Beyond Zapad 2017: Russia’s Destabilizing Approach to Military Exercises


The world can be relieved that Russia did not use this fall’s Zapad 2017 military exercise as a pretext for aggression or to permanently base troops in Belarus, as many analysts feared before the event. Much has been written about the exercise, most of it focusing on competing claims regarding its size and purpose. What has received less attention is a more fundamental and longer-term concern: the way Zapad fits a longstanding pattern of non-transparent Russian military exercises that destabilize regional security by seeking to dodge confidence-building commitments Moscow has made in Europe.

Western concerns about the possible size and purpose of Zapad 2017 were a direct consequence of Russia’s consistent lack of transparency regarding its military activities over the last several years. Russia has consistently under-reported the numbers of troops involved in its exercises to avoid outside observation, and has conducted large no-notice “snap” exercises to test Western responses to unexpected troop activity. This behavior, coupled with Russia’s actions against Ukraine in 2014 and Georgia in 2008, contributes to the perception that Russia is prepared to use military force again against its neighbors and shows that it feels little obligation to play by the rules it has agreed to.

Large, unexpected military exercises are by definition destabilizing and provocative — that’s why the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Vienna Document sets thresholds that trigger mandatory pre-notification and observation. And although Russia is party to this agreement, it consistently reports the numbers of troops involved in its exercises to be just shy of those thresholds, only for Russian officials to later state that the exercises were far larger than declared.

The Vienna Document guidelines for the observation of large military exercises are designed to increase confidence and stability among European nations, and reduce the chances for misunderstanding and conflict, by mandating transparency. In the best of times, Russia’s effort to flout the guidelines is disturbing. Following Russia’s use of force in Ukraine, the lack of transparency stokes fears that each large exercise could mask further aggression, fears which materialized in the run-up to Zapad 2017. In a period of increasing tension between Russia and the West, Russia’s behavior is irresponsible, unacceptable, and dangerous. It needs to stop.

Under the 2011 guidelines to the 1990 Vienna Document, OSCE countries that conduct exercises exceeding a combined total of 13,000 troops are required to notify all other OSCE participating states in advance of the exercise. Countries must also conduct a program for observation by other states during the entire period that the exercise exceeds the 13,000-troop threshold, including briefings on the scenario, opportunities to talk to individual service members, and overflights of the exercise. Exercises that involve 300 battle tanks or 500 armored combat vehicles also trigger mandatory observation. This allows all OSCE members to know the size and scale of large upcoming exercises in advance, so they are not unduly surprised or alarmed.

Western militaries conduct such observations when exercises exceed 13,000 troops (as recently occurred for the U.S.-led Exercise Saber Guardian 2017, which involved some 25,000 troops). Russia does not. NATO officials have told me that Russia — with the largest armed forces in Europe — has declared every military exercise it has held since 1991 to be below 13,000 troops. According to OSCE data, Russia has thus managed to avoid ever conducting an observation for an exercise that exceeds the 13,000-troop threshold, regardless of the actual size of the exercise.

Russia’s last three annual exercises illustrate this point. None of these were declared to the OSCE to exceed 13,000 troops. However, once the Vostok 2014 exercise was underway, Russia’s TASS news agency cited Ministry of Defense officials stating that the exercise included over 100,000 troops. Again, in 2015, once Russia’s Tsentr exercise began, TASS reported 95,000 troops were involved, and Russia Today reported that 100,000 troops participated. For Kavkaz 2016, a similar playbook was used. After the exercise ended, TASS reported “more than 120,000 military troops and civilian personnel involved, although with no more than 12.500 taking part in the southern area simultaneously at any one time.” The pattern is easy to spot.

Russia is able to routinely flout these transparency measures through a variety of methods. It routinely notifies OSCE members that it will hold an exercise over a short period of time with fewer than 13,000 troops. Zapad 2017 was held mainly in Belarus, which notified the OSCE of a combined 12,700 Russian and Belarussian troops — just under the 13,000 threshold. Russia typically holds simultaneous exercises nearby that it says fall under separate military commands, as it did in its last three annual exercises. In the case of Zapad 2017, troops were exercised in areas of Russia north and south of the Belarussian exercise. Russia also routinely begins troop mobilization and exercises well in advance of, and well beyond, the declared dates of the core exercise. Russia and Belarus announced that Zapad 2017 would be held from Sept. 14 to 20 on Belarus’ western border, but officials say signs were posted along that border from the beginning of August to the end of September warning local residents to stay clear of the area due to the exercise. It appears Russia began mobilizing troops for the exercise in August.

