Zapad 2017: NATO Should Be Keeping an Eye on Russia's Training Exercises

The final stage of the Zapad-2013 Russian-Belarusian strategic military exercises. Kremlin.ru

Russia has a long history of using military exercises as a platform for waging actual wars.

The second area of concern is Russia’s habit of using its nuclear arsenal for training during large-scale exercises. According to numerous media reports during Zapad 2009 and Zapad 2013, Russia allegedly considered nuclear blows on NATO countries—to the amazement of the West. Can you imagine NATO practicing nuclear blows on Russian cities? If one adds the large number of tactical nuclear weapons in Russia’s arsenal, their recent developments in military doctrine, which easily enables transition from conventional to nuclear activities, or even considers a preemptive nuclear blow for “de-escalation,” as well as their by now most obvious violation of the INF treaty from 1987, which limited the use, production and employment of a series of ground-based ballistic missiles, one could easily conclude that Russia is on a collision course with the West. In that context, one should also pay attention to the associated chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defense troop training that will be conducted. If indeed large CBRN formations are engaged in such exercise, then that could imply that Russia is getting ready for a potential conflict that includes nuclear development.

Finally, the third element to be monitored is a long-term military buildup and regional stability. How will Belarus—Russia’s only military ally in the region—react and behave during the exercise? On the one hand, it provides a de facto Russian military forward presence, as some Russian units are already permanently stationed there. But on the other hand, what if Russia all of a sudden decides not to leave Belarus with its military buildup after Zapad 2017? This not-so-improbable scenario might further destabilize the already tense situation in the region.

What would these developments imply for NATO and the West? Three things should be considered:

First, we need to stay the course with the Warsaw Summit decisions and make sure that the enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) is properly and fully implemented along with a Multinational Divisional Headquarters in Poland to better coordinate multinational efforts. The eFP—defensive in nature—should be properly trained and equipped to fulfil its task to provide deterrence and defense. NATO should also make sure that follow-on forces are more regularly exercised, including in a nonpermissive environment. Moreover, the alliance should continue its work on a comprehensive strategy to counter Russian A2/AD systems. This task should be closely interlinked with enhancing the NATO Defense Planning Process and investing in the right military capabilities.

Second, we need better quality and more robust situational awareness as well as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets. This capability needs not only to exist, but a proper reporting mechanism at the highest political and military levels needs to swiftly function in the alliance and the capitals. In essence, alliance members need a solid multinational tool that will provide a reliable, accurate, measured and soberly analyzed intelligence capability right on NATO’s eastern borders—from the North in Norway, via the Baltic states and the Suwałki gap, down to Romania and Turkey. In today’s security environment a well-functioning indicator and warning mechanism, able to distinguish true posture and intentions from maskirovka, becomes a key capability.

Third, reciprocal transparency is a key element to avoid an uncontrollable military escalation or a spillover effect. Russia, in numerous cases, does not comply with the provisions of the OSCE Vienna Document, which was designed to ensure transparency regarding military exercises, among other considerations. Russia often intentionally underestimates the number of troops involved in its exercises or splits them, either by providing a small gap in time or conducting them in different training areas simultaneously with joint command, with the effect of avoiding thresholds for notification or observation. Let’s be blunt: essentially, they are trying to dupe the West. Finally, a growing lack of transparency on the Russian side combined with an increase in Russian snap exercises (four in 2013; eight in 2014; twenty in 2015; eleven in 2016) limits the room for a genuine dialogue and adds political pressure on the decisionmakers in the West. Since 2016, Poland—together with numerous allies—has strived to limit the danger of a situation where a military incident or a snap exercise might unexpectedly evolve into a military conflict. Currently, three Polish proposals are on the table: modernization of the Vienna Document regarding risk reduction; reciprocal, advanced briefings in the NATO-Russia Council on one allied and one Russian exercise (preferably Zapad 2017) in 2017; and voluntary briefings on national exercises in 2017 in the OSCE. Unsurprisingly, we are still waiting for Russia to respond to any of these proposals.

Russian military exercises have become a dangerous tool, which can be used both politically and militarily. The train-as-you-fight approach—especially when the nuclear strike options are a key element of the drills—poses a serious threat to the West. Not only must we be militarily prepared to respond, but also we must be able to send clear unambiguous messages of unity, cohesion and readiness. As long as Zapad 2017–style exercises are a tool of coercion, regional stability cannot be taken for granted.

All in all, Russia needs to receive an unequivocal message that the West is ready to engage in various trust- and confidence-building measures, but at the same time we must verify Russia’s actions. Efforts to build reciprocal trust should be undoubtedly made, but it does not come immediately.

Finally, Russia also needs to understand that if it messes with the alliance, then such action would come at a significant cost. NATO allies should make this signal clear, and leave no room for doubt.

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