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.
Vladimir Putin is not taking the possibility of fresh US sanctions lightly. With sanctions legislation aimed at Russia about to land on President Trump’s desk, the Russian leader understands perfectly well that Trump is not going to veto the bill and send it back to the House. The legislation will be signed and a new round of US sanctions against Russia will be set in place. Putin has opted to retaliate before the legislation is even signed, and to do so in a fashion which guarantees a US response.
On Sunday Putin announced that the US diplomatic mission to Russia will have to reduce its staff by 755 personnel by 1 September. The reduction in US staff had been announced on Friday, however, today’s announcement was the first to include concrete numbers. Russia also made it known that it would seize two US diplomatic properties in Russia, a move similar to action the US took against Russian properties in America this past December. Putin also added, somewhat ominously, that further retaliation will come if the sanctions are passed.
Since January, the Trump administration and its Russian counterparts had been hoping for an improvement in US-Russia relations. It was not to be following accusations that Russia had interfered in the 2016 US presidential election. The accusations have contributed directly to the creation of sanctions and a straining of the relationship between Moscow and Washington. Now, the tit-for-tat exchange is on the verge of escalating. President Trump could very well decide to let these sanctions act as the US response to Sunday’s announcement by Putin. Yet, if further action is taken by Russia, it will result in a proportionate response by the US. If this keeps up into the fall, the United States and Russia might find themselves in a nasty diplomatic scrap, with very few exit options.
*Author’s note: Regrettably, Today’s Dirt will not be posting Part II of the ‘The Case For Military Action Against North Korea.’ My employer has requested that I refrain from writing and posting any articles centered on North Korea and potential US military action against it for a period of time given what is happening right now. I understand the reasons for my employer to ask this of me, and have agreed. After Labor Day, we will revisit the issue and hopefully can work something out. I apologize. *
France and Germany are calling for a ceasefire in the eastern Ukraine as fighting has flared up in the region this month. Following a conference call between French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and the leaders of Ukraine and Russia, the two Western leaders released a statement calling for both sides to withdraw their forces from the disputed areas in the east. They also warned of an impending humanitarian catastrophe if conditions do not change soon. The German government claimed on Monday night that the four parties have agreed on a number of “immediate measures” in the conflict. If this translates to concrete action on the ground or not remains to be seen.
Fighting in the Ukraine conflict historically reaches a peak in ceasefire violations around late July and early August. This year appears to be no exception. In addition to the ceasefire violations, Kiev is claiming that additional Russian forces are arriving on its border. Ukrainian Chief of General Staff Viktor Muzhenko stated that Ukrainian forces have observed new activity on the Russian side of the border. Like the annual upsurge in fighting, Russian military activity near the border at this time of the year is nothing new.
The United States, by design, as well as coincidence, is playing a much more active role in this year’s Ukraine summer drama. The House is about to pass a new bill that will place many new sanctions on Russia for everything from its annexation of Crimea in 20014 to its attempts to influence the 2016 US presidential election. At the same time, the new US envoy to the Ukraine Kurt Volker indicated that the White House is pondering sending arms to Kiev to increase the defensive capabilities of Ukrainian forces fighting in the east. As Russia has been openly sending weapons, and troops to assist the separatists fighting in the east, similar US assistance for Kiev is a balanced response. Volker does not believe Moscow would view the move as a provocation. The Obama administration had limited US assistance to non-lethal military aid, which translated mainly to training, and the replenishment of non-lethal supplies like MREs, and medical equipment. The Trump administration seems ready to change that dynamic.
*Authors note: Part 2 of the Case for Military Action Against North Korea will be posted on 1 August. I have not forgotten. 😊*
Out of the meeting between President Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin at the G20 Summit in Hamburg has come a somewhat unexpected brood: An agreement on a ceasefire in southern Syria. The ceasefire has come out of concerns about fighting spilling over Syria’s southern border with Jordan and Israel. Those two countries have been particularly alarmed over the expanding Iranian presence and involvement in the area. Jordan has been closely involved the negotiations geared towards bringing this deal to reality, which had been underway for some time before the final product was realized in Hamburg.
The parties involved in the ceasefire need to keep in mind that Syria has become a graveyard of ceasefire efforts in recent years. More than one has died shortly after being put into effect, largely because of outlawed factions such as Al Qaeda not going along with an agreement’s terms and deliberately disrupting it. Other times extraneous ceasefire terms were used by Russia to goad the pro-Western rebel groups into behavior that violated the said ceasefire.
There are still many questions that need to be answered about this one. This ceasefire is set to go into effect on Sunday at noon, Syrian time. It is unclear exactly what the enforcement guidelines will be, or who will be enforcing the terms. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insisted that Russian military police will be the enforcers, however, US and Jordanian diplomats have disputed that, saying the issue has not yet been decided.
There is no predicting if this latest ceasefire will hold, though it does have some advantages that its predecessors did not. Foremost is that it mostly affects an area that is not the heart of the conflict. Southwestern Syria has experienced significantly less fighting than other parts of the country. A second leverage is the significance this ceasefire will have for Syria’s neighbors. This agreement is not just aimed at stopping a conflict between dueling Syrian groups. Jordan, and Israel stake a major claim in this ceasefire since it helps secure their borders with Syria. This point may help give the ceasefire added strength that its predecessors lacked.
In any event, this is a positive step forward to a more concrete agreement in the future. With the exception of perhaps the Syrian government, every other party involved in the Syrian conflict has grown weary of the fighting. ISIS now on the ropes, and the time has come for the major powers involved to take a hard look at the potential shapes a post-ISIS Syria can take.