Zapad 2017: Lessons Learned by Russia and Implications for NATO

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 14 Issue: 125

Zapad 2017 exercises in Belarus (Source:

The week-long Russian-Belarussian strategic military exercise Zapad 2017 attracted close attention in Ukraine and the member countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). But this topic did not simply disappear after the formal end of the exercises on September 20; experts and analysts are still discussing lessons that the West should glean from these exercises (see EDM, September 22, October 3). But what lessons did Russia itself learn from this year’s Zapad drills, and what are its implications for NATO?

It bears noting that the combat experience Russia gained over the past decade from its military operations in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria directly affects the evolution of the military-political leadership’s vision on forms and methods of modern war. This is why the focus of Russian strategic exercises in recent years have changed accordingly. Zapad 2009, for instance, in a carry-over from Soviet tradition, emphasized the “repulsion of NATO aggression” (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, September 17, 2009), even though nobody in modern Europe was planning to attack Russia. But eight years later, the Zapad 2017 exercise scenario was significantly different: a fictitious non-aligned country, “Veishnoriya,” located in northwest Belarus, supported by “Vesbariya” (drawn in the official exercise map over western Lithuania and central Latvia) and “Lubeniya” (composed of the Suwałki corridor and the northeastern part of Poland), attacks Belarus; the Russian military then comes to its ally’s support and carries out massive and deep air, naval and land strikes across “Veishnoriya’s” entire territory (Deutsche Welle—Russian service, September 8).

It is not difficult to deduce from this fictitious exercise scenario that the Russian military was practicing waging a conventional war against the North Atlantic Alliance that NATO had purportedly started. In this regard, the Kremlin’s key lessons related to the practical testing of Russia’s vision of modern warfare—featuring combined symmetrical and asymmetrical operations, conventional and nuclear forces, as well as hidden and overt threats/operations. For Moscow, mastering these elements of how wars are fought today is a prerequisite for preserving Russian control or dominance over zones of the world it considers as falling within its “vital interests” (and these are not limited to Russia’s so-called “near abroad”) in addition to blocking further NATO enlargement.

During this year’s Zapad drills, Russian troops trained for deep combined air-ground and joint naval operations as well as achieving air and sea superiority. Russian units also tested advanced “command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance” (C4ISR) systems, particularly at the operational level. The exercise featured the newest radio-communication equipment, electronic warfare tactics, and the integration of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) into reconnaissance and target-acquisition systems. Participating units also tested long-range precision-guided munitions as well as the combat sustainability of Russia’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) “bubble” (see EDM, September 20; The Wall Street Journal, September 19).

At the same time, crashes involving Tu-22M3 and Yak-130 aircraft, and a friendly-fire incident by a Ka-52 helicopter highlighted technical problems and low skills of personnel dealing with complex military equipment (UNIAN, September 21;, September 20; InformNapalm, September 19). As is traditional for Russia, those problems were “compensated for” with a test launch of an RS-24 (Yars) intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) (, September 21). In addition, simulated nuclear warfare activities were continued by Russia’s strategic missile forces (RIA Novosti, September 25). Obviously despite serious modernization efforts in the Russian Armed Forces, the Kremlin understands that its troops cannot achieve technological superiority in a war with NATO—the military still needs further effort, resources and time. Therefore, for Moscow, nuclear planning is naturally intertwined with conventional operations.

Also noteworthy this year was Moscow’s customary maskirovka and disinformation concerning the number of Russian troops involved in the Zapad exercise. Zapad 2017 was “conditionally opened” to foreign observers (, September 25). Yet, reliable facts are difficult to nail down. On the one hand, Russia officially declared that around 3,000 of its troops took part in the exercise in Belarus. But transporting a contingent of this size to and from Belarus would have required significantly fewer than the 4,162 railway cars secured by the Russian General Staff for that purpose (see EDM, February 22). Moreover, the use of seven Belarusian firing ranges and two training areas clearly exceeded the needs of the 12,000 soldiers reportedly taking part in total, in that country (RIA Novosti,, September 14). Finally, in addition to the actual number of Russian troops not matching official declarations for Zapad 2017, there seems to have been a delay in withdrawing them after the conclusion of the maneuvers (, September 28, UNIAN, September 29, The Wall Street Journal, September 19).

The Kremlin clearly tried to convince the international community that Zapad 2017 was a low-scale and primarily defensive exercise. And indeed, Moscow managed to achieve some success in “linking” media perceptions of Zapad 2017 solely to military activities on Belarusian territory. However, the declared troop numbers do not include the large involvement of para-military special services forces (Apostrophe, September 19). Predictably, the Kremlin will continue to shroud its real intentions, plans and activities in such “fog of war” tactics.

Considering the above, what are the implications for NATO?

Russian military activities during Zapad 2017, from Murmansk to Rostov-on-Don, evidenced that Russia is practicing high-tempo, large-scale and deeply echeloned strategic offensive operations in the western direction (,, September 25), which includes placing Belarusian forces under direct Russian command and control (see EDM, October 3). The Alliance will thus need to not only carefully study these preparations for a modern continental war, but also perhaps think about amending NATO’s Strategic Concept to reflect Russia’s military buildup and operational activities.

Zapad 2017 has also demonstrated the critical importance of collecting reliable data. It seems prudent for NATO’s famous strategic formula 3D (Dialogue, Deterrence, Defense) to include a fourth D—Data. In the high tempo of modern warfare, data in the battlefield information/cyber domain (collected by modern technologies) will be essential for ensuring that the political-military decision-making process is capable of providing a prompt and adequate response (both military and non-military) to Russian military activities.

Lastly, Russia’s development of maneuver and mobile forces, A2/AD “bubbles” with long-range high-precision weapons, hidden informational (cyber) and deep special operations, as well as preventive-deterrent nuclear policy requires ever greater resources to accomplish—but such resources are becoming ever harder to come by due to Western sanctions. Nevertheless, Russia’s economic problems should not be viewed as a solution for the threats posed by the country’s military buildup. The North Atlantic Alliance still needs to enhance its own strong military capabilities as well as retain technological superiority over Russia in order to ensure flexible deterrence and an adequate response. NATO’s failure in this regard could provoke Russia to continue moving ahead with both hidden and overt aggressive actions.