After months of anxious speculation by Western politicians, general officers, and media outlets, the waiting is over. Zapad 17 is underway. Russia’s quadrennial strategic military exercise has attracted an overwhelming amount of scrutiny and attention. In light of past behavior on the part of Russia, some observers and analysts believe this exercise could be cover for a large scale Russian military action against NATO, or even against their erstwhile Belarussian allies. The 2008 Georgian invasion, and 2014 Crimean takeover were preceded by large scale military exercises. This fact is pointed to as cause to suspect Zapad 17 might be more than it appears. Other observers, politicians, and military officials suspect that Russia will use the exercise to permanently station large numbers of troops in Belarus, tilting the military balance in eastern and northern Europe in its favor.
Practically speaking, Zapad 17 is a preparation for war. After all, that is the point of a strategic exercise like this. In the absence of a hidden political agenda, the results of the exercise will be an indicator of the nation’s military capabilities and of vital importance to Moscow.
Zapad 17 will run from 14-20 September and involve units from every Russian service branch and military district. Moscow claims there are only 12,000 or so troops participating, however this number is deliberately false. In reality there are upwards of 100,000 personnel involved. Not admitting the true number is a deliberate attempt by Moscow to prevent Western observers from being allowed to monitor the exercise up close. Russia and NATO have previously agreed that exercises containing upwards of 30,000+ troops trigger an automatic attendance by observers from the other side. By cooking the numbers in this case, Russia is taking advantage of a loophole to keep as many prying eyes out of Belarus as possible.
As the week goes on and Zapad 17 unfolds, we’ll keep an eye on what is happening in and around Belarus and the Baltics.
With Zapad 17, the major Russian military exercise that has the Baltic states. and Eastern Europe on edge, set to begin in two weeks, US airpower is making an appearance in the region. NATO’s Baltic Air Police mission has just gone through a rotation of forces. Spanish F-18s and Polish F-16s, which have guarded the airspace of Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia over the summer of ’17 have been replaced by a contingent of 4 Belgian F-16s and 4 USAF F-15C Eagles. The Belgian -16s will be based at Amari Air Base in Estonia while the US fighters bed down at Šiauliai Air Base in Lithuania. The US will assume overall mission command for this BAP rotation, which will run from 30 August until late December, 2017 or early January, 2018. The US F-15s belong to the 493rd Fighter Squadron based at RAF Lakenheath. The squadron, like its parent unit the 48th Fighter Wing, is no stranger to deployments. Its aircraft have taken part in air policing rotations in the Baltic and Iceland in recent years.
With Zapad 17 coming closer, Russian air activity over the Baltic Sea has been increasing. The number of interceptions carried out by NATO over the summer was larger than it had been at the same time last year. Since the Russian annexation of Crimea, and the start of fighting in Ukraine, the Russian air force has kept NATO Baltic Air Police pilots on their toes. As tension goes, so does the number of interceptions. If the numbers lately are any indication, relations between NATO and Russia are anything but harmonious at the moment.
Monday’s collision between the USS John S. McCain and an oil tanker in Malacca Straits has to serve as a ‘Come to Jesus’ moment for the US Navy. Ten sailors are either dead or missing, a destroyer is damaged and will have to go into dry dock for extended repairs, and the service’s senior leadership needs to determine whether the seamanship skills of its sailors and officers are lacking. The Chief of Naval Operations has ordered an Operational Pause fleet wide as the investigation into what happened aboard McCain gets underway. Shortly after the incident rumors of cyber intrusion or sabotage possibly being the cause of the incident surfaced online. For the moment it does not appear that any sort of hacking played a role. Until the investigation is completed it will not be known for certain, however, for the moment this appears to be an accident and nothing more nefarious.
This marks the fourth major incident with a US warship in the Pacific this year. The destroyer Fitzgerald, McCain’s sister ship, collided with the merchant vessel ACX Crystal two months ago. Seven sailors were killed in the collision, and several other men were injured. Earlier in the year, the cruiser USS Antietam ran aground and spilled 1,100 gallons of hydraulic fluid in Tokyo Bay. In May, the cruiser USS Lake Champlain collided with a South Korean fishing boat with little damage inflicted to either ship. This incident was clearly the fault of the civilian boat and not the Lake Champlain’s.
