By Lukas Milevski*
(FPRI) — Russia’s Zapad-2017 exercise will take place from September 14 to 20 and may become the largest Russian military exercise since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Baltic states have been expressing concern and suggesting that the exercise poses a potential threat to their national security and exacerbates the strategic imbalance already present in the region.
Some are taking these Baltic warnings seriously as understandably prudent. Others depict the Balts as unjustifiably paranoid. These warnings hearken back to 2010 when France first agreed to sell a number of Mistral ships to Russia despite the early concerns and protestations of a number of NATO countries, among them the Baltic states. Were the Baltic states displaying prudence or paranoia in their attitudes toward the sale? Time proved their stance to be prudent rather than paranoiac. The Baltic states are now again expressing grave concerns relating to Russia and Zapad-2017. This time, NATO is listening.
The Exercise Itself and NATO’s Response
What do we know about the Zapad-2017 exercise itself? Zapad, which means “West” in Russian and signifies the western strategic direction, is a series of exercises which occur once every four years. Zapad-2017 is the first Zapad exercise since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in early 2014. A joint exercise by Russia and Belarus, it will occur across vast expanses of territory stretching from Belarus to the Kola Peninsula in the far north. There will be seven exercise areas in Belarus alone. Russia and Belarus both claim that the number of participants will not exceed the 13,000 maximum stipulated in the 2011 Vienna Document.
Of these, Belarus asserts that 3,000 personnel will represent Russia, along with approximately 280 vehicles and up to 25 aircraft and helicopters; the rest will be Belarusian. Russia’s presence will include units from the 1st Tank Army of Russia’s Western Military District, specifically the elite armored Tamanskaia Division. President Alexander Lukashenka of Belarus has assured the West that the requisite, treaty-mandated transparency will be maintained and that invitations for observers will be sent out 50 days prior to the exercise; however, Russia has taken some exception to his assurances. Ostensibly, Zapad-2017 has a defensive concept. Due to these professed features, Russia has painted the Balts, particularly the Lithuanians, as fear-mongers. It has been suggested that some Russian analysts even believe that Zapad-2017 is being kept intentionally small to allay NATO’s concerns.
Western observers, particularly those closest and most vulnerable to Russia, in the Baltic states as well as in Poland, paint a very different picture of Zapad-2017. These differences start with the increase in Russia’s regular annual reservation of trains in Belarus by a staggering amount. Baltic analysts believe that, rather than the stipulated 13,000 participants, Zapad-2017 will actually involve over 100,000 troops, requiring Russia to use approximately 4,000 train wagons to move troops and maintain the exercise logistically—wagons which the Russian government publicly estimates can transport up to 8,000 troops, a number contradicting official Belarusian accounts of the Russian scale of involvement. Independent Western calculations suggest that these wagons would suffice to transport up to two Russian armored or mechanized divisions—around thirty thousand soldiers and support staff.
Due to Russia’s recent demonstrations of landing craft in the Black Sea, it is believed, albeit not yet confirmed, that Zapad-2017 will almost definitely simulate an amphibious landing, a military task most suitable for only one of Russia’s seas: the Baltic Sea. Russia’s entire Baltic Fleet will reputedly be involved in Zapad-2017. Russia has also been preparing for Zapad-2017 with other exercises throughout 2017, including for airborne assault and electronic warfare. By all accounts, Zapad-2017 will be a sprawling affair, not only geographically, but also in terms of exercised capabilities.
Although the Baltic states profess readiness for the exercise, it is likely that their concept of readiness differs from that held further west. Lithuania, sandwiched between Kaliningrad and Belarus, is particularly concerned, and its intelligence services have warned of possible provocations or other pre-planned incidents occurring along the border during the exercise. They also note that the general readiness of Russian troops has increased, and estimate that Russia would be able to organize and invade the Baltic states within 24-48 hours. Finally, the Baltic states and Poland are also concerned about the possibility of Russian troops simply remaining in Belarus after the conclusion of the exercises, thereby extending their permanent presence along Baltic borders and increasing the implicit pressure on the Baltic states as well as Poland. Lithuanian observers believe that the theme of the exercise involves armed conflict with NATO.
The West has responded to Baltic concerns about these exercises. The multi-national battle groups promised in NATO’s Warsaw summit in July 2016 have finally and coincidentally begun arriving in the Baltic states and Poland. U.S. Army, Europe has also committed to increasing its presence in the Baltic states for the duration of Zapad-2017, with 600 paratroopers from three units to be deployed to the three countries.
The NATO, especially the American, presence has also increased through a succession of various small-scale military exercises. June, in particular, was a busy month. NATO exercises in the Baltic included Saber Knight 2017, involving 800 troops from the three Baltic states and Denmark to train Baltic brigade-level headquarters; Saber Strike 2017, a combined land and air exercise in Latvia involving more than 2,000 soldiers from eight NATO countries; and BALTOPS 2017, a maritime exercise to improve interoperability between NATO and regional partners which involves 4,000 troops, 50 ships and submarines, and over 50 aircraft from 14 NATO and partner countries.
