Zapad 2017 – survey

A selection of experts answer three questions about Russian strategic military exercises Zapad 2017

Joerg Forbrig, Janusz Bugajski, Jaroslav Naď
6 September 2017

We asked Joerg Forbrig, Janusz Bugajski and Jaroslav Naď  three questions concerning Zapad 2017

  1. Why are Zapad exercises excepted with so much anxiety among NATO allies?
  2. What is NATO’s readiness for the scenarios trained during these exercises?
  3. Are Russians going to maintain the military presence in Belarus after Zapad exercises are completed?

Joerg Forbrig

Senior Transatlantic Fellow, Central and Eastern Europe, Director, Fund for Belarus Democracy, The German Marshall Fund of the United States

The Zapad military exercises take place every four years, yet never before has this war game elicited as much concern and debate among Western leaders, militaries and experts as in 2017. This considerable anxiety has a number of reasons. First, recent history has shown that such military exercises can be used by the Kremlin to prepare its next aggression against a neighbors, as was the case with the Kavkaz exercise and Georgia war in 2008. Second, an exercise like Zapad serves Russia to move equipment and to train reconstituted forces in its Western military district, which significantly alters the military constellation along NATO’s Eastern flank. Third, Zapad takes place on either side of one of NATO’s most neuralgic points: the Suwalki gap, a narrow land corridor that connects the Baltic states with their NATO allies, and that is flanked by Russia’s Kaliningrad region and Belarus. Fourth, like previous exercises, Zapad 2017 directly relates to the territory of NATO allies. Poland, Lithuania and Latvia are – in form of imaginary states Lubenia and Vesbaria – said to pose an alleged threat to allied Russia and Belarus. Fifth, there has been intense speculation whether or not Russia’s Vladimir Putin may use the Zapad exercise to reign in his unruly partner, Belarus’ Alexander Lukashenka, at gunpoint, leave behind a Russian military presence that Belarus has so far rejected, or even annex Belarus altogether. Sixth, a stronger Russian military presence in Belarus would also pose an additional threat to Ukraine, adding a Northern vector to the Eastern and Southern ones that Russia has already exploited for annexing Crimea and invading Donbass. Finally, NATO-Russia relations are at a very low point, with little regular and direct contacts that normally serve to avoid misunderstandings, accidents, and escalation. Each of these aspects is a problem on its own; their combination, however, is what has NATO allies so rattled this time.

From what is known about the exercise so far, its basic scenario posits that the West deteriorates relations with Belarus and Russia on ethnic, religious, and historical grounds, and moves to establish a separatist state on the territory of Belarus, an entity called Veyshnoria. Obviously, no such plan exists on the part of NATO but tellingly, this scenario is the exact mirror image of Russian actions in Eastern Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova. The question is why the Kremlin is exercising along the lines of such a scenario. One (offensive) option is that Moscow acknowledges that its actions in Donbass, in particular, were a complete failure and that it needs to retool itself before it can hope to stage such aggressions against neighbors, whether Ukraine or others, with greater success. Another (defensive) option is that Russia, and Belarus, really believe that they are at risk of Western-made separatism that they need to avert. Regional movements for greater autonomy certainly exist in Russia, and they may well gain strength as Russia’s political, economic and social situation deteriorates. The Kremlin may well foresee such a rise of various separatisms, and Zapad may serve the dual purpose of scapegoating the West and preparing the Russian military and security apparatus to crack down on such regional movements. Yet another, if very unlikely, option is that Russia is entertaining the idea of stirring separatism in the Baltic states. Given that all three of them are NATO members, this is the only scenario that the Alliance can and should prepare for. In this direction, NATO has taken a number of steps. First, its forward presence in the Baltic states and Poland is now fully operational. Its multinational battalion battle groups are a trip wire that would, in the case of a Russian aggression, instantly make this a conflict with a broader range of NATO members. Second, NATO and individual member states have fast developed a strong sensitivity for elements of hybrid warfare that come with the Zapad scenario. Not least the Baltic states have taken a number of direct measures to counter such hybrid threats. Many of these, especially also NATO responses overall, need systematic broadening and refinement, however. Third, individual NATO members, such as the United States, will deploy additional aircraft and resources to the region during the Zapad exercises. It would be advisable, however, to retain such resources and alertness beyond the very time of those Russian war games. Finally, NATO and individual allies will send observers to Zapad 2017. Belarus, in particular, has been unusually forthcoming in inviting Western observers and providing information. To be sure, Minsk has done so out of pure political calculus: it wants to capitalize on strains in the Russian-Western relationship. But this comparable openness by one party to the exercises does provide additional opportunities for keeping track with the Zapad exercises. Overall, then, NATO seems to be reasonably well-prepared for Zapad 2017.

