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.
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.
Amid the swirling tensions and subdued game of brinkmanship being played between NATO and Russia in Eastern Europe, the Baltic Republics are urging the United States and NATO to put more security measures into effect ahead of Zapad 17, a major Russian military exercise scheduled to take place in the region this coming September. The exercise will place a large number of Russian combat units in close proximity to the borders of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Although the exercise is seven months away the Baltic defense ministers and general officers are growing increasingly leery over the prospect of Zapad 17 worsening an already tense, and unpredictable situation. Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite has called the exercise a “demonstrative preparation for war with the West,” highlighting a growing level of concern in the region over the exercise.
Exercises like the Zapad series are large scale strategic exercises carried out periodically to test the ability of the Russian military to operate jointly under realistic conditions in a simulated wartime environment. They generally take place every two years or so and serve as a litmus test to gauge the proficiency of Russia’s armed services. Zapad and other strategic exercises like it are not a recent trend for NATO to contend with. They’ve been held since the days of the Cold War and Soviet Union and even back in the 70s and 80s caused headaches and anxiety for NATO. There was always a concern in those days about Soviet strategic exercise taking place in East Germany and Eastern Europe. Namely, the possibility that one could potentially serve as cover for the build-up of forces needed to launch an invasion of West Germany.
The concern was plausible during the Cold War and still is today. The conduct of forces involved in preparing for a Zapad-like exercise mirrors that of forces preparing to launch offensive operations. A tank regiment moves towards its simulated objectives placed in relative close proximity to the Belarussian-Lithuanian border ostensibly as part of an exercise. Only instead of turning north off of the M7 highway, the formation continues northeast towards the nearby Lithuanian border and Vilnus. Highly unlikely, but still within the realm of possibility.
To the average European or American citizen, the Baltics are not quite a powder keg and thus Zapad-17 is hardly an errant spark. The average Lithuanian or Estonian politician may see things differently, however, and at the moment it is their opinions and views which are driving the situation for the moment.