Zapad 2013 Putin Presidential Press and Information Office

The Bear Looks West: Zapad 2017

The eyes of Western observers are being drawn to the upcoming military exercises scheduled for September 14–20 in western Belarus and in Russia’s Leningrad, Pskov, and Kaliningrad regions. The exercises have been given the name Zapad 2017 (the Russian word zapad simply means west), and represent the latest in a series of exercises meant for the combined armed forces of the Union State, which is to say, Russia and Belarus. Given Russia’s actions in Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine in 2014, residents of countries in the Baltic region and Eastern Europe are rightfully wary of Russia’s exercise, which on the face of it is aimed directly at them. In this piece, Eamon Dricoll examines whether their fears are justified.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.

Zapad 2017 is the latest edition of rotating military exercises focusing on the four major Russian fronts of a potential war: West, Central, Caucasus, and East. Every four years, the cycle comes back to the western front, which is clearly the most important for NATO and the Baltic states. The last time the Zapad exercises were held, the geopolitical context was entirely different; in 2013 Crimea was still Ukrainian territory, Yanukovich was still president, and Novorossiya was a thing of history alone. Accordingly, the Zapad 2013 focused on the incursion of terrorists from the Baltic states, drawing the attention of the Baltics, but largely ignored by NATO whose attention was fully drawn to the aftermath of the Arab Spring and the escalation of the Syrian Civil War. To find justification for the exercises, intended to train for the defense of Russian from exterior threats, we can look to President Putin’s 2006 speech to the nation, delivered in the context of U.S. military action in Iraq and a war of words with then-Vice President Dick Cheney:

“But this means that we also need to build our home and make it strong and well protected. We see, after all, what is going on in the world. The Comrade Wolf knows whom to eat, as the saying goes. It knows whom to eat and is not about to listen to anyone, it seems.”

Taken by itself, this quote gives credence to the fears of many in Eastern Europe that Russian revanchism is on the rise. Historically under the thumb of Russian and Soviet administrations, the eastern echelon of NATO is concerned that one of them might be next, with the Baltic states particularly concerned as the exercises almost fully envelop them, save for the 65-mile-long border between Lithuania and Poland. There is precedent for a direct transition from exercise-to-warfare: Zapad 2013 was followed by occupation and annexation of Crimea and intervention in the Donbas half a year later, while Kavkas 2008 (Caucasus 2008) in July became the Russo-Georgian war in August. This precedent is the likely source of Western worries over Russian exercises: the soldiers involved in Kavkas 2008 did not return to their bases, but stayed on the Georgian front ahead of the invasion.

Yet even that was not isolated, as diplomatic tensions had been rising since Georgia withdrew from the Commonwealth of Independent States in April 2008 and actions by both Russia and Georgia in the separatist regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia led to diplomatic fragility. The Zapad 2013 exercises, although closely approximating the fighting that would later take place in the Donbas, took place months before Yanukovich rejected the free trade agreement with the EU that sparked the protests and eventual revolution. Unlike in 2008, there were no tensions with Ukraine that could have led to Putin ordering the soldiers to hang around along the border, except in March 2014 when the crisis was in full swing, Putin called a snap exercise along the Ukrainian border in the Rostov, Belgorod, and Kursk oblasts. This snap exercise then turned into Russian “volunteers” crossing the border stripped of identificating marks.

There is a very clear precedent of the Russian military using exercises with ongoing regional tensions in mind, and the fact that the Baltic states are almost entirely encompassed by the Zapad 2017 exercises is thus a great cause for concern. Moreover, Estonia and Latvia have large Russian minorities—24% and 27.6% respectively, including a full half of Riga’s population—a fact which no doubt is cause for concern among the non-Russians who fear their countries are the Kremlin’s next target for annexation, occupation, or intervention. Lithuania, with a Russian minority population of less than 5% of the whole, is less vulnerable to the type of hybrid warfare that Russia has practiced in Ukraine, but is still vulnerable to political geography. Further cause for concern is that two previous exercises in 2009 and 2013 included simulated nuclear strikes on Poland and Sweden, respectively. Additionally, the Russian military has been active in September, engaged in exercises with Mongolia, in the Baltic Sea, and the Arctic Ocean.

