With Zapad 17 having officially ended and the withdrawal of Russian forces from Belarus ostensibly complete, NATO intelligence officers will be spending the next few weeks analyzing the major exercise and drawing conclusions from it. One of the concerns prevalent in NATO circles prior to Zapad was whether or not all of the participating Russian military units would depart Belarus once the exercise ended. Aware of this unease, Moscow transformed the departure of Russian combat aircraft from Belarussian airbases and their arrival back in Russia into a media event of sorts. On the surface, the move was conducted to minimize the NATO concerns and assure neighboring nations that Russian forces were in fact returning to their home territory instead of remaining in of Belarus.
Despite Russia’s efforts, suspicions that all was not being revealed remained with a number of Western military officers and diplomats. While Russian fighters and bombers were heavily photographed and videoed leaving Bealrus, the same media attention was not afforded to ground forces supposedly also departing the country. A reason for this could be that not all of the Russia’s units are leaving Belarus, or at least not with the same amount of equipment and weapons they arrived with.
Ukraine’s Commander-in-Chief General Viktor Muzhenko expounded on these suspicions and worries when he alleged that a number of Russian troops had remained in Belarus following the end of Zapad. Muzhenko told Reuters that Russia did not withdraw all of its combat units, and misrepresented the actual number of troops that were involved in the exercise. Moscow had claimed that no more than 12,000 troops were taking place, however, estimates from other sources put the number at anywhere from 70,000 to 110,000.
Moscow wasted little time in responding to Muzhenko’s allegations. A press conference was hastily laid on and a spokesman for the Ministry of Defense vehemently denied there are any Russia troops still inside of Belarus. According to the spokesman, the last train carrying Russian soldiers and equipment departed Belarus on 28 September. The press conference, and the official reaction of the Russian government, was widely covered by the state media.
On the other side of the coin, Polish defense minister Antoni Macierewicz has called for Muzhenko’s claims to be treated seriously, leaving the door open to closer NATO scrutiny of Russia’s actions and intentions in the aftermath of Zapad 17.
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.
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.
President Trump arrived in Hamburg a short while ago following a brief visit to Poland ahead of the G20 Summit scheduled to begin on 7 July in the northern German city. The president’s stay in Poland, while short, was productive and gave the world a preview of some talking points that he will likely bring up with other world leaders during the G20. The Poland visit also afforded us a glimpse at the evolving Trump foreign policy platform, and the geopolitical priorities for the United States. For the moment, North Korea’s ballistic missile progress tops the list.
Trump delivered an address in Poland before departing for Hamburg. In it, he reaffirmed the US commitment to NATO, and Article 5 but added that Europe does need to do more. He also railed against threats from radical Islamic terrorism, to Russia, and North Korea. Overall, the president sought to highlight the common ground between the US and Europe as a prelude to the G20 where the reception he receives could be markedly different from the warm, sincere greetings he received in Poland.
While Hamburg won’t be a politically hostile environment altogether for Trump, the environment could be rather chilly. Angela Merkel might be looking to seize the moment in Hamburg and attempt an ambush on him. With the EU locked in a dispute with Poland right now, the president’s visit there has undoubtedly ruffled some feathers in Brussels. Merkel, who’s personality differences with the American leader seem to be affecting her policy positions, will have the opportunity to sit vis-à-vis at the same table and hold constructive discussions. Or harangue him incessantly, if she chooses that route.
While speaking of vis-à-vis encounters, Trump and Vladimir Putin will be meeting for the first time ever at the event. The president will be walking a tightrope of not wanting to appear soft on the man who is widely believed to have orchestrated an attempt to influence a US election. With that, along with the issues flaring up between the US and Russia, Trump should be polite, yet firm.
President Trump’s upcoming visit to Poland ahead of the G20 Summit in Hamburg has made some European leaders uneasy. President Trump will be meeting with his Polish counterpart Andrzej Duda, will deliver a major speech, and make an appearance at the Three Seas Initiative Summit. The visit comes at a particularly sensitive moment in Europe. Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic have been embroiled in a standoff with the European Union over the EU’s mandated refugee quotas. The worry in Brussels is what consequences Trump’s visit to Poland could bring. Particularly, there is a great deal of anxiety bordering on fear that Poles will regard Trump in their country as a sign of support for the embattled nation. Deepening instability could result from that right when the EU is desperately attempting to forge solidarity across the continent.
The Three Seas Initiative is seen by Brussels as a move by Poland to expand its geopolitical influence beyond the EU. A worst-case scenario for the EU would be the Three Seas Initiative evolving into a federation of Central-Eastern European nations in the future. A federation effectively led by Warsaw. The concept is not new. Plans for a federation along those lines was explored by Poland following the end of World War I. The blueprint failed when Russia, and many Western European nations opposed it. Duda has invested tireless effort into rekindling the project and is likely banking on Trump’s influence and power to help it get off the ground.
The immediate worry on the part of the EU is the chance that the Poles will be emboldened by Trump’s appearance and Warsaw’s defiance will increase. Geopolitically, Poland and the United States have been forging closer ties recently. The populist anti-liberal order bent of Duda’s nationalist conservative government ties in well with the general platform that drove Donald Trump to victory in the US presidential election last November. Birds of a feather do indeed flock together, especially in the high stakes world of global politics. What comes from the visit to Poland remains to be seen, but the fact that EU is reacting with increasing concern tells us that it does not expect the end result to be anything good.