In recent years, Russia has also called for large, no-notice “snap” exercises that often coincide with a declared core exercise. In February 2014, a stand-alone Russian snap exercise of 150,000 troops in its western military district that borders Ukraine served to mask Russia’s occupation of Crimea, showing just how dangerous such exercises can be. Russia is quick to point out that unannounced snap exercises are allowed under the Vienna Document, with limitations on observation provisions due to the difficulty of arranging short-notice observation. However, the intent was never for countries to abuse these limitations routinely as a way to avoid mandatory observation and intimidate their neighbors. By “gaming” the system in this manner, Russia seeks to have its cake and eat it too.

In addition to consistently reporting exercises in a way that avoids the transparency measures required by the Vienna Document, Russia cynically seeks to convey the impression of transparency by routinely inviting resident military attaches and other officials to attend a one-day VIP briefing and “observe” the exercises. Such events fall far short of the mandatory observation outlined in the Vienna Document and provide little transparency on the true scale of the mobilization actually underway.  But they do provide a window dressing of transparency that deflects public attention from Russia’s non-observance of the Vienna Document procedures.

For last year’s Kavkaz exercise, Russia went a step further, inviting resident defense attaches in Moscow, including those from NATO countries, to a one-day briefing. But the briefing was held at a site in Crimea — territory Russia had occupied and attempted to annex from Ukraine. When NATO attaches boycotted the event to signal Western disapproval of Russian aggression, the pro-Kremlin news organization PolitRussia published a photograph from a pre-2014 military observation event that NATO attaches had attended — attempting to imply that NATO representatives were present in Crimea.

Against this dismal track record, it is not surprising that many analysts and defense experts expected up to 100,000 Russian troops to participate in Zapad 2017. It appears likely that this year’s exercise involved fewer than the 100,000 troops that characterized previous years’ maneuvers, and Russian media were quick to deride Western concerns in advance of the event. But this only highlights Russia’s selective implementation of the Vienna Document. We may never know exactly how many troops participated because Russia intentionally avoids the level of transparency that would enable observers to confidently gauge the number of troops involved. The uncertainty over the size and scale of the exercise understandably caused anxiety among, and heightened tensions with, Russia’s neighbors. What was different about Zapad 2017 was not Russia’s lack of transparency; it was the continued lack of transparency against the backdrop of heightened tensions with the West and the proximity of the exercise to NATO’s Baltic state members. The exercise, for example, involved the deployment of Russian heavy tank units up to Belarus’ border with the Baltic states.

Russia pursues this destabilizing behavior, possibly out of a belief that its interests are served by being provocative. There may be several reasons for this. First, Russia may believe that the lack of transparency keeps the West guessing about its intentions, projecting an image of Russia as an unpredictable and potentially dangerous adversary. Second, limiting transparency enables Moscow to carefully script the narrative surrounding its exercises. Such scripting allows it to control how it reveals new weapons systems, maximizing their impression and masking their potential flaws. This helps the Kremlin avoid embarrassments such as when the new Russian T-14 Armata battle tank stalled on Red Square during the Victory Day parade rehearsal in 2015. A similar incident at Zapad 2017, where a Russian helicopter accidentally fired at spectators, illustrates the risk that transparency poses for Russia. Russia may also believe that designing its exercises to be provocative and intimidating maximizes their deterrent effect, even if it does so at the cost of increasing tensions in Europe.

Unfortunately, Russia appears to apply the same cynicism and penchant for “gaming the system” to its approach to the broader rules-based international system. We see this in Moscow’s disregard for its treaty obligations under the Open Skies Treaty, where it artificially restricts flights over Kaliningrad, as well as the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which Russia violates by pursuing the development of a missile that exceeds the treaty’s range limitations. And these are just two examples.

Regardless of its motivations, if Russia wants to hold large military exercises — and it has every right to do so — then it should be honest about their size from the beginning and open them up to the Vienna Document observation requirements it is committed to respect. That would signal that Russia is prepared to engage constructively in the meaningful dialogue NATO seeks with Russia to improve transparency and reduce the risk of unintended incidents — a risk that has increased since Russia’s 2014 aggression in Ukraine. A genuine effort by Russia in this regard may be a first step in creating new confidence in European security. Otherwise, if Russia continues to game its international obligations and commitments as it has done in the past several years, it will only further erode European security and tarnish Russia’s reputation in the international community.


Lee Litzenberger is a State Department Senior Fellow at the German Marshall Fund. From 2014-2017, he served as the U.S. Deputy Permanent Representative to NATO. The views expressed here are his own.