These are all generic exercises aimed to improve capability and capacity. Moreover, Saber Strike has been an annual NATO exercise since 2010, and BALTOPS since 1972. Most important is the Iron Wolf exercise hosted by Lithuania and Poland, also in June, which involved over 5,000 troops from ten NATO countries. This NATO exercise was the first to war game a scenario explicitly related to the defense of the Baltic states—the defense of the Suwalki gap against a Russian attempt to cut the Baltic states off from the rest of the alliance.
The Strategic Significance of Zapad-2017
Zapad-2017 has brought both strategic benefits and strategic concerns to the Baltic states. Although the latter outweigh the former, the benefits are not necessarily inconsiderable.
The concerns, of course, relate to Russia’s intentions and the anticipated—rather than officially declared—massiveness of its exercise. Although Russia and Belarus proclaim that the scale of the exercise is within mandated limits, this is likely to be false. Russia has a long history of attempting to dupe the West about the size of its exercises. Sometimes, it downright lies through deliberate underestimation of the number of troops involved in exercises. Other times, Russia pretends that they are formally split up into multiple, essentially simultaneous, exercises under a single joint command in order to pass beneath the threshold for which either notification or external observation are required.
Moreover, Russia also has recent history of employing exercises either as the jumping off point for wars or as the cover for intervention. In the second half of July 2008, Russia’s 58th Army conducted the periodic Kavkaz exercises in the Caucasus, which concentrated that army north of Georgia just in time for a war in early August. In 2013, Russia reintroduced an old training concept, the snap exercise. Within a year, a snap exercise was held which resulted in deploying troops to Crimea and its environs, leading to the conquest of Crimea.
Will Russia continue to follow this pattern with Zapad-2017? If so, against whom? The Baltic states are not the only potential targets of such duplicity and aggression, although they are the only candidates within NATO. Zapad-2017 will put tens of thousands of Russian troops closer to Kiev than they have been since the collapse of the Soviet Union, which is likely to worry the Ukrainian government. Belarus itself may well be the subject of implicit or covert Russian military pressure, especially given its attempts to become somewhat more strategically independent since the invasion of Crimea in 2014, of which Belarus publicly disapproved. The Baltic states are thus not the automatic target for any potential Russian aggression during or immediately after Zapad-2017, but geopolitically they may well be the most important due to their NATO membership. Whether or not Russia would actually invade the Baltic states is another matter, one which is impossible for any Western analyst to answer. NATO membership holds a deterrent effect, one which is becoming increasingly stronger as NATO continues to demonstrate its commitment to the Baltic states, despite President Trump’s frequent missteps and self-contradictions concerning the Alliance.
The benefits of Zapad-2017 for the Baltic states relate to NATO’s efforts to reassure its most vulnerable constituents. Whether through its exercises or through its temporary deployment of troops, NATO has—willingly or unwillingly—become a more visible presence in the Baltic states, both to reassure the Balts and to deter the Russians. The Iron Wolf exercise may even be the first step in a longer process of transforming a deterrence posture into a more permanent and more robust defense posture. Nevertheless, such a process would always be hostage to political currents in NATO capitols which are difficult, if not impossible, to predict.
Nevertheless, Zapad-2017 appears to encourage, as an unintended byproduct, a trend in NATO which began, however late, as a response to Russian aggression and which continues to be strengthened by Russian actions, despite Russian protestations against such developments. The Russian wind is itself closing the hypothetical window of military opportunity in the Baltic by its own pressure. One can only hope that Russia will not take advantage of that window while it still exists as one simultaneously prepares for the contingency that it may well do so.
Even if nothing untoward occurs between Russia and the Baltic states—or other neighbors—during Zapad-2017, NATO’s work will not yet be complete. Given that Russia is likely to experiment with relatively untried tactical or even operational concepts during Zapad-2017, military analysts will have a field day afterward dissecting what they could see and determining whether or not these new concepts might pose any threat to NATO countries, including the Baltic states.
Of the two depictions of the Baltic attitude toward Russia—prudence versus paranoia—it is generally safer to assume prudence. To assume paranoia saves money, time, and effort in the best case scenario and in the short term, but it also means being the weaker party in the worst case. To assume prudence costs money, time, and effort which may seem unnecessary in the best case scenario—despite acting as a factor to bring about that scenario—and means being prepared for the worst. Advantageous geopolitical circumstances are priceless. For everyone else, there’s strong defense policy.
About the author:
*Lukas Milevski is a Baltic Sea Fellow in the Eurasia Program
This article was published by FPRI.