Today, Moscow kicked off its controversial, week-long "Zapad-2017" drill, the latest iteration of a series of training maneuvers that began under the Soviet Union in the 1970s, and which has angered and put NATO and Baltic States leaders on edge. Land, sea and air units will be taking part in war games until the 21st of September across a huge area encompassing western Russia, Belarus, the Baltic Sea and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.
After a long break following the collapse of communism, Zapad, or "west" in Russian, was revived in 1999 and then was expanded after Vladimir Putin became president at the end of that year. Previous versions were held in 2009 and 2013. Moscow says fewer than 13,000 troops are participating - the threshold for inviting international observers - but NATO members believe as many as 100,000 troops will be involved in the drills. That would make this year's drill the biggest display of Russian military power since the end of the Cold War a quarter-century ago.
Foreign observers from NATO were never allowed to watch Soviet-era Zapad exercises, and diplomats based in Moscow were barred from visiting regions where the exercises were taking place. That was supposed to change with the signing of the Vienna Document, adopted in 1990 by the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and updated in 2011, but Russia has always found ways to circumvent the agreement.
In the drill, Russia and Belarus will deploy their troops, designated as "the Northern ones" to stand up to the aggression from "the Western ones" – armed attackers from the made-up countries of Vesbaria, Lubenia, and Veishnoria. According to the scenario released by Russian and Belarusian defense officials, Vesbaria and Lubenia are located in the Baltic region and control the corridor which links the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad with Belarus.
In the real world, the corridor roughly corresponds to the border between Lithuania and Poland, both of them NATO members. The hypothetical state of Veishnoria, however, is located in the Grodno area of Belarus, near the country's western border. Experts cited by DW see this as a sign that Minsk and Moscow are preparing scenarios for threats originating in NATO countries as well as from within Belarus. The Grodno area seems to have a special significance as the home for a large population of Poles living in the former Soviet state. However, military officials insist that the scenario was developed "against a hypothetical opponent, unrelated to the concrete region."
What is the goal of the drill?
"Belarus and the Kaliningrad region have been infiltrated by extremist groups with the intention of committing terrorist attacks. The illegal militias are backed from abroad, providing them with armaments and naval and air capabilities. In order to neutralize the opponents, land forces will be deployed to cut off their access to sea and block air corridors in the region, with the support of the air force, air defense forces, and the navy," the official plan says.
The goal of the Zapad-2017 maneuvers is to coordinate actions between regional military commands "in the interest of ensuring military safety," Moscow and Minsk said. "The Republic of Belarus strives to prevent armed conflicts, and the Russian federation is providing it with political backing, financial aid, as well as technical and military support," according to the Belarusian Defense Ministry.
The drill is set to proceed in two stages. Initially, the military will boost their air force and air defense capabilities to protect key military and state objects, and prepare to "isolate regions of activity by the illegal armed groups and their subversive-reconnaissance squads." The second stage will be "to work out the issues of managing troops while repelling an aggression" against Russia and Belarus.
Who will take part?
Officially, the two countries say that some 12,700 servicemen will be involved in the upcoming drills. "Zapad-2017" will also involve 70 planes and helicopters, 280 tanks, 200 artillery weapons, ten ships, 200 "heavy weapons and guns" and various other pieces of military equipment. The drills will also include agents of the Russian intelligence service FSB, as well as people working for the Russian Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Emergency Situations.
However, NATO allies have repeatedly disputed these numbers, with German Defense Minister Ursula Von der Leyen claiming the real number is likely to be upwards of 100,000 troops. International accords mandate that countries provide a larger degree of transparency when holding drills with over 13,000 troops.
Last weekend, Russia’s Defense Ministry said it was "bewildered" by Von der Leyen's assertion, and repeated its claims that drill would stay below the 13,000 threshold. Previously, the Kremlin has asked foreign defense officials and military-diplomatic corps to visit the final stage of the joint exercise at one of the sites in Russia. Belarus also stated that it had sent out invitations to UN, OSCE, NATO, the post-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States, and military attaches accredited in Belarus.
