The Russian-Belarusian military exercise Zapad 2017 has gained a lot of attention even before it has started, which is not surprising considering the previous exercises in the “Zapad” series and the changed security situation in the Baltic Sea Region. To Russia’s and Belarus’s European neighbors, the exercise is widely perceived as a potential threat. It has been described as Russia’s “demonstrative preparation for war with the West”—some observers fear Moscow may be planning an invasion. All such accusations and fears have been highlighted and repeatedly denied by both main participants in the exercise (RIA Novosti, May 15; Tut.by, April 28; Lenta.ru, June 26).
From a historical perspective, the “Zapad” exercises are nothing new; they are a continuation of a series of Soviet Zapad exercises held in 1973, 1977, 1981, 1984 and 1985. Of these, Zapad 1981 was one of the biggest exercises in the history of the Soviet Armed Forces and the Warsaw Pact. It took place on September 4–12, 1981, across three Soviet Military Districts (MD), with approximately 100,000 participants (R. Khasanov, “Zapad-81—uroki i vyvody,” Voyenno-Akademicheskiy Zhurnal, Vol. 11, No. 03, 2016, pp 64–71). Post-Soviet exercises in the Zapad series, on the other hand, have been bilateral exercises involving Russian and Belarusian troops; they are held every fourth year since 2009. After a decade break following Zapad 1999, the regularized post-Soviet exercise series began on September 18–29, 2009, with Zapad 2009, on Russian and Belarusian territory. It was followed by Zapad 2013 (September 20–26, 2013). Although all facts concerning Zapad 2017 are not yet known, Russian and Belarusian sources have provided enough information to date to make some initial assessments regarding what form these large-scale maneuvers will take.
The planned date of the exercise, September 14–20, falls within the usual time period for Russia’s larger yearly exercises like Vostok, Kavkaz, etc. (TASS, March 30). However, those drills should not be looked at in isolation: Zapad 2017 has already and will continue to be preceded by communications and logistic exercises as direct preparations for the “main” (September 14–20) drills. A snap exercise can be expected in the beginning of September, followed by a brief pause just prior to Zapad 2017. This specific pattern was first introduced in 2014, in connection with the exercise Vostok 2014, as a result of Russia’s experiences in connection with the snap exercise in the Eastern MD in July 2013 (RIA Novosti, July 25, 2013; TASS, September 7, 2015). In this way, Russia can avoid a lengthy preparations phase, like the one it had prior to the start of Zapad 2013, since units taking part in the earlier snap inspection will already have been deployed in the field and ready for the main exercise, thus making it more effective. As such, Zapad 2017 will actually will be a longer exercise than just the drills scheduled for mid-September.
According to the Belarusian military, Zapad 2017 will train “the usage of a regional group of forces with the aim to ensure the military security of the Union State.” And Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu assured the exercise will have a defensive character (Mil.by, March 13; Vz.ru, June 21). Such statements say nothing specific about the scenario that will be practiced, however. Greater insight into the offensive or defensive character of the Zapad 2017 scenario will have to be drawn from closer analysis of how preparations for the exercise are shaping up.
The expected number of participants in Zapad 2017 has been widely debated, particularly after reports surfaced claiming that the Russian ministry of defense had ordered 4,126 railroad cars for transports to and from Belarus in 2017 (Defence24.pl, November 25, 2016; see EDM, February 22, 2017). This figure considerably exceeds the numbers of train cars contracted by the defense ministry in 2015 (125), and in 2016 (only 50). The Russian ministry of defense later clarified that of the 4,126 cars, about 2,000 would be used to transport Russian forces out of Belarus. Yet, in connection with Zapad 2009, the Russian defense ministry employed more than 6,000 train cars; and for Zapad 2013, it reportedly used almost 2,500. According to a Russian source, the 2,000 cars secured for this year’s Zapad exercise will suffice to bring two Russian brigades, or 8,000 men, to Belarus and back (Krymr.com, February 13). However, that estimate contradicts figures provided back in March by Belarusian Defense Minister Andrei Ravkov, who revealed that the scope of Russian participation in Zapad 2017 would include some 3,000 soldiers, about 280 pieces of military equipment and 25 helicopters. He also mentioned that units from the Russian 1st Guards Tank Army will participate and that the total number of participants in the exercise, from both countries, will be about 13,000 soldiers. The maneuvers will be held on seven ranges, some of them in the Russian Western MD (Sb.by, March 20; Mil.ru, June 30). That number of Russian participants has been repeated by several Russian sources and is ostensibly lower than Russia’s participation during the Zapad 2009 and Zapad 2013 exercises—6,000 and 9,400 soldiers, respectively (TASS, March 30, 2017; Rg.ru, September 17, 2009; I-korotchenko.livejournal.com, September 28, 2013). And yet, the official numbers being given for Russian participation in this year’s Zapad exercise appear suspiciously low, particularly since the entire Russian Baltic Fleet is reportedly supposed to take part (Topwar.ru, May 18).
