It all started with a military exercise in 2008. “Today, Georgia; tomorrow, Ukraine; the day after, the Baltic States; and later perhaps time will come for my country, for Poland!” Those words were said at Tbilisi Square on August 5, 2008, by the late Polish president Lech Kaczyński in the presence of five European heads of state who came in a gesture of solidarity with recently invaded Georgia. Almost ten years later, this statement appears like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Today an increasing number of security pundits reflect on what the next Russian military large-scale exercise, Zapad 2017, may bring. Will it be just another saber-rattling event, which yet again will lower the security threshold by adding uncertainty and unpredictability by making Poland increasingly numb and desensitized to large-scale exercises? Will this time a Russian ally have to reluctantly accept stationing of additional foreign troops on its territory? Or will it lead to another incursion into someone’s sovereign territory? Which security Rubicon will be crossed this time?
This article attempts to discuss the Russian modus operandi associated with its recent large-scale military exercises and what those exercises were designed to accomplish. It also highlights areas which should be closely watched by the international community, and finally proposes a way ahead for the Western community.
In the past decade, Russia has considerably developed its military capabilities via regular and specific exercises, which have often included offensive, aggressive and anti-Western scenarios. Those maneuvers enhanced the readiness status and effectiveness of its troops, especially given that Russian forces train as they fight. Also, the drills served concrete political and strategic communications purposes, including to build a show of force and narrative for the national leadership, intimidate and threaten those against whom the exercises were earmarked, and, in some cases, disguise military movements or prepare and conduct real military operations.
In early August 2008, when Russian troops invaded Georgian territory, it came as a surprise to the global community, which had been following the Olympic games in Beijing and enjoying the summer holiday season. Troops of Russia’s Fifty-Eighth Army began their military operation just after finishing the “Kavkaz 2008” military exercise, which “coincidentally” was conducted north of Georgia from July 15–31.
Let’s fast forward five years, to 2013. Russia reintroduced a training concept into its military exercises known as the snap exercise or no-notice exercise. These types of exercises often involve a large number of troops. After four such snap alerts, troops were put into motion in 2013. Another such exercise was conducted between February 26 and March 3 of 2014. That event engaged large numbers of airborne troops, transportation aircraft and long-range aircraft. Officially, the exercise involved 1,200 amphibious combat vehicles, 880 battle tanks and 120 attack helicopters. At that time, a significant number of troops were deployed into Crimea and its vicinity under the disguise of the exercise. The next step was the effective capture of Crimea with troops which officially took part in a regular military exercise.
Three years later, in September 2017, another large-scale Russian exercise is planned. Unlike the snap exercises, Zapad (“West”) takes place every four years and is scheduled, as well as notified well in advance. It encompasses several preparatory episodes and smaller exercises—some of them usually with a no-notice character—which lead to the culmination of these Russian-led multinational maneuvers. This year’s exercise—again to take place both in Belarus and in western Russia (including the Kaliningrad Oblast)—might be one of the largest exercises since 1991. Indeed, Russia has ordered an astonishingly large number of train cars—over four thousand—to transport its troops. Based on this data it is not difficult to calculate that the planned train wagons could deploy up to two Russian armored/mechanized divisions (around thirty thousand military personnel) to Belarusian territory. If one adds the already moved troops and antiaccess/area-denial (A2/AD) assets brought to Kaliningrad over the last few years, the troops traditionally flown into the area during such exercises, and those postured closer to the Baltic state borders (three new Russian divisions in the Western Military District), one can easily assume that Russia, if it so decides, can—at a minimum—easily exert significant pressure on its neighbors with little or no warning. Having created such a military build up under the pretext of such exercise, Russia could launch a limited or provocative military hybrid operation to see what happens and further test the waters on NATO’s eastern flank, or in Ukraine, where the Russo-Ukrainian conflict remains in full swing.
With this grim view, one might ask how they can identify some of the significant indicators and warnings. The international community should be pay attention to three elements when it comes to Zapad 2017. First, military deception, or maskirovka. Russia has learned to deceive the West by masking and disguising its movements effectively. A recent case in point was the shipment of SS-26 Iskander-M missile launchers aboard a civilian cargo ship in late 2016. A chronic lack of transparency paired with continuous false pretenses of being open—essentially a mixture of lies and disinformation—is used to soften a stalwart assessment in the West that Russia perhaps is benign and aspires a true trustworthy partnership with the West. But the West should be able to distinguish empty gestures from true offers of military transparency.