Twice in the past several weeks, Russian intrusions put the Baltics on high alert. On June 1, several Russian soldiers, traveling from the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad without transit permits, were stopped in Lithuania (Apollo.lv, June 2). A week later, two Goryn-class tugboats—the MB-119 and MB-35—of the Russian Navy were spotted inside Latvia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), nine nautical miles from its territorial waters (La.lv, June 6). Yet, both of these incidents pale in comparison to the expected scope of the upcoming Zapad (“West”) 2017 Russian military exercise, which will pose an important potential challenge to stability and security in the wider Baltic region this September.
According to Belarusian Defense Minister Andrej Ravkov, the joint Russian-Belarusian “Zapad” exercise, which is conducted every four years, will be held across his country’s territory on September 14–20. Officially, 13,000 soldiers will take part in these military drills (Tvnet.lv, June 9). Yet, Lithuanian intelligence agencies suggest that the actual number of participants in the training will far exceed the official figures. Moreover, despite its purported defensive character, Lithuanian special services argue, the Zapad 2017 scenario can be expected to involve armed conflict with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Part of the training will be held along the Lithuanian border, where large numbers of Russian soldiers and military equipment will be amassed. Most importantly, the Lithuanian intelligence agencies warn that, under the guise of Zapad 2017, Moscow might attempt to carry out possible provocations against its western neighbors. As reported by the Lithuanian State Security Department and the Ministry of Defense, the Department’s annual threat assessment, released this past April, notes that Russia has boosted its military presence in the western parts of the country and in Kaliningrad region: Russia is now able to organize and launch an open attack on the Baltic countries within 24–48 hours (Delfi.lv, June 9).
Estonia, like the other two Baltic States, will closely monitor this large-scale military exercise. “Of course, since Zapad is taking place so close to Estonia, we must monitor it especially closely. We will do it and our allies will do it as well,” said Defense Minister Juri Luik, several days prior to being named to that position (Baltic Times, June 7).
The summer and fall in the wider Baltic region has routinely tended to be busy when it comes to military exercise schedules. During the first week of June, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Denmark took part in Saber Knight 2017, training their brigade-level headquarters. Over 800 defense personnel from these four countries took part, along with soldiers from the United States and Slovakia (Bns.lv, June 5).
Additionally, NATO is undertaking two major Baltic exercises this month—Saber Strike and BALTOPS, which have been held annually since 2010 and 1972, respectively. Due to the changed security situation in Europe, caused in large part by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and forced annexation of Crimea, these exercises for the past several years have emphasized the Alliance’s collective defense capabilities.
Saber Strike is a combined land and air force exercise, involving elements of Host Nation Support and maritime joint operations. Whereas, BALTOPS, for many decades has been one of the largest maritime exercises held under the guidance of United States. These latter Baltic Sea drills are specifically designed to strengthen interoperability between NATO and its regional partners and for its participants to practice combined tactical maneuvers in various training scenarios. This year (June 1–16), BALTOPS will bring together 4,000 troops, 50 ships and submarines, and more than 50 aircraft from 14 Allied and partner countries—the US, Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, France, Latvia, the United Kingdom, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Germany, as well as Finland and Sweden. On June 6, US Marines arriving on the USS Arlington practiced landing on the Latvian shore, at the town of Ventspils (Sargs.lv, June 5).
Meanwhile, on June 3–15, the Alliance is holding the Saber Strike exercise on the territory of Latvia. More than 2,000 soldiers from Latvia, Lithuania, Italy, Norway, the UK, Poland, Slovakia and the US are taking part. The exercise is intended to enhance cooperation between NATO member states, boost their preparedness and combat capabilities, as well as improve Allies’ abilities to respond quickly and to rapidly move their forces throughout the region. According to commander Nil Loidolt, who is overseeing Saber Strike 2017, special emphasis this year will be put on practicing integrated land, sea and air operations. At the same time, the exercise will help strengthen cooperation with NATO’s multinational battle groups, which have already been deployed to each of the Baltic countries and Poland as part of the Alliance’s greater deterrence strategy, adopted at the 2016 Warsaw Summit (Sargs.lv, June 2).
In the second half of the month (June 12–23), Lithuania and Poland have begun the tactical-level Geležinis Vilkas (Iron Wolf) exercise, to practice defending the so-called Suwalki Gap. As the only existing land connection between Poland and Lithuania, the narrow (roughly 100-kilometer-long) Suwalki Gap could serve as an important transit corridor for Allied forces to deliver military aid to the Baltic States in a crisis situation. “This operation will take place for the first time. One of our goals is to develop the skills needed for the Allies [to ensure they can gain overland] access [to] the Baltics,” said the Land Forces commander of the Lithuanian Armed Forces, Brigadier General Valdemārs Rupšis. Overall, more than 5,300 soldiers from ten NATO countries are participating in Geležinis Vilkas 2017—Belgium, the UK, the US, Croatia, Germany, Norway, the Netherlands, Portugal, and of course Poland and Lithuania (La.lv, June 7).
During a meeting of the three Baltic prime ministers, on June 9, the heads of government declared that their countries are ready for the upcoming Zapad 2017 Russian-Belarusian military exercises. And thanks to the increased presence of NATO forces currently practicing in the region, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are feeling better protected than ever before. “Strength lies in unity,” said Estonian Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Diena.lv, June 9).
This summer, NATO members are continually convening in the Baltic region in order to practice all possible conventional deterrence measures. In doing so, the Alliance is “preemptively” demonstrating collective strength ahead of its large eastern neighbor’s show of force this coming September.