First, and to be precise, Russia already has a modest military presence in Belarus, with the Hantsavichy radar station and the Vileyka naval communication center. But clearly, in the context of the Zapad exercises, many have wondered if the Kremlin is to leave behind troops and equipment on a larger scale. This is unlikely for various reasons. First, a recent spat between Minsk and Moscow over a possible Russian air base in Belarus indicated that Lukashenko is unwilling to afford Putin a stronger military presence. He is certainly aware, from the Crimean example, that such capabilities may be turned against him at any time. Second, Russia has Belarus on a sufficiently solid leash to control the country without a major military presence. Minsk depends on Moscow for oil and gas imports, exports of food and industrial production, and loans. The Kremlin controls much of the media and information available to Belarusians, it has strong inroads with the security apparatus in Minsk, and it can play on widespread pro-Russian sentiments in Belarus. Third, aggressive Russian posturing vis-à-vis NATO in the region already relies on the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, to which a further bridgehead in the form of Belarus would add very little. Fourth, Russia wants Belarus as a buffer, with its own military currently being re-organized to the immediate West of it. At a maximum, this requires a joint air defense system with Belarus, which is said to have been completed last year. Finally, one wonders how the “leaving behind” in Belarus of some of Russia’s military engaged in Zapad 2017 is to work out in practice. Troops requires bases, infrastructure, and supplies that cannot be easily improvised. In short, such a scenario is rather inconceivable.


Janusz Bugajski

Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), Washington DC

Following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and its persistent threats against other neighboring states, there is  deep distrust of Kremlin intentions and suspicions about Kremlin plans. It is feared that the Zapad exercises would not only simulate an attack on one of Russia’s neighbors but could be a smokescreen for an act of aggression to test NATO responses. There are several possible scenarios that should be evaluated, whether some form of intervention in Latvia’s Latgale region or an attempt to breach the now infamous Suwalki gap across Poland. The bottom line is that Washington and most NATO governments do not trust the Putin regime and its denials of aggressive intentions ring increasingly hollow.

NATO has deployed a small force to Poland and the Baltic states to supplement the local military under the Enhanced Forward Presence Initiative. It is calculated that the presence of Americans, Germans, British, and other NATO troops will act a tripwire and deter any Russian military assault. But the Alliance simply does not have a sufficient number of troops in the region to resist a major Russian conventional attack for the foreseeable future. NATO will be closely monitoring Zapad and learning about Russia’s military capabilities and plans, even if it does not expect an imminent invasion on NATO territory.

The government in Minsk has asserted that all Russian forces will leave Belarus after the exercises are completed. However, we cannot be certain that Moscow will fully comply or whether they may seek a more permanent military presence inside Belarus closer to NATO’s borders that would also threaten Ukraine with another incursion. Such a force would also add to Moscow’s pressure against the Lukashenka government to desist from pursuing closer Western integration.


 Jaroslav Naď

Senior Fellow for Defence and Security at the Central European Policy Institute, Deputy CEO of the Slovak Atlantic Commission.

 First, Zapad exercises are focused on military preparation for attack against selected NATO countries. Second, it is organised as robust, large scale and very offensive exercise with very limited true information provided by Russia for NATO countries. In the past we have witnessed obvious lies from the Russian authorities about size and also scenario of Zapad exercises. Third, obviously, it is regularly used by Russia as propaganda tool.

NATO as the Aliance but also almost every sigle member countries are today much better prepared for possible agression from wherever it comes. Crimea and Russian agression in Ukraine generally were really significant open-eyer for all of us. NATO countries invest more to defence, exercise more, prepare their armed forces for various scenarios. And that is good. 

I don’t think so. Relationship between Russia and Belarus is not that close how it used to be before “Crimea”. I cannot imagine Lukashenko writing “invitation letter” for Russian armed forces to stay on his territory. Moreover, Russia currently doesn’t need to deploy its forces to Belarus for whatever reason except for increasing pressure on Baltic countries and Poland. I don’t believe Lukashenko would play that game.

Photo: Zapad-2009 military exercises, Wikimedia Commons

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