Don’t be surprised if in the coming days you increasingly hear the word Zapad echoing across media outlets and the blogosphere as though it were a category five hurricane, or an apocalyptic event approaching. Zapad, meaning “West” in Russian, is the Russian military’s annual strategic exercise, scheduled to commence on Sept. 14. Such capstone training events have been held on a quadrennial rotation since 1999 between four strategic directions, including Vostok (Eastern), Tsentr (Central), and Kavkaz (Caucasus). As anticipated, Zapad 2017 will take place in the Baltic region, held jointly with Belarus, and led by forces based in Russia’s Western Military District.
The ongoing confrontation between Russia and the United States, together with the exercise’s geographical focus, makes this a particularly significant event. Large-scale Russian exercises have always imparted a sense of foreboding, yet the reaction to Zapad 2017 is especially sensational this year. The Center for European Policy Analysis has even created a dedicated website with a countdown clock as though awaiting doomsday. Ahead of Zapad rolls a strong wave of anxiety among NATO members, senior officials, and the Russia-watcher community. Such exercises call for vigilance and caution, but panic is unwarranted.
Ironically, much as the leaders of NATO members dislike Russia’s deployment of forces along their borders, the exercise should be treated as an opportunity. Zapad 2017 is happening whether NATO likes it or not, and Russia will keep holding this exercise every four years, just as the Soviet Union had a penchant for running major exercises in the fall. In truth, Western observers are bound to learn much from this event about Russia’s ability to deploy combat formations to the region, the current state of Russia’s armed forces, and how Moscow intends to leverage military power to shape Western decision-making in the event of a crisis. The conduct of the exercise may even help validate, or invalidate, some of the current thinking in NATO on how to deter Russia.
Ultimately the exercise is a test of what Russia calls “strategic deterrence,” an integration of military, non-military, and nuclear capabilities to shape adversary decision-making from crisis to actual conflict. Although small countries are naturally anxious when large neighbors flex their muscles, in reality this entire affair is about Moscow establishing coercive credibility with Washington, and in that respect it is quite effective. Zapad is part of one long conversation on deterrence and compellence facilitated by the Russian General Staff.
Getting beyond the sensationalism that we have been treated to thus far, what can the United States and its allies expect from Russia’s Zapad exercise? Why does Russia treat us to this scare-fest every four years? And what are the important lessons to look for through the smokescreen of Russian pronouncements and panicky media coverage?
Zapad is Coming
If Zapad 2017 is anything like the 2013 edition, then it will be a two-phase exercise that takes no more than a week – Sept. 14-20. In reality Zapad is a series of events, incorporating numerous trainings, snap readiness checks, deployments, and parallel exercises taking place across Russia. The march to Zapad begins with exercises in the spring to test some of the units that will be involved in the capstone, and intensifies through the summer, particularly for the formations of the military district intended to lead the event. Associated exercises, including multinational events with other countries like the Army 2017 expo, typically take place within the same timeframe.
Russian engineers and sapper units already began arriving in Belarus on Aug. 15. They will be coordinating with their Belarusian counterparts throughout Aug. 21-25 in preparation for the main event. Judging by drills leading up to this year’s iteration, Russia will once again be testing its ability to deploy and operationally command units from different services in a combined arms exercise. This will feature the airborne, spetsnaz reconnaissance detachments, and electronic warfare troops. Some of these units have already held drills in Brest and Vitebsk, Belarus earlier in the year.
The Baltic Fleet headquartered in Baltiysk is practicing intensively for a showpiece role, along with the 11th Army Corps garrisoned in Kaliningrad. They need a good showing given the entire command staff was fired last year due to a history of chronic lapses.
Larger ground unit formations will no doubt include the 6th Army based around St. Petersburg, the 76th Airborne Division nearby in Pskov, along with elements of the 20th and 1st Tank Guards Army. The exercise will likely feature forward deployment of tactical aviation and joint operations by different types of forces, although this year it may be more focused on the logistics involved in moving equipment rather than actual manpower.
Much hay has been made of the fact that in November of last year the Russian Ministry of Defense placed a tender for 4,162 railway flatcars to transport equipment to Belarus from Jan. 1 to Nov. 30 of this year. The Russian armed forces largely move by train, and it is the most practical way to get mechanized or armored units into the Baltic region from the rather large Western Military District. However, given the number of exercises Russia has already conducted with Belarus in the run up to Zapad requiring rail transport, and an average of 80 to 110 flatcars and wagons required per most battalions, the figures don’t add up to anything spectacular in terms of the force actually being moved.
What’s Going to Happen on Z-Day?
The combined strategic exercise will likely have two phases, starting with an initial crisis stemming from infiltration by a supposed terrorist or asymmetric threat. Russian forces will typically respond to several armed groupings on Belarusian territory, and perhaps in Kaliningrad as well, although the entire affair is geared toward a conventional operation against a high-end adversary.
Phase two will then involve a combined force to “stabilize” the situation in response to the crisis. This will see Russian units both in theater and across several military districts conducting exercises intended to defend Russia against a conventional threat. The situation in question will prove to be a provocation from a state adversary (the unnamed culprit of course being NATO) and Russia’s forces will swing into gear to mobilize against this unknown foe.
