Beyond Zapad 2017: Russia's Destabilizing Approach to Military Exercises
The world can be relieved that Russia did not use this fall’s Zapad 2017 military exercise as a pretext for aggression or to permanently base troops in Belarus, as many analysts feared before the event. Much has been written about the exercise, most of it focusing on competing claims regarding its size and purpose. What has received less attention is a more fundamental and longer-term concern: the way Zapad fits a longstanding pattern of non-transparent Russian military exercises that destabilize regional security by seeking to dodge confidence-building commitments Moscow has made in Europe.
Western concerns about the possible size and purpose of Zapad 2017 were a direct consequence of Russia’s consistent lack of transparency regarding its military activities over the last several years. Russia has consistently under-reported the numbers of troops involved in its exercises to avoid outside observation, and has conducted large no-notice “snap” exercises to test Western responses to unexpected troop activity. This behavior, coupled with Russia’s actions against Ukraine in 2014 and Georgia in 2008, contributes to the perception that Russia is prepared to use military force again against its neighbors and shows that it feels little obligation to play by the rules it has agreed to.