Huge Russian War Games Test NATO, Rattle Neighbors

Saul Bowman
September 15, 2017

Perhaps no Russian exercise in recent years has caused as much consternation as Zapad, which means "west" and involves thousands of troops operating in the vicinity of NATO's borders.

The Zapad 2017 drills are scheduled to run until September 20 in Belarus as well as on the Baltic Sea, in western Russian Federation, and in Russia's Kaliningrad region, close to the Polish border and those of the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Even though the Kremlin maintains that the exercise is purely defensive, Baltic and Eastern European states have reason to be concerned: the 2013 version of the drills is widely regarded as a training exercise for the annexation of Crimea the following year.

That many troops would make these war games among the biggest since the Soviet period, and the discrepancy in reports on the size has set off concerns among some about the drills' real objective and, in more alarmist quarters, even fears of invasion.

For some, that sounds uncomfortably like rehearsing a pretext for NATO's nightmare scenario, a Russian tank rush into the Baltic States.

Belarus has formally notified the OSCE that Zapad will be held on Belarusian territory from September 14-20.

The Russian Foreign Ministry has said that the "artificial hype" about the maneuvers is aimed at "justifying the spending on NATO's military buildup on Poland and the Baltic states in the eyes of the western audience".

At Russia's invitation, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation is sending three experts to monitor a small portion of the exercise, but allies say that invitation falls short of full transparency as laid out by worldwide regulations known as the Vienna document, which allows for briefings on exercise scenarios, overflights and opportunities to talk with individual soldiers.

There is also unease in Kiev, and Ukraine is now conducting its own military exercises.

The main goals of the drills are to "update the operational compatibility of headquarters at different levels, promote the interoperability of prospective forces and weapons control systems, test new charter documents, and allow commanders of all ranks to practice planning events of a military nature and commanding forces on the basis of modern armed-conflict experience", the statement said.

And NATO's Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has complained that Russian Federation is not giving as much access to the exercise for its monitors as it has claimed. "The danger of incidents or accidents has increased because there are more troops, more military forces along our borders, there are more exercises, and that's exactly why we are so focused on transparency, predictability", NATO's chief added. "We believe that whipping up hysteria around these exercises is a provocation". With Russian troops already based in Belarus, some analysts and opposition figures in the country have suggested the Kremlin might seize the opportunity to expand its armed presence there. His counterpart, Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko is an ally of Russia, Zwack said, "but a prickly one". "History teaches us that we need to see and watch and prepare for the activities of Russian Federation", she added.

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