Throughout the exercise, Russian armed forces will try to signal that they have the ability to impose substantial costs on a technologically advanced adversary, i.e. the United States. The scenario will likely transition from deterrence to escalation control, during which the Russian military will simulate long range strikes with naval and air power, perhaps together with non-kinetic capabilities, as part of a “non-nuclear deterrence” package that shows how Moscow can compel an adversary into abandoning the conflict.
Russian thinking is founded on the belief that its military can raise costs for the West such that they will grossly outweigh the potential gains for sustaining hostilities, particularly if the fight is over Belarus. The exercise may also include simulated use of non-strategic nuclear weapons as a more potent means of compelling the notional opponent to terminate hostilities and negotiate.
This year, Russia will be keen to demonstrate its aerospace forces, air defenses, and technical advances in fields like electronic warfare, while at the same time improving the logistics for moving ground unit formations about the region. Since Zapad 2013, a number of new unit formations, armies, and divisions have been setup. Some are slowly being staffed, while others have had units reassigned to them from existing armies. In short, the Russian General Staff is first and foremost interested in testing their own officers’ ability to move forces to the theater of operations, deploy for combat, and gain experience commanding a mix of different types of forces in the field. This is no small feat for a recently reformed military that keeps expanding in personnel and materiel.
Zapad Will be Really Big, Or Not
The total number of soldiers involved is difficult to estimate. The official figures submitted by Russia and Belarus are 12,700 total, with 10,200 soldiers expected on Belarusian territory. This number includes 7,200 from Belarus and roughly 3,000 Russian soldiers, along with 680 pieces of equipment. Belarus has invited official observers from neighbors and the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe, but Russia has not invited observers, or submitted notice under the Vienna Document regarding the countless associated exercises and troop movements on Russian territory.
The Vienna Document is a politically binding agreement adopted in 1990 that specifies a series of confidence building measures for major exercises exceeding certain thresholds, and mandates invitation of Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe observers for those exercises including more than 13,000 troops. By claiming its forces are engaged in many smaller exercises Moscow has consistently circumscribed reporting obligations and transparency measures under the Vienna Document. Still, it’s 2017, and you don’t exactly need observers there with binoculars to see what Russian units are doing.
Actual counts on how many Russian soldiers participate in these strategic exercises range wildly, and depend almost entirely on what you include as participating, and during what time frame. The generally cited figure for Zapad 2013 is around 75,000 troops and personnel. This exercise may prove larger, but if the focus is on aerospace and naval operations, it may not. Ostensibly the number of actual soldiers concentrated in the Baltic region that week may not be all that large, but a multitude of simultaneous exercises will take place in other regions and districts. Hence the overall count of participants can quickly swell.
Running parallel to Zapad 2017 will be civil defense exercises intended to stress the entire system as though the state is practicing for total war. Since the last Zapad in 2013, the troops of the Ministry of Interior have been converted into a newly stood up National Guard. The National Guard will likely generate its own forces, take in reservists, and prepare to suppress “diversionary” activity. The Military District leadership, together with governors, is supposed to take command of key civil infrastructure and national resources in a time of war. Russia will also test two reserve systems: territorial battalions intended for civil infrastructure defense and a nascent operational reserve, which is still in development.
Counting the National Guard and other paramilitary forces the total number of participants can readily increase by another 20,000 or more, this is how figures begin to approach the 100,000 frequently cited in the media. However, said participation can range from deploying to a firing range to sitting in barracks doing nothing at all, but still being counted by Western experts as being part of the exercise. Right now, there’s nothing to substantiate the notion that Zapad 2017 will involve 100,000 troops ‘on NATO’s borders’ besides the fact that the number is round and sounds large.
The Russian Ministry of Defense itself likely hopes Western media will report exaggerated figures. Such headlines help validate the scale and success of the exercise to national leadership in Moscow. In this respect, the entire affair is an exercise in co-dependency and is self-affirming.
Zapad is Also Leaving
There is nothing to indicate that this exercise is cover for a diabolical Russian invasion. Of course, the Russian leadership has a checkered history here, using a snap exercise to cover troop movements in February 2014 that were used to seize Crimea. In the summer of 2008 Russia’s Kavkaz exercise worked out some of the units and deployments it would need to fight Georgia, though when the actual war came things didn’t exactly go as planned.
Estonia’s undersecretary for defense policy, Kristjan Prikk, known to be quite knowledgeable on Russia said back in July, “We don’t consider this year’s Zapad exercise in itself to be a direct threat to NATO or a cover for an attack.” There is also nothing to suggest that Russia intends to “leave” it’s forces in Belarus, or anywhere else for that matter. Typically, unit formations need housing, a plan to garrison in quarters, supporting facilities and the like, especially through fall and winter. The notion that Russia would just leave them shivering in tents somewhere in Belarus is unrealistic.
