American newspaper editor Horace Greeley once said, “go west young man,” urging Americans to pursue westward expansion. Russia has taken the motto quite literally lately, as Moscow recently began war games with Belarus, dubbed Zapad 2017.
Zapad, meaning West, is a massive military exercise held from September 14-20. The drill takes place every four years and involves thousands of Russian and Belarusian military and civilian personnel.
Russian authorities said about 12,700 troops are participating in the exercise this year, along with some 70 aircraft and helicopters, 250 tanks, multiple mortars, and 10 warships.
The 2017 exercise imagines that Belarus and the Russian city of Kaliningrad were infiltrated by extremist groups that seek to commit terrorist attacks, and the servicemen have to go through simulated situations to address the threat, according to the Russian Defense Ministry.
Western observers have suggested that the actual number personnel involved is much higher. The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense estimated the number of participants at 230-240,000, while German Minister of Defense Ursula Von-der-Leyen said she expected 100,000 troops to be involved.
Michael Kofman, Senior Research Scientist at CNA and a Fellow at the Wilson Center, told The Globe Post the varying numbers may stem from the fact that Zapad is not a single exercise, but a series of simultaneous drills across Russia and Belarus.
“The real figure of forces expected to participate in the immediate region is likely more 65,000-70,000,” Mr. Kofman said.
“Beyond that estimates can vary widely depending on how you count actual participation, with the final number potentially exceeding 100,000. Most of the numbers currently announced are factually baseless, especially the sensational Ukrainian figures, since there is nothing to substantiate them. The real answer is nobody knows what the ultimate size of the exercise will be.”
Simon Saradzhyan, the founding director of the Russia Matters Project at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, told The Globe Post that unlike Russia’s figures, the “Western estimates include personnel from other agencies – possibly including border guards and troops from the ministries of interior and emergency situations.”
Mr. Saradzhyan said by carrying out the exercise, Russia is not only seeking to improve its military preparedness for conflict with NATO or other potential adversaries, but it also wants to “warn ‘disloyal’ neighbors against ‘escaping’ to the West.”
“The exercise is a continuation of military signaling going back to Zapad-1999, and is part and parcel of the same set of concerns in Moscow that the West might attempt regime change in its ally Belarus,” Mr. Kofman added.
Estimated to be the biggest military undertaking by armed forces since the Cold War, the exercise has become the cause of concern for NATO.
“We have seen over years a pattern by Russia – more exercises, more investments in military capabilities, and also the use of force against a neighbor in Ukraine,” the alliance’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said. He has also urged greater transparency of the operations.
Sarah Pagung, Program Officer for Robert Bosch Center for Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia, told The Globe Post that the transparency of the Zapad exercise meets international standards, especially since Belarus has a “vital interest” in inviting observers.
“This is even more true as other exercises are often concealed by Russia’s leadership. In accordance to the Vienna Documents states have to inform about and invite in observers to military exercises exceeding a certain size. Russia circumvented this by splitting exercises into smaller ones on the paper in recent years,” she said.
A spokesperson for the U.S. European Command, Meghan Henderson, told The Globe Post that the decision by Belarus and Russia to invite foreign observers to the exercise was a welcomed move.
“We hope that such efforts will provide genuine transparency to ratchet down tensions, and that it may signal a willingness to commit to update transparency agreements to provide more transparency on major force concentrations like this one and what are now routine ‘Snap Exercises,'” she said.
Ms. Pagung noted that Zapad 2017 will allow NATO to draw conclusions about the progress of Russian military reform.
“Even though it is a regular exercise, neighboring states such as Ukraine and the Baltics are observing the Russian action suspiciously as the previous exercises in 2008 and 2014 played a crucial role in Russia’s wars against Georgia and Ukraine,” she said.
Coincidentally, the Zapad drill is taking place close to the area known as the “Achilles’ heel” of Western Europe, which includes Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, head of the U.S. Army forces in Europe, said in July that members of the public were worried the drill could be a Trojan horse.
“They say, ‘We’re just doing an exercise,’ and then all of a sudden they’ve moved all these people and capabilities somewhere,” he said, noting, however, that there was no indication Moscow had such plans.
Mr. Kofman said there was no reason for NATO members to be concerned about Zapad leading to regional aggression. He noted, however, that the allies should be “vigilant of provocation or unintended escalation.”
“There is always cause for prudence, maintaining readiness during large scale military exercises, and being prepared based on the adversary’s capabilities with the understanding that their intentions can change quite quickly,” Mr. Kofman said.
Mr. Saradzhyan explained that at least two conditions need to be met for Russia to seriously consider a “disguised” form of large-scale use of force.
First, “the Russian leadership has to believe there has emerged a credible, acute, serious threat(s) to the country’s vital national interests,” he said. These threats can include an attack against Russia, an ally or a client.
Second, “Russian leaders have to be sure they would prevail in a confrontation with the state(s) against which they want to use force, or at least ensure a stalemate,” Mr. Saradzhyan said.
“Neither of these conditions is present at the moment, in my view,” he added.