The McCain collision comes at the worst possible time for the US Navy, and the 7th Fleet. The forward deployed fleet is now down two destroyers, and a cruiser at a time when its tensions are rising around its AOR and the tempo of operations is significantly higher than normal. 7th Fleet’s woes are symptoms of a larger problem that has been allowed to erode the US military’s capabilities in recent years. President Trump’s claims during the 2016 campaign that the US military’s needs were greatly neglected in the Obama years appear to have been accurate. Sequestration, high ops tempos, and an emphasis on non-operational priorities combined to place the services in a difficult position.
With uncertainty, and tensions dominating the world at the moment, the US military needs get its act together quickly. The enhanced defense budget will begin pumping money through the pipeline to the services, however, this is a problem that cannot be solved with money alone.
With Zapad 17 set to commence one month from tomorrow, the Russian and Belarusian militaries are at work laying the groundwork for the massive exercise. Advance parties from multiple Russian Army and Air Force units have begun arriving in Belarus to make necessary preparations for the surge of forces expected to begin moving into the country later in August. Exercise areas, and other facilities must be ready for the combat troops when they arrive. Activity at Belarusian rail depots close to the Russian border has also increased sharply in recent weeks. The equipment belonging to many Russian ground units will be coming into Belarus by way of rail and preparations for the logistics side of Zapad has to be ready to go by the end of the month at the latest.
The 4th Guards Tank Division advance party has been sighted in Slonim, a city in western Belarus that is home to a Belarusian mechanized infantry regiment. The large training areas outside of Slonim are expected to be a primary exercise area for Zapad 17 and the appearance of 4th Guards Tank Division troops in the area adds credibility to the assumption. Lida Air Base, located south of Lithuania, is also seeing an upswing in Russian activity. There has been a limited Russian Air Force presence at Lida since 2013. For a time, Russia was considering permanently basing fighters there until the Belarusian government denied the request. Advance parties, as well as a small number of fighters from two or more fighter squadrons, have landed at Lida since 1 August. More aircraft and personnel will begin streaming in as the month goes on.
With the growing Russian military presence around them, more and more Belarusians are becoming anxious about Zapad 17 and what will happen afterwards. The consensus is that not all of the Russian troops, weapons, and equipment will be returning home when the exercise is over. Instead, concern is growing that Russia will establish a permanent military force in Belarus which will serve to erode the Belarusian sovereignty and independence. The worst-case scenario some Belarusians see is an annexation of their homeland along the lines of what Russia did to the Crimea region in 2014.
It is somewhat ironic that many Belarus natives are nearly as concerned about Zapad 17 as some NATO military officers. In a little over one month, NATO and the people of Belarus will find out of their fears are justified or misplaced.
August is here and Zapad 17 is on the horizon. As it approaches, concern and speculation are beginning to grow at a faster pace within media, military, and geopolitical circles. Many non-military observers view Zapad as an intimidation weapon being wielded by Russian President Vladimir Putin while military analysts see it as essential training and cohesion to prepare Russian forces for potential future conflicts. Both groups are correct.
Some details that have been widely known about Zapad 17 since earlier in the year continue to hold true. The number of troops involved will be over 100,000 with the overwhelming majority of them being Russian, and most of the training will take place in Belarus. NATO has been invited to witness the exercise and will be sending roughly eighty observers to Belarus in September. Despite the invitation, many NATO countries are openly apprehensive about Zapad 17, especially the Baltic States and Poland.
More particulars about the exercise are becoming known through official Russian government outlets, and less frequently from NATO and US sources. Main elements of the recently reconstituted 1st Guards Tank Army will form the centerpiece of the exercise. This army was reformed in late 2014 after a sixteen-year period in decommission. Zapad 17 will be the first opportunity for the main combat elements of 1st Guards to work cohesively. Incorporating it into the exercise is also meant to serve as a message to the Baltics and Poland. 1st Guards has an extensive pedigree from serving on the Eastern Front in World War II, through to post-war occupation duty in Berlin, and later taking part in the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia to break the Prague Spring.
Preparations for the exercise are underway in earnest. Russia has requisitioned enough rail cars to transport 4,000 tanks and other pieces of heavy equipment to and from Belarus. By mid-August advance parties from many of the units scheduled to take part in Zapad will begin arriving in Belarus ahead of the main formations. The primary surge of Russian combat units into Belarus is expected to take place in late August and Early September. The exercise is scheduled to begin on 14 September, 2016 and run until the 20th.