Russia organizes large-scale strategic military exercises once a year in some part of its vast nation. Every four years, this exercise takes place in the Western Strategic Direction, between the Arctic Ocean and the Black Sea, under the heading of Zapad (“West”). These quadrennial exercises are not a new phenomenon, but the forthcoming Zapad-17 exercise has received a huge amount of attention in the West, even before it has formally started.
The exercise itself will take place in mid-September inside Russia (including Kaliningrad) and Belarus near the borders of Poland and the Baltic states. It is the climax of a long exercise season for the Russian and Belarussian armed forces. Multiple preparatory training events and “snap exercises” have preceded the main event.
Russian officials say Zapad-17 will include fewer than 13,000 troops, but Western estimates put the number around 100,000. The “real” size of the exercise is hard to measure; there are technical ways to make it look smaller than it actually is — for example, dividing the big exercise into several parallel exercises taking place “autonomously.” But the huge difference shows the mistrust and tensions between Russia and the West.
Large-scale military exercises are never “just” military exercises. They are always also ways to show off, communicate, and develop the fighting power of national or alliance-wide armed forces. In the current security situation in the Baltic region, Zapad-17 sends a clear message: Russia has massive conventional military power and is ready to use it.
After Crimea, eastern Ukraine and Syria, Zapad-17 seems much more dangerous than its 2013 predecessor. Indeed, Russia itself seems more dangerous to Western societies in general, and Western media particularly, which have granted Moscow an aura of brilliant and highly-tuned information warfare and cyber attack capability. Supposedly, the “little green men” and the deniability that they provided Russia in its land-grab showed something new in the field of statecraft and great-power politics.
I argue that what we are witnessing today is not Russia excelling in the dark arts of information warfare or “hybrid warfare,” but rather that we in the West have a depressingly low understanding of the workings of great-power politics and adversarial great-power behavior. Zapad-17 is a case in point. The exercise has not even started and our societies have been fretting about it for at least six months. All possible and many impossible Zapad-17-related scenarios have been played out through a media frenzy that is still picking up speed as the main event approaches. Zapad-17 has been labelled “a Trojan horse,” “the World War 3 threat,” and “demonstrative preparation for war on the West,” to give just some examples. Meanwhile, Russia itself has largely kept quiet as multitudes of experts and news outlets filled Western airwaves with Zapad “news” and analysis.
Take the 4,162 train cars that the Russian Ministry of Defence reportedly reserved for moving troops to Belarus and back. With one Excel spreadsheet made public in late 2016, the West has been made to guess for eight months. Will Russia invade Belarus? What is the role of the nascent 1st Guards Tank Army?
At least two factors are amplifying the messages transmitted by Zapad-17. The first is related to alliance politics within NATO. The other is the current malfunctioning of the U.S. domestic political system.
The Cold War’s end gave NATO an existential problem: what should it do in a world that cannot threaten Europe? The alliance’s answer was to shift its focus to war elsewhere in the world, discarding much of the know-how, military capability, and ethos of conventional deterrence and large-scale warfighting. Now powerful Russian forces loom once more. For many Europeans, Zapad-17 is scary because the military tools of deterrence are almost absent from the European scene. If European military capabilities were sufficient, Zapad-17 would be one exercise among others. Some have reacted by sounding alarms; others, more constructively, are seizing the moment to press alliance leaders to recreate the analytical tools, doctrines, and capabilities necessary to the defense of Europe.
In the United States, meanwhile, Russia has become the main theme around which domestic politics is being played. Russian hacking, information warfare, fake news and troll factories have consumed U.S. politics and the vitality of the Trump administration. As in Europe, weakness has allowed Russia to look more powerful than it actually is.
So what should the West do about Zapad-17? Certainly, intelligence and military authorities should keep close track of the exercise, just as they would any other deployment or action by major world powers, and adjust military readiness accordingly. In the longer term, NATO as an alliance and European states individually should indeed refocus on high-end capability and territorial defense. But crying wolf all the time — in the case of Zapad-17, for more than six months — hinders our ability to track, discuss, and react to Russia’s military prowess.
Anyway, soon we will know what happens during and after Zapad-17. The main event is about to open in a military theater near you.