Russia’s strategic military exercises frequently arouse varying levels of interest in the Western media and the analytical community. The bilateral Belarus-Russia Zapad 2017 (September 14–20), however, has witnessed unprecedented attention and speculation concerning Moscow’s political-military intentions. The Armed Forces of both countries participating in the exercise have gradually stepped up preparations and training amidst rumors that Zapad 2017 could be used as a cover to launch real military operations against one or more of Belarus’ neighboring states, or even to leave troops behind to pressure or destabilize Belarus. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and its eastern members in particular are expected to remain vigilant and will try to monitor the exercise, as far as possible, despite its opacity. The fears sparked by the Zapad 2017 exercise, unlike its earlier iterations, are partly a reflection of the deterioration in Russia-NATO relations since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the ongoing Ukraine crisis, as well as features of the preparations for the drills and estimates of its overall size. In late August, for example, the Ukrainian General Staff expressed concern that Zapad 2017 might mask an attack on the Baltic States, Poland or Ukraine (RIA Novosti, September 1).
Nonetheless, by contextualizing the exercise to understand what the Zapad series of military exercises are designed to do, and considering further details concerning the scenario and the purported “massive” scale of the exercise, it is possible to raise serious doubts over whether Moscow might trigger real conflict. This is not to deny that Zapad 2017 merits close examination, and will offer real insight into the capability and capacity of Russia’s Armed Forces. But scaremongering is not a beneficial part of this process. First, these exercises are held regularly, with extensive bilateral planning feeding into every detail, including the exercise scenario. The first bilateral Zapad exercise was staged in 1999, in the context of the NATO bombing of Serbia and with Moscow on the brink of renewing combat operations in Chechnya. The purported possibility of a NATO-led intervention in Belarus rooted in humanitarian reasons drove the exercise and still influences thinking within the Russian General Staff. Moscow’s security concerns about “color revolution” close to its borders are taken seriously among the security elite and help shape planning for Zapad (see EDM, July 11).
As part of these preparations, Russia’s Armed Forces have, since January, held numerous tactical and other training events, some of which were conducted jointly with Belarusian counterparts (see EDM, July 11). This has involved command staff wargaming, rehearsing the mobilization and training of reservists, tactical exercises for special forces, Airborne Forces, as well as specialist electronic warfare (EW) training held in Belarus. In August, this culminated in training events for the military logistics units responsible for the movement of troops, equipment and supplies during the exercise. The exercise will also involve units drawn from other Russian power ministries, such as the National Guard and the Federal Security Service (FSB) (Belsat, August 30; Mil.ru, accessed September 5; Mid.ru, August 25).
Concerning the reported details of the Zapad scenario, much credit has been given to Minsk for its efforts to promote openness. Lithuanian Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis has noted that Belarus behaves more openly than Russia about the exercise. Minsk has also invited observers from neighboring countries to attend part of the drills. The chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Belarus, Major-General Oleg Belokonev, offered additional information on Zapad 2017, as well as scenario-linked information. Belokonev referred to a fictional country, “Vayshnoria,” as part of the scenario, which seems located between Belarus and Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. It lies in much of Grodno and parts of Minsk and Vitebsk oblasts, Belarus, roughly corresponding to the Polish-Soviet border in 1920–1939 (Komsomolskaya Pravda, August 29; Belsat, August 27). Despite these insights into the scenario, it seems little has changed in the overall Zapad exercise theme: largely a defensive exercise rehearsing the defense of Belarus against a NATO intervention in which Russia responds with counter-offensives and tries to prevent conflict escalation. Naturally, in this context, Western reports that Zapad 2017 will prove to be a prelude to Russia launching offensive operations against NATO members has prompted much head scratching in Moscow and predicable denials from the defense ministry (Lenta.ru, August 29).
Much of the near hysteria in Western media and among some pundits stems from the issue of how many Russian personnel will arrive in Belarus for the exercise. Of course, Moscow claims it will stay within the 13,000 servicemen ceiling, in accordance with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Vienna Document. It is certainly the case that Russian military exercises work around this ceiling, and no doubt the real numbers of Russian troops in Zapad 2017 will exceed the figure of 13,000 or the defense ministry claim of 5,500 (Moskovsky Komsomolets, September 1; Lenta.ru, August 29). But the figure of 100,000, advanced in some Western media reporting, is highly unlikely.
The source of the high degree of speculation concerning the real numbers of Russian servicemen involved in the exercise is a report that the defense ministry contracted 4,162 rail cars for military transportation for Zapad 2017, which seems to imply a particularly large movement of troops and equipment. However, some of the confusion in estimating troop numbers based on the rail cars figure was addressed in a recent article by Pavel Kovalev. The author pointed out that 4,162 rail cars is the total number back-and-forth across the year, rather than just for the actual exercise dates. Since military trains usually have 57 rail cars, Kovalev argues the defense ministry contracted 36 round-trip trains for Zapad 2017. He notes a number of these were used earlier this year to transport Russian troops for training exercises in Belarus: airborne forces, electronic warfare (EW) troops, engineering troops and communications personnel. He concludes that around 22 round-trip train loads will be needed for the actual exercise, which is similar to Zapad 2013 (Belvpo.com, August 10).
Setting aside some aspects of the underlying tendency to inflate the Russian threat around the Zapad exercise, it bears pointing out that the Russian military conducts extensive efforts to prepare the battlefield prior to initiating real combat operations. In this sense, the hype over Zapad 2017 fails to take account of the absence of many features that such preparations would take, including a spike in cyber and information warfare, or mobilizing public opinion for a major war. Thus, the exercise is likely to pass without a conflict erupting.