With its exercise Zapad (West) 2017, Russia may be sending a signal to Europe and the United States, although there is debate as to what this signal may be. The exercise is also a lesson in ‘not-so-soft power’ for Moscow's near abroad.

By Douglas Barrie, Senior Fellow for Military Aerospace, and Bastian Giegerich, Director of Defence and Military Analysis

Belarus, Russia's titular partner in Zapad 2017, straddles the fault line between Moscow and NATO. Irrespective of the idiosyncratic and quasi-democratic nature of President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime, it has tried to walk a path independent of its larger neighbour. But Zapad 2017, inadvertently or deliberately, is indicative of what could happen were Minsk to stray too far over Moscow's line.

The scenario for the 14–20 September exercise is the attempted overthrow of the Belarusian government by internal armed opposition, supported by an external state actor. The Russian exclave of Kaliningrad is also the target of extremist groups in the scenario. The Belarusian regime turns to Russia for support, and Moscow comes to its aid. Any resemblance to actual events is, of course, probably deliberate, with only the conclusion revised. Unlike the colour revolution in Ukraine, in this scenario the Russian armed forces arrive to support the regime, rather than the regime's leader fleeing to Moscow.

Zapad 2017 has also become a vehicle onto which European nations have loaded their wider concerns and fears over Russian foreign policy and military intentions. These worries are not eased by Russia's evasiveness regarding the overall scale of the exercise. While in narrow terms Zapad 2017 stays below the 13,000-troop threshold of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE’s) 2011 Vienna Document, a level that would trigger mandatory invitations to international observers, a series of events in the run up to the final exercise involving Belarusian and Russian forces increases substantially the number of overall participants. Furthermore, some of the personnel involved in Zapad 2017 might not be military, and therefore not included in the total numbers, even though they might perform military-type tasks during the exercise (in particular, in hybrid-threat scenarios). If joined up, the overall scope and the number of participants is far greater than the OSCE threshold.

According to the Russian defence ministry, the Belarusian military ranges being used in Zapad 2017 will be those at Borisovsky, Lepelsky, Losvido and Osipobichsky. The air and air-defence ranges at Domanovo and Ruzhanksy will also be used, as will an area around the village of Dretun. The land ranges are notable for being some distance from Belarus’s western border.

Command-post exercises began in March in Moscow, followed by regional and Russian Western Military District events in Minsk and St. Petersburg respectively. Elsewhere, there were command-post exercises involving air-force and air-defence forces personnel, as well as flying and live-firing exercises. Surface-to-air missile (SAM) units from both countries recently conducted firing exercises using the range at Ashuluk in Russia, likely with S-300 (SA-10 Grumble/SA-20 Gargoyle) and S-400 (SA-21 Growler) long-range SAM systems.

The Ashuluk range was also used in August by a missile unit from Russia’s Southern Military District carrying out firing exercises with the 9K720 Iskander-M (SS-26 Stone). The system’s standard short-range ballistic missile and the more recently introduced 9M728 (SSC-7) short-range cruise missile that is now part of Iskander-M were both used. The Southern Military District Iskander-M unit reportedly relocated over 500km as part of the firing exercise. Indeed, given its size, to be military effective in its near abroad Russia needs to flex and rapidly deploy its forces over considerable distances. 

Russia's Baltic Fleet will also be involved in Zapad 2017, simulating a blockade of the operational area and ‘to cut off escape routes’, according to a briefing by the Russian defence ministry on 29 August. This kind of activity is not reassuring to NATO's Baltic states.

In its briefing, the Russian defence ministry characterised the Zapad 2017 scenario as a ‘simulated one … not tied to a particular region’. It went on to say that ‘according to assessments it [the scenario portrayed] could break out anywhere in the world’. The political and military importance of the near abroad in Moscow's world view, nonetheless, imbues Zapad 2017 with significance unlikely to be missed by several of those nation states with which Russia shares a border.

This analysis originally featured on the Military Balance+, the new IISS online database that enables users in government, the armed forces and the private sector, as well as academia and the media, to make faster and better-informed decisions. The Military Balance+ allows users to customise, view, compare and download data instantly, anywhere, anytime.

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