Preparations for Zapad 2017 have been underway since the beginning of the year. To date, they have comprised, among other things, the following specific exercises:
- January 10: a conference with high-ranking officers of the Western MD, mainly concerning preparations for Zapad 2017 (RIA Novosti, January 10).
- January 10–13: an exercise in Leningrad oblast, where the participating troops were tasked with dealing with an extraordinary situation—a scenario of a fire that had broken out in an ammunitions storage site (Spbdnevnik.ru, January 12).
- February 28: a Belarusian source mentioned joint Russian-Belarusian staff preparations in Moscow, scheduled for early March (Belvpo.com, February 24).
- March 28–April 6: a joint Russian-Belarusian exercise in the Vitebsk area, with the participation of the 103rd Air Assault Brigade, a company from the 98th Airborne Division, and Belarusian special forces (Mil.by, March 28).
- May 19–25: a joint exercise in Belarus, with the participation of Russian and Belarusian Electronic Warfare (EW) units (Mil.by, May 19).
- May 30: the Strategic Rocket troops carried out a staff and command-post exercise (Mil.ru, May 30).
- June 16: engineers from the Kantemirov Division and engineers from Belarus carried out an exercise to ford the Dnepr River (Mil.ru, June 16).
Based on the pattern of Russia’s earlier exercises, Zapad 2017 will likely be carried out concurrent with other training maneuvers within the framework of a common scenario—i.e., September will see a number of exercises in Russia involving most of the country’s military districts and strategic assets. Preparations prior to the exercise will ensure that Zapad 2017 runs according to plan and without any major mishaps. Reservists will also most likely be called up, but it remains to be seen whether they will form territorial defense units or regular units—judging from the role reservists played last year, during Kavkaz 2016, however, the latter seems more probable. Civil-military cooperation can also be expected to be part of the exercise, as in previous major Russian drills since Zapad 2013.
It is also worth noting what new elements may be introduced this year compared to past exercises. Of particular interest is the specific role Kaliningrad oblast will play during Zapad 2017. The increased presence of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces in the Baltic Sea region, the announcement of the Russian Baltic Fleet’s participation in the upcoming Zapad exercise, as well as declarations that the Bal coastal defense missile system would be tested during Zapad 2017 together suggest that part of the maneuvers will take place in Kaliningrad—either as part of Zapad 2017 itself or as a standalone exercise, but almost certainly within the framework of a broader common scenario (Redstar.ru, June 15). It is worth remembering that the closing portion of Zapad 2013 took place in Kaliningrad oblast, in the presence of the Russian and Belarusian presidents.
Russian Minister of Defense Shoigu has said that the West will be given information about the exercise, which suggests a possible presence of foreign observers at least part of the time—as during Zapad 2013. Belarusian President Lukashenka expressed a similar promise in March (Vz.ru, June 21; Tvc.ru, March 21). Nevertheless, continued Western concerns about the exercise will likely result in comprehensive Allied monitoring of Zapad 2017. Considering how Russian aircraft have acted in connection with recent incidents involving military assets over the Baltic Sea, increased NATO surveillance flights could lead to additional and more serious such incidents, over the next several months, in connection with Zapad 2017.