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.
Vladimir Putin would never allow a good crisis to go to waste, so it is no surprise to find him speaking his mind on the North Korean crisis. During the 2017 BRICS summit in Xiamen, China, the Russian leader took some time to speak about the simmering situation in northeast Asia. To be honest, Putin’s comments were not earthshattering by any means. He offered his opinion that economic sanctions are likely not going to persuade North Korea from dropping its nuclear weapons program, and championed diplomacy as the sole course of action left which can resolve the crisis peacefully. Putin also issued a frank, and somewhat dramatic warning that further escalation of the crisis could result in a “planetary catastrophe.” While his observations are not very insightful, they are more or less accurate. Sanctions will not do any more good and if this crisis continues to escalate it could result in the use of nuclear weapons, and a regional war that causes tens of thousands of deaths.
Putin’s words are not the result of newfound respect and concern for humanity. He did not wake up yesterday morning, hug a tree and suddenly decide that what the world needs now is love. Vladimir Putin is a man who rarely takes action or says something unless there is some benefit to be gained for him or his country.
In this case, the favor Putin’s words might bring about is more concentrated global attention on the North Korean situation just as Russian military forces are preparing to commence the large scale Zapad 17 maneuvers in Belarus. There has been considerable speculation about what will come from the exercises. Some Western observers are suspicious of Putin’s intentions, believing that when Zapad concludes, the Russians may not leave entirely. It could mark the beginning of a permanent major Russian military presence in Belarus, or perhaps a move of some sort in Ukraine, not necessarily a military one either.
If he does plan to take some sort of action during or after Zapad, the current North Korean crisis potentially provides him with perfect cover. Even though he is despised by many, Putin’s thoughts on North Korea will carry weight and cause politicians and media types to consider the crisis more carefully. As that is happening, the scrutiny that has been placed on Russia lately will dissipate briefly, giving Putin a potential window of opportunity. Perhaps he will make use of it, perhaps not.
Either way, the Russian president’s public statements about North Korea make it seem that he is considering the possibility at the very least.
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.
Earlier this week Lithuania took a major step towards reducing its energy dependence on Russia. On Monday, the first LNG (Liquid Natural Gas) shipment arrived from the United States, marking the first time an ex-Soviet state has purchased and imported US natural gas. The shipment is viewed as a symbolic economic, and geopolitical act. Economically, the shipment is proof of Lithuania’s wish to cut its reliance on Russia for most of its energy needs. Importing US natural gas now, as well as Norwegian gas, puts Moscow on notice that Vilnius has alternative sources of energy available.
Geopolitically, this shipment is a strong indication of the US-Lithuanian relationship, and the significance both sides put on these relations as the security situation in the Baltics remains fluid. Helping to diminish Europe’s reliance on Russian gas has become an important policy objective for the United States. In the weeks since President Trump’s visit to Warsaw and the G20 summit in Hamburg energy assistance for Eastern Europe and the Baltics has taken on a higher priority. The Trump administration is finally grasping the importance of energy geopolitics in the current chess match with Russia.
For the moment, US LNG imports are not a threat to Russia’s firm grip on Lithuanian energy markets. This year Gazprom, the Russian energy conglomerate, has regained half of Lithuania’s natural gas market. Until the numbers of LNG shipments from the US and other energy sources rises considerably, Russia can focus its attention on other aspects of the increasingly complex, and tense geopolitical landscape in the Baltics and Eastern Europe.