Zapad 2017: Myth and Reality
The joint Belarusian-Russian strategic military exercise Zapad 2017 may have generated more international interest than any previous Russian exercise since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The context included the marked deterioration of Russian relations with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) caused by Moscow’s actions in Ukraine since February 2014, nervousness on both sides concerning planning and intentions, as well as continued disagreements across a broad swathe of issues. Post-exercise reporting in Russia has been relatively sober in assessing its outcome and possible lessons, while Western speculation has continued concerning whether Moscow left any troops behind in Belarus (Mil.ru, October 6). Indeed, the Russian perspectives on Zapad 2017 are in stark contrast to many of the themes that emerged in NATO countries, reflecting the chasm of difference in how the exercise is interpreted.
One of the distinctions in coverage observed in post-exercise Russian military media commentaries concerns the frenzy of speculation in NATO capitals about the possible scale of Russian military personnel deployed during Zapad 2017. Claims from Kyiv that the exercise numbers could even reach 200,000 or 300,000 were easily dismissed as hyperbole. Still, Western analysts and governments eagerly watched for signs of a covert Russian military presence in the aftermath of the exercise concluding. Some commentaries in Moscow noted the figures touted by the German government, and attacked such misinterpretations. The levels of concern and anxiety in European countries over the exercise were also highlighted by Moscow releasing figures on the spike in foreign reconnaissance flights near Russia’s borders during the exercise period (Izvestia, October 6; Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, September 22).
Prior to the exercise, Germany’s Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen publicly asserted that Russia would send up to 100,000 personnel to Zapad 2017. Although this also seems massively exaggerated, the official Russian defense ministry claim that it was meeting the standards set out by the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Vienna document by remaining below the 13,000 threshold are certainly false. Russian sources, however, stress that the German defense minister’s comments exemplified the West’s propensity to inflate the exercise numbers, fitting a pattern in NATO assertions about Zapad 2017 and castigating some of the claims made by Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, Commander US Army Europe. Leyen’s adherence to the 100,000 figure most likely seized on the number mentioned in her briefings as a possible uppermost scale of Russian involvement, and she chose to use this without regard to more conservative estimates. But in the Russian media coverage since Zapad 2017 ended on September 20, these instances provide grist to the mill for a narrative that there should have been no fuss from NATO over a standard and long-planned strategic exercise—with none of the scaremongering borne out by events (RIA Novosti, October 7).
Whatever concerns NATO and its member governments held about the exercise, it is clear that the Russian General Staff had entirely different priorities in conducting the drills. These covered a broad range of themes, ranging from utilizing a wide array of precision-strike systems to testing command and control, strategic mobility, interoperability with Belarus’ forces, air defense, and anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities. While some would argue the September maneuvers looked like “big war,” from a Russian perspective it was more about rehearsing conflict escalation control—that is, preventing a conflict on its periphery from escalating to a global war (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, September 27; Bmpd.livejournal.com, September 20; Krasnaya Zvezda, September 17).
One area that the General Staff paid close attention to was enhanced strategic mobility—which has in fact featured as an integral part of strategic-level exercises since the Armed Forces reforms were initiated in late 2008. General Staff interest in this area has further surged following Moscow’s intervention in Syria, which necessitated the construction of air and sea lines of supply to support Russian forces during ongoing combat operations. It has also grown in importance due to the downturn in relations with the North Atlantic Alliance; senior Russian officers appreciate that if conflict breaks out with NATO on Russia’s periphery, speed of action, moving combat units, and denying the arrival of enemy follow-on forces will shape the outcome. This interest is also organic in nature, stemming from the reform of the military logistics system in 2010 into the Materialno-Tekhnicheskogo Obespechenie (Material-Technical Support—MTO), with all its inherent complexities and its evolution into a more efficient combat support service. The system, using improvements drawing on experience from Syria, was tested last year, in the Kavkaz 2016 war game. Reportedly, the MTO was again tested during Zapad 2017, partly explaining the ordering of more than 4,000 train cars for the exercise (see EDM, September 13).
Zapad 2017 tried and tested the improvements to the MTO based on the experience of supporting operations in Syria and addressed some of the weaknesses identified during Kavkaz 2016. Reportedly, since Kavkaz 2016, a number of significant improvements have been introduced to facilitate faster and more efficient use of the MTO. These include, speeding up delivery of spare parts, improving interaction with the defense industry, and greatly aiding the speed of repair and maintenance for deployed units. This also involved linking the MTO to automated systems, using improved diagnostic tools to identify problems, and integrating the work of the MTO across strategic, operational and tactical levels (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, October 4).
Zapad 2017 failed to deliver the near-doomsday scenario offered by some NATO governments. However, beyond the mythology surrounding the exercise, it yielded an opportunity for Moscow to try out a whole variety of systems, test automated command and control, and rehearse the conduct of operations in an electromagnetically challenging operational environment. Many of these features will prove to be of lasting concern to NATO planners, but the testing and improvements in the capability of the MTO may also cause anxiety. Russia’s Armed Forces are becoming more professional and adroit in moving, supplying and maintaining forces in the field. And since any potential conflict with NATO would most likely occur on Russia’s periphery, the enhancement of speed of movement and supply should be a source of real concern for the transatlantic Alliance.