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.
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.