Western Anxiety Over Zapad 2017 — Justified or Not?
BERLIN — Next week, Russia will launch a large-scale military exercise. Titled Zapad (West), these war games take place every four years. They typically assume a NATO attack on Russia’s ally Belarus, and they train the militaries of both countries to repel such an attack. The core components of the exercises take place in Belarus, adjacent Russian territory, and the Kaliningrad region, but they can reach far beyond that area. Yet, throughout the long history of these maneuvers, rarely has there been as much Western and regional anxiety as in the run-up to this year’s edition. Just why exactly does Zapad 2017 elicit so much concern?
For months now, NATO leaders, militaries, and experts have debated the upcoming exercise. They, and their non-Russian neighbors to the East, have cited a host of good reasons why the West should take Zapad 2017 very seriously. First, recent history has repeatedly shown that such military exercises can be used by the Kremlin to prepare its next aggression against a neighbor, as with Georgia in 2008 or Ukraine in 2014. Second, such exercises provide a cover for Russia to move equipment, and an opportunity to train the reconstituted forces in its Western military district, both of which significantly alter the military constellation along NATO's Eastern Flank.
Third, Zapad takes place on either side of one of NATO's most neuralgic points: the Suwalki gap, a narrow land corridor that connects the Baltic states with their NATO Allies, and that is flanked by Russia's Kaliningrad region and Belarus. Imagining that Russia might sever this critical cord is a nightmare scenario for many in NATO. Fourth, like previous exercises, Zapad 2017 implies possible retaliation against NATO and military conflict on the territory of its allies as Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia are, in the war game’s scenario, sources of aggression against Belarus and Russia.
Fifth, there has been intense speculation whether or not Russia's Vladimir Putin may use the Zapad exercise to reign in his unruly partner, Belarus' Alexander Lukashenka, at gunpoint, leaving behind a Russian military presence that Belarus has so far rejected, or even annex Belarus altogether. Sixth, such a stronger Russian military presence in Belarus would also pose an additional threat to Ukraine, adding a Northern vector to the Eastern and Southern ones that Russia has already exploited for annexing Crimea and invading Donbass.
Finally, NATO–Russia relations are clearly at their tensest since the Cold War. Many of the political and military, regular and direct contacts that normally serve to avoid misunderstandings, accidents, and escalation have been frozen in the last years. This naturally makes a massive exercise like Zapad particularly dangerous.
Each of these aspects is a major problem on its own. Their combination, however, is what has NATO Allies so rattled this time. The bigger question, is whether and how NATO can effectively respond to these various threats emanating from Zapad 2017.
From what is known so far, its basic scenario posits that the West escalates conflict with Belarus and Russia on ethnic, religious, and historical grounds, and moves to establish a separatist state on the territory of Belarus, an entity called Veyshnoria. Obviously, NATO has no such plan, but tellingly this scenario is the exact mirror image of Russian actions in Eastern Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova. Psychological projection aside, why is the Kremlin entertaining such a scenario?
One (offensive) option is that Moscow acknowledges that its actions in Donbass, in particular, were a failure and that it needs to retool itself before it can hope to stage such aggressions against neighbors, whether Ukraine or others, with greater success. Another (defensive) option is that Russia, and Belarus, really believe that they are at risk of Western-made separatism that they need to avert. Regional movements for greater autonomy certainly exist in Russia (though not in Belarus), and they may well gain strength as Russia's political, economic, and social situation deteriorates. Zapad, then, serves the dual purpose of scapegoating the West and preparing the Russian military and security apparatus to crack down on such movements.
Yet another, if very unlikely, option is that Russia is entertaining the idea of rousing separatism in the Baltic states. With all three of them NATO members, this is the only scenario that the Alliance really can and should prepare for. In this direction, NATO has obviously taken a number of steps. One is that its forward presence in the Baltic states and Poland is now fully operational. The multinational battalion battle groups are an effective trip wire, though not a full defense. Another is that NATO and individual member states have developed a strong sensitivity for elements of hybrid warfare that come with the Zapad scenario, and the Baltic states especially have spearheaded various direct measures to counter hybrid threats.
Furthermore, individual NATO members, including the United States, will deploy additional aircraft and resources to the region during the Zapad exercises. Ideally, these and a broader focus on the region would last beyond the Russian war games. Finally, NATO and individual Allies will send observers to the upcoming maneuver. This provides, however limited, opportunities for Western learning about Russian intentions and capabilities. Exploiting these to the maximum will be the best alternative to the hype and anxiety over Zapad 2017 that has seized all too many in the West.
This article is based on an earlier interview for Visegrad Insight.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.