Without changes, regional stability cannot be taken for granted
These days, pundits are increasingly speculating on what Russia’s next large-scale military exercise—code-named Zapad-2017—may bring. Will it be just another saber-rattling event that will once again lower the security threshold by adding uncertainty and unpredictability—and make us increasingly numb and desensitized to those large-scale exercises? This time, will a Russian ally have to reluctantly accept the stationing of more foreign troops on its territory? Or will it lead to yet another Russian military incursion into a neighboring country? Which security Rubicon will be crossed this time?
Understanding Russia’s modus operandi in recent years, and what its large-scale military exercises are designed to accomplish, could offer answers and highlight areas that the international community should closely watch. It also indicates a way ahead for the West.
Train with a purpose
In the last decade, Russia has expanded its military capabilities through regular and specific exercises that have often involved offensive, aggressive and anti-Western scenarios. Such maneuvers enhanced troop readiness status and effectiveness, especially since Russian forces train as they fight. Those drills also served concrete political and strategic communications purposes as a show of force and a narrative for the national leadership. They intimidate and threaten countries against whom the exercises were designed, but also, in some cases, they disguise military movements—helping Russia prepare and subsequently conduct real military operations.
Timing and geographic proximity are useful. In early August 2008, when Russian troops invaded Georgian territory, they surprised the rest of the world, which was following the Summer Olympics in Beijing. Russia’s 58th Army had just finished its Kavkaz-2008 military exercise, coincidentally occurring just ahead of the invasion (15-31 July) and located just north of the Georgian border.
Fast-forward five years to 2013. Russia re-introduced a military training concept known as the snap exercise. These occur with no-notice and often involve large numbers of troops. After putting into motion four such snap alerts in 2013, Russia conducted another such exercise from 26 February to 3 March 2014. That exercise engaged not only large numbers of airborne troops and transport planes but also long-range aircraft. Officially, the exercise also involved 1,200 amphibious combat vehicles, 880 battle tanks and 120 attack helicopters. Yet there was more. Under the guise of that exercise, Russia deployed a large contingent of troops to Crimea and its vicinity. The next step was Crimea’s effective capture by troops which officially had taken part in a regular military exercise. The result was Russia’s illegal annexation of Ukrainian territory.
Now comes 2017. Another large-scale Russian exercise is scheduled for September. Unlike previous snap exercises, Zapad (West) takes place every four years and is announced well in advance. It also encompasses several preparatory episodes and smaller exercises—some of them usually occur with no advance notice—and all of which culminate in these Russian-led multinational maneuvers.
This year’s exercise—set to take place both in Belarus and in western Russia (including the Kaliningrad oblast)—might be among the largest since 1991. As a possible indicator of Zapad’s size, Russia has ordered more than 4,000 railcars to transport its troops. Based on this, up to two Russian armored/mechanized divisions (around 30,000 military personnel) could be deployed to Belarusian territory. Along with troops already moved there, the anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) assets brought to Kaliningrad over the last few years, troops traditionally flown into the area during such exercises, and those stationed along Russia’s border with the Baltic states (numbering three new Russian divisions in the Western Military District), it’s clear that Russia can, if it so decides, easily exert significant pressure on its neighbors. Thanks to this military build-up, all under the pretext of the Zapad exercise, Russia’s options are many. It could, with little or no warning, launch a limited or provocative hybrid operation (to see what happens), test responses on NATO’s eastern flank, or present a security threat to Ukraine where the Russo-Ukraine conflict remains in full swing.
What to watch
In that context, Russia’s planned training of Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear defense (CBRN) troops should be closely watched. If indeed large CBRN formations engage in such an exercise, it could imply that Russia is getting ready for a potential nuclear development.
The third and final element to monitor is Russia’s long-term military build-up and regional stability. How will Belarus—Russia’s only ally in the region—react and behave during the exercise? On one hand, it provides a de facto Russian military forward presence, as some Russian units are already permanently stationed there. On the other hand, what if Russia suddenly decides not to leave Belarus with its military build-up after Zapad-2017? This not so improbable scenario might further destabilize the region’s already tense situation. What would NATO and the West do?
Finally, a growing lack of transparency on the Russian side, combined with an increase in Russian snap exercises (four in 2013, eight in 2014; 20 in 2015 and 11 in 2016) limits room to maneuver with a genuine dialogue and puts political pressure on Western decision-makers. Since 2016, Poland, along with numerous allies, has strived to avoid situations in which a military incident or a snap exercise might unexpectedly spark armed conflict. Three Polish proposals are now on the table: modernization of the Vienna Document (Chapter III on risk reduction); reciprocal, advanced briefings in the NATO-Russia Council on one Allied and one Russian exercise (preferably Zapad-2017) this year; and voluntary briefings on national exercises in 2017 in the OSCE (Forum for Security Co-operation). Not surprisingly, we are still waiting for Russia to engage on a basis of reciprocity regarding any of these proposals.
Russian military exercises have become a dangerous tool, politically and militarily. The “train as you fight” approach—especially when nuclear attacks are an option—poses a serious threat to the West. It’s not enough that we be prepared to respond militarily. We must also be able to send clear unambiguous messages of unity, cohesion and readiness. As long as Zapad-2017 style exercises are a tool of coercion, no one can take regional stability for granted.
All in all, the West needs to send Russia an unequivocal message that it is ready to engage in confidence-building measures. At the same time we must verify Russia’s actions. We should undoubtedly make efforts to build reciprocal trust, but that will not come immediately.
Finally, Russia needs to understand that if it messes with the alliance, it will pay dearly.