Despite a global anti-Russian wave that would make McCarthy blush, so-called experts don't believe that Russia is about to launch a war, at least not yet , according to NBC. "NATO remains calm and vigilant, and committed to keeping Estonia and all our allies safe," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said last week in Estonia, one of the tiny Baltic nations that borders Russia and often worries about undue influence from Moscow. But not everyone in the region is so sanguine. In Lithuania, another Baltic nation that was once part of the Soviet Union, Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis summed up the mood.
"We can't be totally calm. There is a large foreign army massed next to Lithuanian territory," he told Reuters.
Other Western officials, including the head of the U.S. Army in Europe, Gen. Ben Hodges, have raised concerns that Russia might use the drills as a "Trojan horse" to make incursions into Poland and Russian-speaking regions in the Baltics. Hodges made the comment in a Reuters interview in July.
There are fears that Moscow may be moving far more troops into Belarus than it intends to withdraw, establishing a permanent military presence there on the border with NATO countries. And officials in the Baltics and Poland have voiced alarm that the exercises could be used as a cover for Russian aggression, as happened in 2014, when Moscow staged large-scale exercises to camouflage preparations to intervene on the side of pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.
NATO is also concerned: "Russia is not organizing defensive operations but instead an offensive threat, testing how serious we are about protecting the members of NATO," said Jonathan Eyal, international director of the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank. Belarus not only borders Russia, but also three of America's key but relatively isolated NATO allies: Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia.
"Russia is reminding us that the Baltic states are relatively indefensible," Eyal added according to NBC. "They want to see where the cracks are in NATO and where they can be widened."
Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general, said he could not speculate about the real purpose of Zapad-2017, saying that this would become clear only once it was over next week. At the same time, he noted, the exercise fits a “pattern of a more assertive Russia” that is “exercising more aggressively” and, through its actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, has shown that “it is willing to use military force against its neighbors.”
In hypothetical scenarios played out by the Rand Corporation last year found that it would take Russian forces just 60 hours to reach the outskirts of the Estonian and Latvian capitals of Tallinn and Riga.
In terms of this year's Zapad exercise, what concerns some officials and experts is they aren't exactly sure how big they will be. There are also questions about Putin's true intention. The last Zapad exercise, in 2013, featured "more than 75,000 men, who were engaged in simulated operations in the air, on land and at sea," according to a report by The Jamestown Foundation, a Washington-based research institute. For comparison, last year 24 NATO members held a military exercise named "Anakonda," which included more than 31,000 service members.
Whatever the number, the exercises come against the backdrop of several close encounters between Russian and NATO aircraft and ships in recent years.
"There's always a possibility for miscalculation when that's going on," Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti, NATO's supreme allied commander, told reporters last month, referring to these near-misses. "I think that's the importance of transparency, particularly on Russia's part, to tell us about [the Zapad] exercise: What should we expect to see, what is the size of them, where will they operate?"
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What is far less mentioned in the western press, is that are pointed out earlier, Belarus had previously invited international monitors from various foreign countries to observe the active phase of the drills.
“We are not planning to attack anyone. In terms of what the drills will be like – we’ve invited almost anyone who wants to attend. Let them come and watch,” Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko stated in September. In July, Belarusian Defense Minister Andrey Ravkov, also stressed that international organizations, including the UN, NATO, and the OSCE, as well as more than 80 foreign observers, are invited to the drills since there is “nothing to conceal.”
Finally, while the world’s attention is focused on Zapad 2017, NATO and its allies have increased their military activity on Russia's borders.
Launching today, by odd coincidence, Sweden is holding its largest war games in over two decades, timed to start at the same time as the Russia-Belarus drills. Apart from exceeding the number of troops participating in Zapad 2017 by several thousand, the maneuvers are aimed to prepare for a possible Russian attack.
Moreover, around 40,000 NATO troops and allied forces have taken part in various military drills in Europe this summer, according to Air Force Brigadier General John Healy, who directs the drills of US forces in Europe. Eighteen NATO exercises, including Noble Partner in Georgia, occurred in the Black Sea Region alone, close to the Russian border, in summer 2017. At the same time Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria joined separate US-led Saber Guardian 2017, which took place this summer. Around 25,000 service members from 22 allied and partner nations were involved in the drills, making them the largest of the 18 Black Sea region exercises this year. Earlier, Ukraine hosted the US-led Sea Breeze 17 naval drills, involving around 2,500 troops and more than 30 ships from 17 participating countries.