Foreign Policy Research Institute

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Foreign Policy Research Institute

tel. +38 (044) 287 52 58

INTERNATIONAL WEEKLY № 13 (1.09.2017 – 18.09.2017)

‘Zapad-2017’ (‘West – 2017’) – regular military exercises or real military threat?

During several months, the attention of the North Atlantic Alliance was focused on the joint Russian-Belarusian exercises ‘Zapad-2017’. NATO was concerned of a large-scale exercises and their unpredictability, since they are undergoing in qualitatively new geopolitical conditions. In addition, training is conducted near the borders of several NATO member states. According to the Belarusian Ministry of Defense the exercises will be held at 7 proving ground and two separate areas, 10,200 military personnel will be trained, 7,000 of which will be from Belarusian units, 3,000 from Russian [1].

Earlier, Russian-Belarusian side declared that exercises have exclusively defensive character and that 12.7 thousand troops would participate. Russia has placed a significant amount of military equipment on the territory of Belarus, and as some experts point out, not only on the territory of joint exercises. Russia and Belarus have limited the of international observers in number and their mobility. All this testifies not only to the defensive character of the exercises but also offensive. Moreover, as the past experience shows after conducting similar exercises in 2013, Russia began occupation of Ukraine.

About the fact that the exercises ‘Zapad – 2017’ will be attended by more than 100 thousand troops said the German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen at a meeting with her colleagues from the EU in Tallinn. The spokeswoman of the Ministry later commented that such assessments are carried out in the NATO circles, as well as the results of observations carried out by neighboring countries [2].

For example, in early May, the commander of the Russian Baltic Navy, Vice Admiral Alexander Nosatov, said that the entire Baltic Navy will be involve in the exercise – practically all the subdivisions of the naval, land and aviation components. But officially in the ‘Zapad – 2017’ will be involved only 10 ships [2].

Before the start of the Russian-Belarusian military exercises, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg made a number of statements where he not unreasonably criticizes Moscow for the lack of openness of the exercises. As is known, only three NATO representatives are observe the exercises. Russia invited observers only to the so-called ‘visitor's day’, Belarus in its turn allowed five ‘visitor days’, but the movement of observers on these days will be limited [3].

Speaking during his visit to Estonia, Stoltenberg said that the presence of the North Atlantic Alliance troops in the Baltics send a clear message to Moscow that an attack on one NATO ally will trigger a response from the whole Alliance. ‘We will follow closely the Zapad exercise, we will monitor the activities and we are vigilant but also calm because we don’t see any imminent threat against any NATO Ally’, the Secretary General  has said. [3]

Stoltenberg also said that Russia prevented the proper international observation of military exercises ‘Zapad – 2017’ and called on Russia to adhere to international obligations. In particular, the Secretary emphasized: ‘This is important because with increased military activity near our borders, we need more transparency, predictability, and, of course, we need to prevent incidents, and if they have already happened, then prevent them from getting out of control’ [4].

The Deputy Head of the Executive Council of the Euro-Atlantic Partnership in Warsaw, former Polish ambassador to NATO, Jerzy Maria Nowak, said: ‘NATO critically assesses the scale, size, unpredictability, lack of transparency in the Russian-Belarusian actions, but we expect that Russia will not go to any provocations. Undoubtedly, this is an element of political pressure on the eastern flank of NATO and Ukraine, which is unacceptable’. A strategic problem for the region he calls a fact that Russia has three times more military potential than Eastern European countries, including Ukraine. However, if we compare the capabilities of the Russian army with NATO in general, then the advantage of the Alliance is obvious – 4-6 times [5].

NATO is fully realized the possibility of provocations from the Russian side, and has already strengthened its eastern side. NATO Alliance deployed 4 battalion combat groups, a total of almost 4500 troops, in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, in order to assure these countries in support of increasingly aggressive Russian actions after the Ukrainian Crimean occupation and aggression in the East of Ukraine [1]. In the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted that the country's armed forces constantly work with allies to secure the region, focusing on any possible incidents or provocations [6].

Obviously, with this exercises, the Kremlin wants to intimidate NATO countries, showing its their power and strength. By conducting such large-scale military exercises as the ‘Zapad – 2017’, Russia draws Belarus into its hybrid war against NATO, the EU and Ukraine, and thus creates a springboard for attack. Obviously, with such exercises, Moscow is working out a possible attack on NATO countries. However, most likely, Russia will not dare to openly violate the borders of NATO, because understands the determination and consolidation of the Alliance's forces, but can resort to provocations. Another issue worried by the Alliance is whether Russia will withdraw its military equipment and Russian troops from Belarus after the exercises, is it possible after September 20 that "green men" will appear in Belarus, as it happened in Crimea in due time.