Zapad… a word most people are perhaps unfamiliar with, and who can blame them, it’s a word spoken once every four years – it simply means West in Russian. Since 1999 Russia has conducted vast military war game scenarios taking place every four years in four strategically important regions; Vostok (Eastern), Tsentr (Central), Kavkaz (Caucasus) and Zapad (West). As indicated by its name Zapad 2017 will take place on Russia’s western front, bordering NATO member states; Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. This year’s Zapad will be held jointly with Belarus between the 14th-20th September.
Previous Zapad exercises have alarmed NATO due to the sheer size of the military personnel and equipment at the regions disposal as well as the nature of the war game scenarios. In 2009 Zapad consisted of a simulated nuclear attack on the Polish capital Warsaw, a move widely condemned by NATO.
Should we be worried?
There is little doubt in my mind that Mr Putin sees Zapad 2017 and other such military exercises, not just as a way to flex Russia’s military muscle in front of its Cold War adversary but to cripple the defensive spirit of its smaller Baltic neighbours and eventually draw them into the Russian sphere of influence. In 2013 Russia conducted four military drills and a fifth in late February 2014, deploying large numbers of airborne troops, armoured vehicles and attack helicopters to its south-west border with Ukraine, a move which later resulted in the easily fought annexation of Crimea in March 2014. In 2008, Putin used Kavkaz (Caucasus) exercises to launch his invasion of Georgia’s South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions, to which nine years on Russia continues to occupy.
Moscow and Washington have been at war with words over Zapad 2017, US General Ben Hodges, the commander of American Forces in Europe, believes Russia plans to use Zapad 2017 as a way to install Russian troops and equipment in Belarus, calling it a ‘Trojan horse’. In response Grigory Karasin, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, stated that such remarks are ‘artificial buffoonery’ adding that Zapad 2017 ‘is aimed at justifying the sharp intensification of the NATO bloc along the perimeter of Russian territory’. Both comments are warranted and stand to reason.
Since the breakup of the Soviet Union Russia has practised an external border policy, Michael Kofman, a Fellow at the Wilson Centre’s Kennan Institute explains; ‘Moscow is fixated on defending its own geopolitical real estate in Belarus. Russia practices what is a de facto policy of extended defence, placing its national borders at the edge of Belarus’, Belarus serves as Russia’s only stronghold in Europe and against a full on front with NATO. However, it is pure fanciful to believe Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarussian president since 1994, will ever tolerate a prolonged period of Russian boots in Belarus, he guards Belarussian sovereignty with an iron fist and has grown cautious of Putin and the Kremlin’s involvement in the Ukraine crisis.
Moscow’s stance is also justifiable, to a very limited extent. NATO conducts far more frequent recorded military exercises than Russia. Last year NATO deployed four battalions of 4,000 troops to Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. As recent as July 2017 the American Army in Europe along with multinational units from NATO conducted air defence artillery live fire exercises; several field training exercises; multiple river crossings and a mass casualty exercise consisting of 25,000 troops. For whilst NATO aiming to preserve the sovereignty and territorial integrity of NATO members, Russia wants to expand in order to preserve what it once had i.e. the former Soviet states within the sphere of Russian influence.
One cause for concern is that Russia has routinely flouted the VD (Vienna Document), an accord designed to avert misunderstandings during war game scenario exercises, setup by the OSCE. Chapter 5 of the VD states that there should be ‘at least 42 days advance notice for CMA (Certain Military Activities) exceeding one of the following thresholds: 9,000 troops, 250 tanks, 500 ACVs, or 250 pieces of artillery’, Zapad 2013 involved around 75,000 troops and personnel, which was certified and attended by OSCE observers. However reports suggest that Zapad 2017 ‘is expected to involve at least 100,000 troops’ according to The Economist, if so Russia has breached Chapter 5 and Chapter 6 which states ‘all OSCE states to observe CMA exceeding one of the following thresholds: 13,000 troops, 300 tanks, 500 ACVs, or 250 pieces of artillery’.
Official numbers released by the Russian government suggest Zapad 2017 will involve a mere 12,700 which is a complete falsehood, in addition with only a few weeks until the exercises take place Russia has failed to invite OSCE observers, which begs the question, why? Here is my understanding, by conducting smaller scale exercises, which do not exceed VD guidelines, Russia can go unnoticed and without check from the OSCE. Russian foreign and defence policy is hard to predict in the best of times, but when done unchecked and unnoticed then we must worry.
Why have Zapad?
Zapad 2017 – despite it being a military show of force is in actual fact a stress test of Russia’s defence system’s ability to handle a conflict scenario with an external or internal adversary. Having one of the biggest militaries in the world requires frequent reform, restructuring and reallocating resources. Since Zapad 2013 a number of new unit formations, armies, and divisions have been setup. Some are slowly being staffed, while others have had units reassigned to them from existing armies. 1999, the year Russia first commenced Zapad exercises was also the year American forces launched their air campaign on Serbian strongholds in the Kosovo war.
Place yourself in the mind of a Russian general as you watch an ally completely obliterated by a technologically advanced foe. Michael Kofman believes ‘this made a lasting impression and arguably a traumatic one’ on the Russians. Zapad 1999 and every exercise since was Russia’s response to NATO’s actions in Kosovo, should the United States ever consider such an intervention on Russian territory.
For now we can only speculate what Zapad 2017 will entail, let’s just hope it doesn’t pave the way for Russian occupation of Belarus as is the case in Georgia and Ukraine.