Bearing in mind the tense situation in Eastern Europe, where a pronounced deterioration of the security situation became noticeable starting in March 2014 as a result of the events in Ukraine and of subsequent events – the annexation of Crimea, NATO’s response by beefing-up its military deployments in the region in order to reassure allies and deter Russia –, it is natural that any military event taking place here would draw the tense scrutiny of the international public opinion. This also goes for the military exercise expected to take place on September 14-20 on the territory of Russia and Belarus, involving joint armed forces from the two states.
Dubbed ‘Zapad-2017’ (West-2017), and jointly prepared by the general staffs of the two countries that are joined by an act of political union, this exercise basically dates back from the Soviet era, resuming in 1999 after a period of interruption caused by the historical circumstances of the USSR’s collapse and taking place every four years (traditionally, the interval had been once every two years). As can be seen, ‘Zapad-17’ is the first military exercise of its kind taking place after 2014, hence after the moment of the significant deterioration of military relations between NATO and Russia in Eastern Europe, and also after the Russian intervention in Syria (September 2015), the Black Sea and the Straits being used to supply the Russian forces that operate in the Middle East. Undeniably, the changes to the military deployments of both NATO (this year, one allied battalion has been deployed to each of the Baltic States and a brigade has been deployed to Poland) and Russia in Eastern Europe have elevated the degree of interest with which this Russian-Belarussian military exercise is watched by allied states in the contact area (the Baltic States and Poland), but not only by them. Will this exercise mean – some commentators/observers wondered – a first stage of Russia’s possible new assertive burst in this part of the continent, after the one in Ukraine in 2014, hence masking an invasion, being known that, in historical practice, the invasion of Czechoslovakia for instance was a continuation of such an exercise organised by the Warsaw Pact in 1968? Or, as other experts wondered, will the troops deployed by Russia for these manoeuvres in Belarus, namely in the immediate proximity of NATO, be withdrawn after the conclusion of the exercise or will they stay for a longer time on the contact line? Or, on a different plane, extremely important, what is the value and especially the number of troops engaged in manoeuvres?
While several months ago the media had alarming news about the size of ‘Zapad-2017’ – the figure of 100,000 servicemen being presented, substantially contributing to the rise in regional tension, being known that international defence regulations agreed within the OSCE would thus be exceeded – the recent announcement made by the Russian Federation’s Deputy Defence Minister General A. Fomin suggests the real size of the exercise.
On 29 August 2017, at a press conference that was meant to be an example of transparency, he pointed out that “About 12,700 servicemen are planned to participate in the exercise (from the Armed Forces of the Republic of Belarus – about 7,2 thousand people, from the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation – about 5,5 thousand people, of them on the territory of the Republic Belarus – about 3 thousand people), about 70 aircraft and helicopters, up to 680 units of military equipment, including about 250 tanks, up to 200 guns, multiple rocket launchers and mortars, and 10 ships.” Hence within the regulations convened within the framework of the OSCE, the Russian Deputy Defence Minister pointing out at the same time that the other OSCE signatories have been informed and invited to send observers. Of course, based on past experience, it is particularly optimistic to expect the announced number of servicemen involved in the expected manoeuvres to match the real one. London-based Igor Sutyagin, expert on Russian military issues, told ‘The Guardian’ almost a month ago that “One hundred thousand is probably exaggerated but 18,000 is absolutely realistic,” based on the fact that NATO analysts consider that the 4,000 train cars ordered to take part in the expected manoeuvres and announced by the Russian side would amount to approximately 30,000 troops, the number of participating troops ranging from 18 to 30,000, along with their arms and equipment.
Other experts point out that, whether 18,000 or 30,000, this number does not consist solely of combat forces, most of them being combat service support troops. Such a characteristic would correspond to the tactic pursued by the Russian leadership, so as not to mass impressive elite forces on the NATO border, which would raise the suspicions of the U.S. and of NATO and would consequently result in countermeasures. At any rate, the number of forces taking part in ‘Zapad-2017’ is substantially low compared to the similar exercise in 2013 (70,000), not to mention similar exercises conducted on the western border of the USSR during the Soviet era. Consequently, the assessment is that the possibility that ‘Zapad-2017’ might be the prelude to the invasion of a NATO state is limited (U.S. Vice President M. Pence visited Estonia and Georgia several weeks ago, declaring the functionality of the U.S. commitment to the independence of these states and of regional states in general), the leader in the Kremlin being otherwise a realist. One of the observers of the events writes that: “There is still enough ambiguity on the part of the United States—particularly President Donald Trump—as to whether we’d risk full war with Russia to protect a NATO member from Russian annexation, that Putin will resist the urge to take another Eastern European state.”
In what concerns the fear that Russian forces deployed in Belarus for the exercise will overstay the deadline agreed with this country, General O. Belokonev, Belarus’s Chief of the General Staff, stated on August 29 that “after the end of the manoeuvres in the period until September 30 personnel, weapons, military and special equipment of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Belarus to return to places of permanent deployment. The troops of the Russian Federation will return to its territory.”
In fact, protests against these joint military manoeuvres with Russia took place in Minsk. According to the opposition media, ever since the end of July 2017 several hundred protesters answered the call of the Belarussian National Congress and protested “against possible Russian aggression in Belarus as a result of the Zapad-2017 exercise,” the opposition’s former presidential candidate N. Stakevici, the leader of the Social-Democratic Party (unregistered), being at the forefront of this action.
During the aforementioned August 29 press conference, Russian General Fomin also pointed out the concept of the exercise, which focuses on the cutting-off of deployment sectors and the annihilation of terrorist groups backed from abroad which seek to destabilise Belarus and Russia. Fomin gave assurances that the exercise is of “a defensive nature,” seeking to observe the state of readiness of the forces that are part of Russia’s and Belarus’s western military districts, so important for Moscow in the region of strategic interest from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, the cooperation between them, their interoperability and force generation capabilities, cyberdefence, etc. In their turn, NATO states are carefully monitoring that the information publicly conveyed by the command of the exercise will correspond to reality, so that any surprise would be avoided. Similarly, they seek to assess whether Russia represents a threat of immediate invasion for countries on the contact line and to draw pertinent conclusions regarding Moscow’s overall strategic orientation in Eastern Europe. NATO’s force deployments in recent years in the region between the two seas – the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea – and the exercises prepared by the North Atlantic Alliance this year and next year undeniably represent strong elements deterring any kind of provocations and assertive moves on Russia’s part.