Belarus is not exactly keen to host Russian forces any longer than planned since its autocratic president Alexander Lukashenko guards Belarusian sovereignty (and his own rule) quite jealously. Autocracies are reliable in this regard, they distrust other autocrats and are keen to signs of betrayal. Lukashenko is cautious to balance Russia’s security needs with his strong desire not to become the ex-president of Belarus.
Kavkaz 2008 teaches us that if there’s any cause to worry, it should be a month or two after the exercise. It’s a bit too obvious and uncharacteristic for Russia to try something when NATO is ready, on alert, and bracing for the worst. The West has a notoriously short attention span. If Moscow wants to pick a fight it will be after everyone in NATO has decided that they’ve successfully deterred Russia and the exercise is long past. This of course is unlikely, but it’s important not to look for chicanery during Zapad at the expense of ignoring the real “period of danger,” which will probably be afterwards.
Why Does Russia do Zapad? And Why Should We Care?
The Zapad exercise is really a stress test of the system’s ability to handle a conflict scenario with NATO. In this contingency, Russia’s military and civilian structures are working out their ability to handle internal instability, and integrating various instruments of national power to shape NATO’s decision-making throughout a crisis. Strategic deterrence is the Russian framework for using different instruments of national power in deterring or compelling an adversary. In the early phases of crisis the goal is to deter the United States from launching in military hostilities, then to control escalation during the conflict phases by leading it.
Zapad is neither a defensive nor offensive exercise. Zapad is meant to establish Russia’s coercive credibility and, judging by Western consternation, it does a great job of it. The program that will unfold in September is meant to convince the United States that Russia will employ both non-nuclear and nuclear means to deter the use of force against its interests, and failing that, to control escalation such that the war is quickly terminated. However, a significant part of this exercise is also about Russia testing its own capabilities and the state’s capacity to handle a crisis that turns into an existential threat from without and within.
The good and bad news is that in the minds of Russian leaders this scenario is not all that hypothetical. It’s actually their version of the Baltic high-end fight. While the U.S. policy establishment is busily working on improving deterrence against Russia in the Baltics, Moscow is fixated on defending its own geopolitical real estate in Belarus. Russia practices what is a de facto policy of extended defense, placing its notional borders at the edge of Belarus. Hence Russia worries that events similar to the Maidan may repeat themselves in Minsk. The fear behind this scenario had always been that NATO may sponsor some sort of popular uprising and use it as a pretext to intervene, thus ripping Belarus from Russia’s sphere of influence.
Don’t Fear Zapad. Learn From It
Russia’s concerns, and much of Russian planning for a potential conflict with the United States, stem from the Kosovo air campaign conducted by NATO in 1999. Russian leaders witnessed the technological superiority of American military power and the speed with which U.S. forces achieved conventional dominance on the battlefield, conducting strikes against Serbia with impunity. This made a lasting impression and arguably a traumatic one. The Zapad 1999 exercise was Russia’s response to NATO’s actions in Kosovo, signaling that should the United States ever consider such an intervention on Russian territory, it would face rapid nuclear escalation.
Since Zapad 1999, Russia has been improving on the credibility behind this message: reducing its unhealthy dependency on nuclear weapons, improving the capability of general purpose forces, and adding a diverse mix of non-kinetic means to its toolkit. However, Zapad stays true to its roots. It is always about the same thing: how Russia perceives the U.S. “way of war” and plans to deal with it. The real bilateral exercise in September is not between Russia and Belarus, but between Russia and an imaginary United States. The intended message to Washington is that things will go badly quickly if American policymakers consider conducting an intervention in Belarus in the vein of Kosovo 1999, Iraq 2003, or Libya 2011.
The irony is that Russia and NATO are both exercising to deter each other from seizing countries that neither is appreciably interested in. Nobody in the West has ever said “we really must get Belarus,” as though Europe was short on dictatorships and seeking political diversity. No Russian official of significance has voiced a longing for returning the Baltic states to Russian control, or questioned the credibility of NATO’s security guarantees. In this regard, Zapad mirrors the discourse inside the United States and NATO on how to handle Baltic security concerns. The Russian General Staff’s scenario, where NATO goes to war with Russia over Belarus, is no more contrived than the proposition that Moscow will declare war on NATO over the Baltics. There are other possible iterations of this fight, some of which I covered in an article a year ago, but they’re all improbable.
In the end, Zapad is a good window into the Russian mindset. The Russian leadership is not lying. In a conflict between Russia and NATO, things will probably go badly. Moscow may resort to using nuclear weapons. For all the modernization and transformation of Russian armed forces, in reality the Russian leadership is probably still afraid: afraid the United States will try to make a bid for Belarus, afraid of American technological and economic superiority, afraid the U.S. seeks regime change in Moscow, and afraid Washington desires the complete fragmentation of Russian influence in its near abroad, or even worse, Russia itself.
Zapad is the most coherent manifestation of these fears, and a threat from Moscow to the United States about what it might do if the worst should come to pass. Washington should pay close attention to both, it’s an opportunity to learn a great deal about an adversary, and it only comes every four years.
Michael Kofman is a Senior Research Scientist at CNA Corporation and a Fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute. Previously he served as Program Manager at National Defense University. The views expressed here are his own.