After several months jointly preparing for the Zapad 2017 strategic military exercise, both Minsk and Moscow have used the last few days prior to its commencement (on September 14) to promote a veneer of openness concerning the exercise’s aims and scope. Much of the regional tensions created by Zapad 2017 relate to wild speculation concerning the force size being deployed in Belarus by Russia’s Armed Forces coupled with fears that the drills could front for a real assault on neighboring states. While Russia’s contribution to the exercise will undoubtedly be above reported levels, combined with staging parallel exercises, it is worth contrasting the Zapad exercise during the Cold War with the more modest contemporary approach; the size and scale of Zapad 81 (YouTube, January 12, 2013) compared to Zapad 2013 (YouTube, September 24, 2013) shows that the recent iterations are a pale shadow of the Soviet war games. However, the bilateral Belarus-Russia military exercise remains at the strategic level for both states and rehearses the defense of Belarus in the wake of a foreign military intervention. Regardless, it is certainly unlikely to result in Russia launching operations against North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members (see EDM, September 5).
The Belarusian Ministry of Defense has launched a website on Zapad 2017, aimed at offering daily information, photos and videos on the exercise. Additional information will be posted on the defense ministry website (Exercise.mil.by, Mil.by, accessed September 13). Minsk is also inviting journalists to visit the active phase of Zapad 2017. According to Belarus’ foreign ministry, 270 foreign media outlets have applied for accreditation to cover the exercise. Observers have been invited from international organizations such as the United Nations, NATO, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), as well as the defense attachés accredited in embassies in Minsk. The Belarusian defense ministry expects military observers from Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, Estonia, Sweden and Norway (BELTA, September 12).
Arguably, Minsk has been busier than Moscow in its efforts to address concerns about the Zapad exercise, briefing foreign diplomats and offering reassurances from the top brass. Nonetheless, on August 29, the chief of the General Staff, Major-General Oleg Belokonev, who is also heading the Belarusian forces participating in Zapad 2017, noted that the preparations for the exercises “take place in the conditions of a difficult military and political situation in the region.” Belokonev referred to NATO’s forward deployment in the region as the key source of tension (Naviny.by, September 11). The frenzy of Minsk’s efforts to reassure neighbors that the exercise will pass peacefully seems to be cast as a response to expressions of alarm from the Baltic States and Ukraine (Naviny.by, September 12).
The Belarusian foreign ministry briefing for foreign diplomats and international organizations was picked up by Russian media, which reported an unusually positive comment from the Ukrainian ambassador in Minsk, Igor Kizim. The ambassador stated: “Such briefings are useful. They, on the one hand, demonstrate the openness of the Belarusian side; on the other, they give the ambassadors an opportunity to ask questions that concern and interest them” (Rosbalt, September 11). Equally, in much of the Russian and Belarusian coverage of what they characterize as “NATO hysteria” over the exercise, it is noted that in the wider context there are a number of NATO and Ukrainian exercises occurring in the region that go largely unnoticed (Oplot, September 2).
In any case, the consistent theme in media and official coverage of the preparations for Zapad 2017, in both Minsk and Moscow, is to stress its defensive nature, and highlight the sense of overreaction on the part of the North Atlantic Alliance, given that Russian forces participating in Slavic Brotherhood in Serbia had not evoked similar expressions of concern. It seems that speculation earlier this year that Moscow might choose to leave some of its forces behind in Belarus after the exercise ends has contributed to the proactive campaign in Minsk to dispel such rumors. Given the lack of a crisis in bilateral relations, it appears that Russian troops will leave Belarus’s territory as planned by September 30 (Nevnov.ru, September 11).
While there is a great deal of interest generated by Zapad 2017—some of it misleading—there are clearly areas of greater import, as the exercise provides an opportunity to gain further insight into Russian military capability. Yet, the areas that Russia’s General Staff will pay closer attention to will likely differ from Western interests. Similarities will doubtlessly be found with Zapad 2013, but Russian military planners may seek to build into the exercise some of the lessons they have drawn from operational experience in Donbas and Syria. One commentary in Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye offered some details as to the priority areas for Zapad 2017 (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, September 8).
The commentary implied an understanding of the key to the Zapad exercise framework, which models a NATO intervention in Belarus and a joint response, focusing on air defense since Russian understanding of NATO operations note the high value attached to shaping the battlespace in the initial phase of operations through an air campaign. The article then advanced the theory that the Zapad 2017 scenario is about rehearsing the defense of Kaliningrad from a blockade. The first stage will complete the training of troops deployed in the exercise, and focus on assembling force groupings, including air force and air defense, to repel attacks. The second stage concentrates on command and control over joint forces and force groupings, likely testing automated systems and the speed of decision making. In this sense, Zapad 2017 will test the deployment of a command-and-control system that oversees complex operations integrating joint forces and calling on support from other agencies; this will also rehearse conflict-escalation dominance (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, September 8).
The air defense elements will draw on experience of building air-defense bubbles in Syria in protection of Russian forces and facilities, while many other features of Russia’s approach to conducting warfare will become apparent, including the use of Airborne Forces, Special Forces and Electronic Warfare units. One of the most challenging elements in the exercise will be the regrouping of troops. This will involve the rehearsal of stealth and surprise actions, protecting the joint force from precision-guided weapons, conducting operational, logistical and technical support, as well as integrating Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, September 8). Zapad 2017 will serve as a testing ground for advances in Russian military capability, and may serve as an opportunity to experiment based on lessons from Russia’s recent experience of military intervention.