With the large scale Russian military exercise Zapad 17 scheduled to begin this September in Belarus, the level of tension associated with this year’s maneuvers is significantly higher than it was during the previous Zapad exercise. To be frank, Russian exercises of this magnitude have always caused a certain degree of concern in NATO, largely because of the close similarities between preparations for a large exercise, and preparations for war. This year, the concerns of NATO members transcend the possibility that Zapad could be a cover for the start of hostilities and focus on whether or not Zapad 17 will mark the beginning of a permanent Russian military presence in Belarus.
The joint Russian-Belarus exercise will include over 100,000 troops, hundreds of tanks and other armored vehicles, air defense assets, elements of the Russian Navy, and a large number of combat aircraft. Plans for the use of 4,000 railway cars and carriages to move Russian troops and equipment into Belarus has raised eyebrows among many Western observers. The scenario for Zapad 17, according to sources in the Defense Ministry of Belarus, will center on a situation that will mirror NATO’s eastward expansion into the traditional Russian sphere of influence.
Thus far, Russia has revealed no specific details about September’s exercise. Moscow’s preference appears to be publicly regarding Zapad 17 as a limited exercise. The same was done when the last Zapad was held in 2013 although the number of troops involved was far greater than what Moscow initially announced. Also, expect lessons learned by Russian forces fighting in Syria to be incorporated into the new tactics that will be evaluated. This refers in large part to air defenses. There has been considerable suspicion in Western military circles that the Russian SAM sites in Syria had difficulty detecting the US Tomahawk cruise missiles that were launched during the April strike on a Syrian airfield. High level sources in the Pentagon have pointed to credible post-strike intelligence obtained by a friendly nation in the region (Israel most likely) as the basis for this notion.
As preparations for Zapad ramp up in the east, the United States is weighing whether or not to deploy Patriot missiles to the Baltics as part of an air defense exercise set for July, 2017. The Patriots would be gone by the scheduled start of the Russian-Belarussian war game, but their appearance will undoubtedly serve as a message to Moscow that the US and NATO will be monitoring Zapad-17, and subsequent Russian military moves in the region carefully.