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Everything You Wanted to Know about Zapad 2017

During and after Zapad-2017, commentators speculated wildly on why Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko did not observe the exercises together. Lukashenko claimed at the end of the exercise that Zapad was so large and widely distributed that it made no sense for them to only go to one training range to observe it together.

There seems little reason to doubt Lukashenko’s statement. The exercise took place across eleven training ranges or poligons as they are known in Russian: eight in Belarus and three in Russia. From north to south, therefore, Zapad participants were spread across nearly 700km and from west to east about 600km. Furthermore, within the individual ranges, different tasks were being carried out by different groups. This is broken down in a graphic I created, which combines the publicly stated tasks at the individual poligons and observations of what took place at each one.

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As can be observed on this map, the ranges form an arc from western Belarus, across the Belarusian capital of Minsk, north toward St. Petersburg. Separately, an aspect of the exercise was carried out in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad between Poland and Lithuania in addition to some naval components in the Baltic Sea. They conspicuously surround the territory labeled Veyshnoria and offered an interesting set of jumping-off points for a campaign against it and its neighbors Vesbariya and Lubeniya.

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These poligons were assigned their respective tasks generally according to how they are used during regular exercises of the Russian and Belarusian militaries. Nevertheless, the distribution of tasks shows the types of operations the Russian and Belarusian General Staffs consider most important for potential conflicts with NATO:

1 - Air Defense and Air Operations

Russia has spent much of the past two decades upgrading its air defense capabilities to blunt NATO air operations. After witnessing the NATO intervention in the Yugoslav Civil War exclusively with airpower (and impunity), Russia recognized the importance of maintaining an air defense edge to reduce its vulnerability to this type of punishment. Accordingly, air defense played a major part of the exercise while air power contributed its own roles to the Zapad campaign, including combat air patrols, interdiction and close air support.

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2 - Conventional Operations

The traditional strong suit of the Russian military, massive conventional ground operations were also exercised in Zapad. These exercises featured a heavy deployment of tanks and other armor as well as the enormous power of Russian and Belarusian fires. Furthermore, as will be noted below, Belarus and Russia achieved their greatest degree of direct cooperation in these conventional operation exercises.

3 - Unconventional Operations