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Mainstream, VOL LV No 45 New Delhi October 28, 2017

Russia’s Military Exercise ‘Zapad 2017’ is causing Heartburn in the West

Monday 30 October 2017

by R.G. Gidadhubli

Russia and Belarus have jointly conducted military exercises known as Zapad (West) 2017 running through from September 14 to 20, 2017, which was witnessed by the Russian President Vladimir Putin on September 18. Russia holds the military exercises every four years, rotating them with drills in three other parts of the country. The location of the Zapad 2017 exercise assumes geo-political significance since it is in the western region of Belarus which borders NATO members, namely, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, as well as Ukraine. It also includes the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, which lies between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea. In this military exercise 70 aircraft and up to 680 pieces of military hardware, including tanks, artillery units, and ships, were employed. Zapad 2017 held near the NATO’s eastern flank has fanned already deep tensions between Moscow and the West. Being aware of this fact the Chief of Russia’s Armed Forces General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, during his meeting with the chairman of the NATO military committee, Petr Pavel, held on September 7, reassured him that the joint military exercises with Belarus were “long-planned and defensive” and “not aimed against any third country”.

Notwithstanding assurances given by Russia, the Zapad 2017 military exercise has caused heartburn to many Western countries, particularly the NATO allies. Several Western military and political leaders have expressed concerns about Russia’s massive military manoeuvres. Firstly, the General Petr Pavel, the chief of the NATO’s Military Committee, stated on September 16, that the manoeuvres could lead “to unintended consequences of potential incidents during the exercise.”

Hence he was candid in making a strategic statement: “We have high concentration of troops in the Baltics. We have a high concentration of troops in the Black Sea and the potential for an incident may be quite high because of a human mistake, because of a technology failure.”

Secondly, while addressing the BBC on September 10 on Zapad 2017, the NATO alliance’s Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg, called on Russia to be “fully transparent” which is understandable and at the same time accused that Russia has a history of “under-reporting” the number of troops in its exercises and “using loopholes in international agreements to avoid international observation”. Moreover, he was even candid in stating that military exercises could be used as a disguise or a precursor for aggressive military actions against their neighbours linking it to Russia’s alleged invasion of Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014. But this is not logical because unlike in the present context, Russia did not declare to the world nor invited observers while undertaking and frankly justifying its military actions both in Georgia and Crimea.

Thirdly, Stoltenberg has been critical of Russia and candid in his statement to the Associated Press that while the NATO routinely invited Russia to watch its war games as a confidence-building measure, “Russia has never, since the end of the Cold War, invited any NATO ally to observe any of their exercises”. Hence possibly realising this fact Russia has rightly made a change and invited NATO observers so far as Zapad 2017 is concerned. Moreover, observers from the Baltic states were also invited.

Fourthly, speaking on September 7 in the Estonian capital, Tallinn, the French and German Defence Ministers condemned the Zapad 2017 exercises, saying Moscow was seeking to show off its military might on the borders of the EU and NATO. Moreover, they accused Russia that this act was a demonstration of capabilities and power and a strategy of intimidation. Similarly, the British Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, has contended that Russia’s military manoeuvres with Belarus are aimed at “provoking” the NATO and “testing” its defenses.

Apart from the West European countries, Russia’s former close Warsaw Pact allies have expressed their strategic concern about this exercise. For instance, Poland’s National Security Bureau head, Pawel Soloch, has been critical in stating that the exercises are a demonstration “of the Russian state’s capacity to hold full-scale war action”. Similarly, the Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko’s foreign policy adviser, Kostiantyn Yeliseyev, said on September 14 that Zapad 2017 is “very dangerous since they are taking place just near the border with Ukraine”. He even accused that Russia might “keep as long as possible Russian military troops and weaponry near the [Ukrainian] border and then use them as a platform for a possible future offensive operation”.

Hence to counter these misgivings Russia’s Deputy Defence Minister, Aleksandr Fomin, asserted that Western politicians and media outlets have been “spreading myths about a Russian threat” in connection with the exercises, but that “none of these paradoxical theories has anything in common with the reality”. Moreover Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov accused the West of “whipping up hysteria” over the Zapad military exercises.

Fifthly, NATO member-states have taken steps to reassure their citizens and have demonstrated by taking Russia’s military exercises seriously. For instance, as per reports the US Air Force fighter jets are now patrolling the Baltic airspace. Poland is closing its airspace near Russia’s Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad and four NATO battle groups are keeping 4500 troops on alert in the Baltic region and Poland. The United States on August 29, 2017 sent additional jet fighters to patrol the skies over the Baltic states.

Instead of accusing Russia, as rightly opined by some Western analysts, including Rikard Jozwiak who covers the European Union and NATO, Zapad 2017 is actually a very good opportunity for the NATO to get a better sense of what the Russian military is actually capable of, how it can handle logistics, move different units and exercise command and control over combined armed formations in the Baltic theater. This is because this is one of the largest exercises Moscow has conducted on its western borders since the Cold War.

Sixthly, the contention of the West is that the numbers of the participating Russian forces in the Zapad exercise would be more than 100,000. This may not be correct since as per the statement by Russia and Belarus the Zapad manoeuvres involve 12,700 troops comprising 7200 from Russia and 5500 from Belarus. Under the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) rules, known as the Vienna Document, states conducting manoeuvres involving more than 13,000 troops must notify other countries in advance and be open to observers. Hence Russia has rightly claimed that it is fully abiding by this rule.

Seventhly, Russia has invited observers from the West and NATO, which is an indication that this is a routine and open exercise. In spite of this some section of Western political leaders and analysts are skeptical about it and accusing that Russia is threatening its neighbouring countries. It is important to note that the NATO has sent three observers to Belarus and Russia to monitor Zapad, but in spite of this it has repeatedly called on the two countries to allow broader monitoring of the drills. On this issue the Russian state-run TASS news agency reported on September 16 that observers from seven countries had arrived in Belarus to monitor the exercise. Moreover, Belarusian Defence Ministry spokesman Uladzimer Makarau has stated that Belarus has invited representatives from Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Ukraine, Sweden, and Estonia to monitor the joint strategic exercise. In spite of this Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite was among those who voiced alarm about the exercises, labelling them as a sign that Russia is preparing for a serious conflict with the NATO.

Eighthly, the West often adopts double standards while dealing with Russia. This is evident from the fact that while criticising Russia for Zapad 2017, NATO allies with more than 1800 troops from 14 countries are taking part in US-led military drills near the western Ukrainian city of Yavoriv. In fact these Rapid Trident exercises are held each year since 1996; began on September 8 and will end up on September 23. These two-week drills are designed to test and build Ukraine’s interoperability with its NATO allies and partners.

Thus in conclusion it is evident that the Russian Defence Minister not only gave assurances that Zapad 2017 is a regular and routine military exercise not against any country but also invited observers from NATO and Baltic states. In spite of that officials of the NATO and Western European and Baltic countries have accused Russia that this military exercise causes a threat to their security.

Moreover, the consequences of Zapad 2017 are evident. Already strained relations between Russia and its neighbours might become worse. This is evident from the fact that Estonia has barred three Russian journalists from covering an EU meeting in Tallinn held in September accusing them of being guilty of “subversive activities”, which seems to be far from the reality since the OSCE has suggested to the Estonian Government to reverse its decision. Russia’s relations with Ukraine, which are badly affected since 2014 due to the Crimean issue, might aggravate due to this military exercise.

Dr R.G. Gidadhubli is a Professor and former Director, Centre for Central Eurasian Studies, University of Mumbai.

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