enough presence for Moscow to realize it cannot hope to overrun a NATO state without sparking a much wider war.
Any such conflict, all sides realize, might well turn nuclear.
Germany, which is gradually upping its military spending towards the NATO target of two percent of gross domestic product, has made it clear it sees Russia’s actions in Ukraine as a game-changer. Germany’s military is now keen to restore skills in neglected areas such as ground-based air defense and combat engineering. It is also working more closely with other European allies.
Growing numbers of Western strategists believe Putin hopes Russia’s propaganda and political disruption efforts may ultimately cause both NATO and the European Union to collapse. Few see that as likely – but countries most vulnerable to Russia, such as the Baltic states and Finland, are taking few chances.
In the event of an invasion, the plan is for many of their troops – mostly conscripts – to withdraw into forests and mount hit-and-run attacks against Russian troops.
In addition, several Nordic and European nations – Sweden, Finland, Norway, the Netherlands, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Denmark – have quietly come together to form the UK-led Joint Expeditionary Force. It’s a framework that could deploy a substantial, sustainable force to defend the Baltic states – and would still exist even if the NATO and U.S. commitment to Europe vanished.
That may not be enough to stop Russia launching a surprise assault on a slice of NATO territory. However, even that would likely just further intensify Europe’s commitment to defending the rest of its territory.
The fact is that Europe is now better defended than at any point in decades. If Russia feels threatened by that, then Putin has only himself to blame.