The Zapad 2017 military exercise is officially over. Russian tank and airborne (VDV) units are being withdrawn from Belarus as well as Kaliningrad, Leningrad and Pskov oblasts, and moved back to their permanent bases (Militarynews.ru, September 22). On October 1, the autumn call-up of some 130,000 conscripts will begin, and the equivalent number of well-trained soldiers that completed one year of compulsory service will be preparing to demobilize and go home. The constant battle-ready tactical battalion groups (TBG) in the army, VDV and marines—the backbone of Russian land fighting capability—will experience a partial rotation of personnel as contract soldiers and officers stay, while conscripts are replaced by troops called up last spring who served more than half a year and completed basic training. The battle readiness of the TBGs, including those involved in Zapad 2017, will lapse temporarily as the rotation and demobilization cycles are completed and will once again reach their prime next December.
The Zapad 2017 exercises caused anxiety in neighboring countries—the Baltic States, Poland and Ukraine. The exercise could have been used as cover for mobilizing forces that might later invade someone; or Russian troops could have stayed on in Belarus following the conclusion of Zapad 2017. These worst-case scenarios did not happen; and all along, the Russian military authorities consistently emphasized the defensive and anti-terrorist nature of Zapad 2017. No significant cross-border incidents occurred during this year’s Zapad drills, except for a brief intrusion of Lithuanian airspace by two Russian Il-76 heavy military transport jets, on September 16, close to Kaliningrad. The Russian defense ministry declared Vilnius’s official protest of the incident to be “politicized.” Though acknowledging the Il-76s’ intrusion, Moscow explained the jets detoured to avoid a thunderstorm and were in contact with Lithuanian traffic controllers (Newsru.com, September 18).
A nasty episode of friendly fire occurred during Zapad 2017 at the Luzsky firing range, in Leningrad oblast, on September 16, when a Kamov Ka-52 Alligator attack helicopter fired an S-8 missile at a group of parked vehicles. Shrapnel from the explosion reportedly injured three people on the ground and hit an army Kamaz truck and a Niva SUV. The latter vehicle apparently had special-issue license plates belonging to the Federal Protective Service (FSO)—the Russian equivalent of the United States Secret Service. On September 18, the same Luzsky firing range was visited by President Vladimir Putin, together with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, top Russian military brass, multiple foreign journalists, and military attachés accredited in Moscow as observers. They arrived to witness Russian tanks, heavy guns, missiles, heavy flamethrowers, jet bombers and attack helicopters (including Ka-52s) firing live ammunition as part of the Zapad exercise. The visit by Putin and the other VIPs was officially declared a total success despite heavy rain and low cloud cover in Leningrad oblast. The one-day presence of 95 foreign military attachés at the live-fire show at the Luzsky range was affirmed as an act of openness—Russia allowing foreign observers to monitor Zapad 2017 (Militarynews.ru, September 18).
Of course, due to the heavy rain and because they stayed for only several hours, those observers could hardly see much. Nonetheless, the overwhelming firepower of the Russian military was on full display. No other foreign observers were allowed to any other Zapad 2017–linked events inside Russia. But in Belarus, which unlike Russia is still a party to the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty, foreign observers were allowed extended access to different locations during the entirety of the war game. The aforementioned Ka-52 incident was not reported by the Russian military. On September 17, the press service of the Western military district (ZVO) issued an upbeat statement about attack helicopters (including Ka-52s) successfully firing live ammo at decoys of enemy troops and vehicles (Militarynews.ru, September 17). The friendly-fire story became public only on September 19, when an Internet site published video evidence of the attack, apparently filmed by chance by an anonymous bystander (66.ru, September 19).
The posted video shows two Ka-52s coming in hot at treetop level; the second helicopter suddenly fires a missile seemingly targeting real people and vehicles instead of decoys. The Russian military, after initial denials, acknowledged that the “the targeting system of one of the helicopters took on a wrong target.” A special commission was announced, which will investigate what went wrong: Was this the Ka-52 crew’s mistake or, as had been reported, did the attack chopper’s electronic command-and-control (C2) system fire “unintentionally” (Kommersant, September 20)? The Ka-52 is one of the most modern and electronically savvy Russian attack aircraft. It would be highly disturbing if it turns out to be true that its C2 system can indeed select and fire on wrong targets at will. Russian aircraft often buzz by Western warships and aircraft in the Baltic. If a missile is “unintentionally” fired during such a flyby, a war on Russia’s Western borders could become a reality.
The actual cause of the Ka-52 incident is still unclear, and this has already had international ramifications. Belarus’s President Alyaksandr Lukashenka apparently refused to travel “to the north” to join Putin at the Luzsky firing range. The Belarusian leader told reporters, “What if a projectile hits us both [Putin and Lukashenka]?” On the last day of Zapad 2017, Lukashenka visited the troops together with reporters and foreign observers. Putin was absent; Shoigu had been expected but did not come, reportedly because of complications in Syria (Kommersant, September 21).
On the last day of the war game, intense military activity was spread out to include the Barents Sea in the north and the Black Sea in the south, apparently mimicking an escalation of a conflict in the Baltic region into a major clash between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Though, the Russian military insists that any other military activity outside the official Zapad 2017 training areas was purely coincidental (see EDM, September 14). A ground-mobile RC-24 Yars intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) was test-fired from the Plisetsk firing range, on September 20 (Militarynews.ru, September 20). Moreover, two supersonic Tu-22M3 Backfire jet bombers overflew the Baltic and Norwegian Seas (Militarynews.ru, September 21). These deployments would seem to indicate an escalation of the conflict with “Western forces,” as described in the Zapad 2017 scenario, going nuclear, but possibly in a limited fashion, to scare the West into submission and retreat—a potential deterrent tactic long embedded in Russian military thinking, though never announced publicly.