Given this precendent, it would seem that there is indeed reason to be concerned. Yet military exercises such as these have happened before and without incident. Moreover, the job of a military is to be prepared for war. Past Russian actions aside, there is little inherent difference between Russia’s Zapad 2017 exercise and the joint US-ROK exercises which plan and train for various military options in North Korea, including a sudden “decapitation strike”. Looking at the details of Zapad 2017, however, it appears to be primarily defensive. For the purposes of training, a fake country called Veishnoria was created in western Belarus. The fictional scenario is not unlike the reality in Ukraine prior to Yanukovich’s overthrow, when some voices in western Ukraine advocated secession: Veishnoria is attempting to conquer Belarus. Such a scenario fits well with Putin’s fear that NATO encroachment isn’t going to stop anytime soon, though opposing such encroachment does involve steps taken to expand the theatre of war to NATO bases in the Baltic states and Poland, which have also been given fake names for the purposes of the exercise. NATO is also not idle; later this month an exercise will be held in Poland and will no doubt have the results of Zapad 2017 in mind. In accordance with international law, Russia and Belarus have invited NATO observers, though NATO itself has stated that these measures are insufficient to ease the perceived threat of war.

As previously mentioned, another aspect of the exercises that deserves consideration is the context. When Russia used exercises as a justification for troop buildup at the borders with Georgia and Ukraine prior to those conflicts, there were already tensions that had built up over the previous months. Belarus and the Baltic states are devoid of similar tensions. In the former case, Belarusian president Lukashenko has made it clear that Belarus is a sovereign nation despite being firmly within Moscow’s sphere of influence. Any moves by Putin to assert direct control over Belarus, or to leave Russian soldiers inside Belarus after the exercise has ended, would likely result in Lukashenko making overtures to NATO in order to maintain his regime. And in the latter case, despite the large Russian minority populations, there have been little steps taken by the relevant governments to suppress that minority.

There is one variable that is generally not considered by observers and analysts when considering Zapad 2017: the World Cup. While the crisis in Ukraine unfolded during the Sochi Olympics, Putin is unlikely to see the benefit of starting a major war after spending $10 billion in the midst of the ruble’s collapse. Despite the tensions with the West, the World Cup presents an opportunity for Russia to show itself to people who might otherwise never think of visiting, and an opportunity for financial gain in the short-term through sale of broadcasting rights and purchases made by individuals during their stay in Russia for the matches. The World Cup is less about football as it is an investment in the local economies of nine cities, excluding Moscow and St. Petersburg. It can also be used to curry goodwill, provided there are no repeat incidents like the clash of Russian and English football hooligans in Marseilles during Euro 2016.

Ultimately, the Zapad 2017 exercises represent an opportunity for NATO that should not go to waste. Observers will be able to study the actions of the Russian military and use this knowledge to train a response. NATO have already been given ample information on Russia’s new equipment on display in Syria and Ukraine, and the close working relationship between Russia and the U.S. in that country have likely provided further information that can be used to craft NATO strategy going forward. Nevertheless, if knowledge is power, then paying close attention to Zapad 2017 will bear fruit while also negating the possibility of Russia using the exercises to leapfrog into a state of martial readiness. Instead of worrying about whether the exercises signal Russia’s intentions to invade, NATO should see them as a window of opportunity while also being prepared on their end.

There is little else that can be done; if Russia intends war then NATO must be ready; if not then these exercises will simply pass into history as almost all military exercises do. It is extremely unlikely that Zapad 2017 is indeed a prelude to war, but with tensions on the rise and simulated nuclear attacks on the table, NATO’s preparedness is paramount.

Eamon Driscoll is a graduate of the University of Ilinois who is currently completing his postgraduate studies in Geopolitics, Territory and Security at King’s College, London. Eamon has experience living and working in both Ukraine and Russia, and now focuses on issues in Russia and the wider Commonwealth of Independent States. His current academic focus is on the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and how its unique position has forced the region to develop differently from other Russian territories, especially in the shadow of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.

Photo credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

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