The Zapad 2017 exercise starting Thursday will demonstrate how Russia’s military capabilities are developing. But more important is the psychological effect. The signs so far suggest that Russia is trying to downplay the exercise’s intimidating effects. The maneuvers will stop short of the Latvian, Lithuanian and Polish borders. The scenario—apparently—is defensive: Russia and Belarus will be fending off an attack from three fictitious rogue states called Veishnoria, Vesbaria and Lubenia. The main message coming out of the Kremlin is that the West is overreacting. Russia is conducting a small and routine exercise. Western scaremongers and warmongers have as usual overreacted, with what a Russian official called “hysterical buffoonery.”
From Russia’s point of view, that makes sense. Big aggressive exercises, such as the 2009 Zapad, which rehearsed the invasion and isolation of the Baltic states, and concluded with a dummy nuclear strike on Warsaw, are counterproductive. They stimulate resolve, justify greater defense spending and make Russia look bad.
Yet the seemingly soft-edged Zapad now looming is no cause for comfort. Russia has already reaped the benefit of its mind games, portraying itself as a strategic equal to the West, as the wronged party in a geopolitical contest, and as a genuine threat to the frontline states of northeastern Europe.
None of those portrayals are accurate. Russia is a lot weaker than the West in every respect. In an all-out confrontation it would lose. The standoff in northeastern Europe is entirely Russia’s fault. By intimidating and undermining its former colonies since 1991, Russia built the case for NATO expansion. By continuing its aggressive tactics after 2004, it ensured that NATO—reluctantly and belatedly—drew up contingency plans, placed limited trip-wire forces in the region and started holding defensive exercises.
Russia is also using Zapad to test Western resolve on other fronts. Lithuanian officials recently received a request from Belarus, Russia’s closest ally, to transport an export consignment of Buk anti-aircraft missiles to Angola. A Russian Buk missile shot down the MH-17 Malaysian airliner over Ukraine in 2014. Russia would have the right to send these missiles across Lithuania as part of a military transit to Kaliningrad. Instead it wanted, for the first time, to export them from the Lithuanian port of Klaidpėda. Lithuania understandably said no.
Ukrainians also worry about Zapad. The country’s northern frontier with Belarus is largely undefended. During Zapad, Ukraine’s hard-pressed armed forces must divert precious intelligence and other resources from the war in eastern Ukraine in order to make prudent preparations for any contingency involving Russian forces in Belarus. They also worry about Russian forces in the separatist-run Moldovan territory of Transdniestr.
What this shows is that Russia likes using Zapad to jangle nerves. Whatever the West does in response risks either being too complacent, or seen as an overreaction. The Kremlin sets the agenda, with whatever mixture of military bluff (or power), cyber-warfare, propaganda, economic pressure or other means it chooses to employ.
It should be the other way round. Vladimir Putin should be scratching his head nervously about what the West will do to him—undermining his autocratic rule at home, hunting down his dirty money abroad, breaking up his corrupt and exploitative energy export industries, putting the brakes on his roaming death squads, or foiling his attempts to bully his neighbors.
In theory, the West holds almost all the cards, and Russia very few. In practice, it is the other way around—as Zapad illustrates all too clearly.