Zapad 2017: be concerned, avoid panic

Zapad 2017 seems to be all the buzz this week in Washington, DC and many European capitals. To get the basics straight on this Russian military exercise and separate facts from the hype, the Free Russia Foundation sat down with Michael Kofman, the Senior Research Scientist at CNA and Fellow at the Wilson Center. Mr. Kofman, 35, served as a Russia military analyst at the U.S. Department of Defense for over 7 years, managed military to military programs, and participated in a number of U.S.-Russian military initiatives. He speaks Russian, understands Ukrainian, and his work involves frequent travel to the region.

Is Zapad-2017 different from previous exercises in this series?

Zapad 2017 is quite similar to other strategic exercises Russia has held, and will probably not differ markedly from the general scenario of Zapad 2013. The exercise itself, scheduled for September 14-20, will be similar to previous iterations in its duration and the two phases involved. The first phase simulates diversionary groups infiltrating Belarus from Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia in order to install a color revolution or destabilize the regime. In the second phase, the crisis becomes a more traditional conventional conflict with Russian forces training to respond to a coalition of NATO countries supported by the United States.

Although the exercise is only a week long, it is really the capstone to several months of snap readiness checks, drills, and other exercises conducted across Russia. Such drills will continue after Zapad’s conclusion, perhaps well into October and November. Hence Zapad is not one exercise but a series of numerous drills across Russia that are more representative of state mobilization against an existential threat rather than just the armed forces training for a geographically limited scenario.

Is the number of forces involved much higher than previously?

The number of actual forces involved is difficult to predict, and much depends on how you count. Base estimates indicate 65,000-70,000 troops involved in the Baltic and Nordic region. Those numbers include the 40,000 or so forces already based there such as 11th Army Corps Kaliningrad, 6th Combined Arms Army around St. Petersburg, or 76th VDV Airborne Division in Pskov. Beyond that, it is hard to say how many other units will be involved across Russia’s five military districts, and we should assume another

20,000 national guardsmen deployed across cities to train in suppressing protest movements. The total number of participants may prove quite conservative, but on the other hand, it may well exceed the numbers seen in previous exercises.

What’s the involvement of units from Chechnya?

More than likely little to none, with the exception of internal policing duties and training for suppression of protest movements or ‘diversionary groups.’

Why is this exercise conducted in Belarus?

Zapad, starting with the 1999 exercise, has traditionally been conducted jointly with Belarus since its principal focus is deterring an attack from NATO and defending Russia’s interests in maintaining the so-called Union State with Minsk.

Belarus is integral to Russia’s strategy of extended defense, maintaining buffer states between it and military or economic blocs. It is also a vital logistical corridor to Kaliningrad in any hypothetical fight with NATO.

Will Russia use this exercise to stage forces for invasion?

That’s highly unlikely, but large-scale exercises are always a time for prudent vigilance. The real period of danger is after the exercise not during, but more than likely all Russian forces involved will return promptly to their garrisons.

Should Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia or other neighbors be concerned about this exercise?

Concerned yes, alarmed no. Demonstrations of capability are always disconcerting because even if you know the adversary’s intent, it can change quite quickly. Hence understanding capability matters, and Russia certainly has the capability to be the first with the most on its borders, perhaps achieving overmatch in the initial phases of conflict. The exercise is actually an opportunity to better understand Russia’s capabilities and capacity to deploy forces to the region, offering lessons on the evolution of its military power and general purpose forces.

Will Russia demonstrate new capabilities or concepts of operations as part of this exercise?

Doubtfully new concepts, but rather test-drive and further refine existing doctrine, tactics, and operations. New capabilities will include electronic warfare, perhaps practice firing new generations of weapon systems, and testing out a host of command and control or communications equipment. The most consequential, and least exciting, is logistics, how large formations of Russian ground forces actually get into the theater and deploy across Belarus. This is both a test of logistical capability — in terms of bridging, engineering and the like — and transport capacity.

How should NATO respond to Zapad?

Maintain high readiness during the exercise, vigilance, and avoid sounding panicky or hysterical. The response thus far has been measured, but Russia has proven incredibly successful in the information domain, getting Western leaders to cry wolf with worrying statements. The best response is to not give away Russia coercive power freely. It’s important to avoid coming off as the world’s most powerful and most panicky alliance.

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