Zapad-17: Who Cares?


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The media is at it again: the biennial Russian military drill, known as Zapad, is scheduled to take place in early September on the border of Eastern Europe. Belarus, Russia’s erstwhile ally and neighbor, is taking part in the exercise as well. Indeed, troops are already being brought in en masse for the exercise. Understandably, given recent historical events (as well as longer-term historical memory), many of the Eastern European countries that are within close geographic proximity to the Russian exercise are fearful.

For their part, the Russians have been blustering about the place, and Western analysts have apparently embraced blind fear by claiming that as many as 100,000 Russian troops will take part in the exercise—making this the largest Zapad exercise since the end of the Cold War in 1991. Indeed, the Russians claim that they will be testing a retinue of forms of warfare, from the “hybrid” forms of combat to full-on combat. Then, of course, there is the steady influx of American troops into the Baltic states along with other NATO troops. Needless to say the world’s eyes will be on the Zapad exercise and a disturbing amount of fear is dominating the discourse around this Russian military exercise.

But, fear is the mind-killer.

First, despite what many have claimed, the Russian exercise was planned and announced well before the United States enacted sanctions on Russia, for purported interference in the U.S. presidential election last year. Zapad was a biennial exercise dating back to the Soviet era. They were discontinued for a period immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union, but were resumed yet again in 1999. They have recurred since 1999. The Zapad exercise in 2013, for example, had upwards of 70,000 Russian military and support personnel involved.

Second, an international agreement exists with Russia that if any major exercise occurs involving more than 13,000 troops, they must allow for international observers to take part. So, obviously, the claim by Western analysts that 100,000 Russian troops could take part in this exercise seems a bit excessive. Of course, the Russian ambassador to NATO, Aleksander Grushko, airily claimed that he disbelieved more than 13,000 troops would partake in the exercise. Still, though, the Russians are known to embellish and lie about their troop levels engaged in military exercises. For instance, in the previous Zapad exercises we know that roughly many more troops partook in that event, despite the fact that Russia had made similar claims that their forces would not exceed the 13,000 troop limit.

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In fact, Igor Sutyagin told The Guardian newspaper that, “One hundred thousand [Russian troops] is probably exaggerated but 18,000 is absolutely realistic.” NATO analysts have observed that the Russians have ordered approximately 4,000 railcars to transport its troops to Belarus, where the exercises are being held. These analysts estimate that the number of railcars could amount to roughly 30,000 troops. So, on the low end we have an assessment of 18,000 troops and at the high end, there is 30,000. These estimates conflict with other estimates in the West claiming that 100,000 Russian troops are set to roll into action in September. They also conflict with official Russian government claims (go figure).

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Amazon link.

Despite the Russian Armed Forces modernization push, the Russian military is still severely limited in what it can do. Indeed, as former Soviet intelligence officer and current head of the Carnegie Moscow Center, Dmitri Trenin, argued in 2011, Russia had taken an extraordinary step following the Cold War: they apparently abandoned the historical Russian impulse for global domination and instead reoriented their weakened military into being a highly potent regional force. However, with Russian forces engaged in distant Syria, holding the line in Crimea, and currently dealing with internal dissent under the aegis of the Russian National Guard, it’d appear as though Russia’s Armed Forces are spread a bit thin. This, of course, comes on the heels of reports that Russia’s Navy is a near-total farce (of course, Russia has never really been a serious naval power).

Courtesy of STRATFOR.

Whether it be 18,000 or 30,000 Russian troops it’s important to note that the forces involved will not be exclusively combat forces. Indeed, the bulk of them would likely be support forces. Thus, the actual combatants operating so near to Eastern European borders would be smaller than the 18,000 or 30,000 projections. This is key. Besides, the countries Zapad will abut against are actual NATO members. This is dissimilar from either Georgia in 2008 or Ukraine in 2013-14. Whatever Putin’s long-term intentions are for Europe, his previous actions have indicated a salami-slice approach to the use of military force. In other words, Russia takes what it can from unsuspecting countries in its “Near-Abroad,” and tries to operate at a level of combat just below the threshold of full on war—out of fear that breaching such a threshold would precipitate a direct, American military response. Despite what Russian propaganda continues to espouse, direct American military intervention is the last possible outcome that Putin desires in his ongoing annexation program for the lands which lie to Moscow’s west.

Anyway, NATO and the United States, for all of their bluster on the matter, are clearly not that worried. Operation Trident Javelin, NATO’s military exercises planned for November 8-17, will apparently only involve 3,000 troops. Of course, in 2018, a larger exercise consisting of roughly 35,000 troops is planned. Needless to say, fear that this Zapad exercise is a backdoor to annexation of another European country is not fully warranted. Putin is a crusty nationalist, not a madman. There is still enough ambiguity on the part of the United States—particularly President Donald Trump—as to whether we’d risk full war with Russia to protect a NATO member from Russian annexation, that Putin will resist the urge to take another Eastern European state.

The United States and its NATO partners have spent the last year attempting to shore up defensive ties with threatened states, such as Poland and the Ukraine. There is much talk these days as to whether or not some form of missile defense system will be deployed to the region (it should be). Further, states like Germany and France continue pushing for an actual European Union military. Added onto that are calls from threatened states, such as Poland, to develop a European nuclear deterrence independent of the United States. These are all worthwhile causes. However, one thing is certain: Russia is a paper tiger. Despite the larger-than-expected numbers likely to be involved in Zapad, the fact remains that these forces are far from the size needed to attack a full on NATO member state—whether it be Estonia or Poland or any other NATO member. However weak America and NATO’s position may seem today, Putin will still not risk pushing too far into NATO-protected states, if only because he doubts his ability to counteract a NATO response (short of nuclear warfare).

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Don’t be fooled: those Western observers freaking out over Zapad-17 are being governed by a false impression of Russia rather than the real image of present-day Russia. These analysts likely dream of a Russia that once was in order to justify their borderline Russophobia. There are also political motivations for many American analysts to hype the dangers surrounding Zapad-17—notably justifying the ill-advised recent spate of sanctions, as well as keeping internal political pressure on President Trump for partisan purposes. Like it or not, President Trump campaigned on the concept of crafting healthier and more stable relations with Russia. Important elements within America’s foreign policy community are rabidly opposed to such a move. While caution when dealing with Russia is always warranted, such intense paranoia surrounding a declining power like the Russian Federation is simply bizarre.

Zapad-17 is yet another routine Russian military exercise. This is nothing new. Oh, sure, key equipment and tactics necessary for potentially fighting and defeating the West will tested here–but how is that any different from war games that the West conducts? Even the force level, while larger than the 13,000 troop cap, is still not all that impressive. Also, these exercises were planned well before the most recent wave of tension between the West and Russia. Western fears surrounding Zapad are all mirror-imaging and hype. So, on the question of Zapad-17, I answer nonchalantly: who cares? I certainly don’t. Neither should you.

Now is the time for Western intelligence collection to swing into full gear. This is not something to fear, but something to learn from. If Western intelligence agencies approach this exercise with a clear sense of proportion, they would likely be able to determine not only Russian intentions and capabilities quickly, but they would likely also  ascertain the fact that Russia, while a bothersome competitor, is not an existential threat. Or, possibly, they could determine when and if Russia really did plan on striking deeper into Eastern Europe. Regardless, fear and overreaction from the West is the absolute incorrect path to take.

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