Zapad 2017: Should We Fear Russia’s Latest Military Dress Rehearsal?

Sukhoi Su-30SM fighter of the Russkiye Vityazi (Russian Knights) aerobatic team performs at the ARMY 2017 International Military-Technical Forum at the Kubinka airbase outside Moscow, Russia August 27, 2017. REUTERS/Andrey Volkov

The Russian military is now a sharpened policy tool of choice for an emboldened but strategically defensive regime that relies on preemption.

In mid-September, Russia will conduct Zapad “West” 2017, a major quadrennial military exercise that takes place near the borders of the Baltic States and Poland as well as inside independent Belarus and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. Not since the end of the Cold War has a modern-day military exercise prompted as much speculation and concern as this Western-oriented display of Vladimir Putin’s machines of war.

The prospect of Zapad 2017 raises tantalizing and worrisome questions. Will it turn out to be a traditional preparedness operation, in which a wide array of heavy, light and specialist forces train for higher readiness? Or, will it prove to be a well-calculated first step toward inserting Russian forces permanently into its prickly ally Belarus? Or, could it be, as some fear, the dark prelude to a surprise invasion of neighboring NATO’s Baltic States?

Four years ago, I witnessed Zapad 2013. I was the senior U.S. Military Attache to Russia and part of a large contingent of Moscow-based international military attaches who were invited to observe the proceedings by the Russian Ministry of Defense.

After flying from Moscow in an aging Ilyushin aircraft, our attaché group arrived in tiny Kaliningrad, the former East Prussian Konigsberg, a militarized wedge of Russia between NATO allies Poland and Lithuania. There, we settled into bleachers overlooking broad beaches to watch the grand finale of Zapad 2013—a large “anti-terrorist” amphibious operation.

President Vladimir Putin in black raincoat arrived in an armada of black SUVs, accompanied by Belarusian strongman President Alexander Lukashenko and his son, Kolya. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu also attended. The men sat in the glassed-in VIP gallery above us. Both Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff, had been in their roles for less than a year, a result of major shake-ups in the Russian defense structure in late 2012. Tellingly, they both remain in place today.

The exercise began. In the distance, large indistinct gray forms on the water slowly approached us, veiled by early morning Baltic mists. Suddenly, red-starred fighter-bombers screamed past us overhead, followed by swarms of missile-laden helicopter gunships. “Terrorist” positions on the beach and behind were bombarded with firepower of all types. The air was filled with fiery flashes and ear-splitting booms. By then, the mysterious gray forms had revealed their identity: Polish-built “Ropucha” amphibious assault ships, Cold War holdovers. Near the shoreline, the ships rapidly disgorged amphibious armored personnel carriers laden with Russian marines who dismounted in the shallows and stormed the beach. Air transports flew high overhead loaded with paratroopers who did not jump due to the blustery winds.

Then, on the horizon, appeared the world’s largest military hovercraft, shrouded in a giant cloud of foam and mist, like some Mesozoic sea monster. The huge Zubr-class air-boat roared up onto the beach and disgorged more marines and vehicles. We gaped at the hovercraft’s immensity and its menacing array of weapons. After this memorable spectacle, President Putin popped out from the elevated command center above us, leaned over and said in English to our throng of attaches below, “I am glad you could come.” After shaking hands with a few Russian commanders, he was whisked away in his cavalcade of SUVs.

The carefully scripted display that morning was the culmination of a century’s worth of refinement of Russia’s traditional firepower-centric warfare. The muscle-flexing was meant to impress not only those of us on hand, but also Russia’s domestic population and the wider world. The exercise also was designed to intimidate Russia’s regional neighbors; I can only imagine what the Baltic, Polish and other eastern European attaches standing among us thought.

Yet even as we climbed down from the bleachers and waited for our ears to stop ringing, the deep-thinkers working for Russia’s general staff and intelligence services were already hard at work on a brand-new way of war. The world’s first glimpse of Putin’s new approach came just four months after Zapad 2013, in February 2014, when the collapse of the pro-Russian Ukrainian regime triggered a fast-moving chain of political and military events over a scant three years that shook and ultimately cracked the global post–Cold War order.

During that short period, the world witnessed a Russian military revolution on the same scale as our own U.S. “Revolution in Military Affairs” of the late-twentieth-century. In our revolution, technology was harnessed to sharpen and amplify the effects of firepower. We refined killing techniques, believing they would lead, inevitably, to victory. The new approach successfully deterred the late–Cold War Soviets and climaxed in the Desert Storm operation in Iraq a quarter century ago.

Unsurprisingly, the post-Soviet Russians intently studied our impressive performance on the battlefield and also watched carefully as we retooled for dealing with difficult counterinsurgencies. What they learned from us, and their own difficult experiences, led to a revised and nuanced approach to warfare—an approach used very effectively-in a “troika” of military operations between 2014–2017 in Ukraine’s Crimea, eastern Ukraine and Syria.

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