Jane's Aerospace Defense and Security Blog

Russia, Zapad and the threat of war

Russia held its largest military exercise of 2017 between the 14 and 20 September. Codenamed Zapad (“West” in Russian), the drill will test how the Russian military and other power and security ministries would respond to an armed attack against Russia, and its ally Belarus, coming from the West.

Key points:

  • Zapad is the first strategic exercise in Russia’s Western axis since the conflict in Ukraine broke out in 2014 and since NATO deployed its troops to Central and Eastern Europe.
  • Official figures released by the Russian MoD state that the total number of troops involved in Zapad 2017 will stand at 12,700, though final numbers are expected to be significantly higher.
  • Despite some reports to the contrary, there is currently no crisis in Europe that would motivate Russian deployment of combat troops to the Baltic States.

What is Zapad?

Historically, Zapad prepared Soviet, Russian and other allied forces for defensive and offensive operations against NATO countries in high-tempo conventional conflict scenarios. The 1999 iteration of Zapad, the first since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, was held in a direct response to NATO actions over Serbia and Kosovo. Since 2009, the drill has been held regularly at four-year intervals, with the 2013 exercise reportedly simulating a nuclear attack on Warsaw (1).

Although official press releases often refer to opposing forces as “illegal bands” or “illegal armed groups”, it is clear that joint Russian and Belarusian armed forces train operations against a sophisticated, well-equipped conventional force. The only threat Moscow currently faces in the western strategic direction is NATO. However, it should be remembered that whereas Zapad focuses on NATO, another strategic exercise, Vostok, seeks to trains response to armed threats stemming from China, and to a lesser degree Japan.

Numbers of troops

Official figures released by the Russian MoD state that the total number of troops involved in Zapad 2017 will stand at 12,700 - most of them being Belarusian Armed Forces personnel (2) Although the true numbers are likely to be higher, any current attempts to estimate the scale of Russian deployments are prone to errors. That said, strategic exercises not only include armed forces units, but also personnel from the Federal Security Service, the Russian National Guard (Rosgvardia), and the Ministry of the Russian Federation for Affairs for Civil Defence, Emergencies and Elimination of Consequences of Natural Disasters. Therefore with all these structures involved in the exercise, the scale could reach 80,000-100,000 troops spread across Western parts of Russia.

In contrast, the entire armed forces of the Baltic States comprise approximately 21,000 personnel, with Poland adding another 105,000. NATO troops in those countries stand at around 4,500 servicemen although their presence is largely a political message rather than military.

The threat of war

The political context of the upcoming iteration of Zapad is different compared to previous drills. It is the first strategic exercise in Russia’s Western axis since the conflict in Ukraine broke out in 2014 and since NATO deployed its troops to Central and Eastern Europe. Consequently, some are concerned that that the Zapad is largely a Russian attempt to increase readiness and conceal deployment of Russian conventional and unconventional units to the border with the Baltic States, Belarus, and Ukraine. From there they could potentially launch surprise armed attacks against those countries.

Exercise not expected to lead to escalation

Although Russia’s modus operandi is that exercises can precede invasions, the current international context makes such an attack unlikely.

When looking at the history of the Soviet Union or Russia, it can be concluded that the political-military leadership deployed combat troops during times of acute political and/or military crisis when Moscow’s interests were threatened. This was the case in Hungary ’56, Czechoslovakia ’68, Afghanistan ’79, Georgia ’08, and finally Ukraine ’14.

At the moment there is no crisis in Eastern Europe and little suggests such a crisis will materialize during Zapad. Additionally, any such crisis and subsequent decision to deploy troops would need to meet strict military doctrinal criteria before any action was taken for offensive action under Russia’s military doctrine. Presently, such criteria have not been met.

Jane’s assesses that Russia will try to exhaust all reasonable options, other than military, to achieve its political objectives. Moscow will commit militarily only if its political goals are no longer attainable. In Ukraine in 2014, Russia lost political control over the events unfolding in Kiev and was forced to act militarily to protect its interests in the country.

If a choice were to be made between achieving strategic surprise and generating appropriate forces to achieve military and political objectives, Moscow would always try to choose the latter. As a result, deployment of troops into the Baltic States would still be seen as a limited objective because it would give NATO time and space to amass and counteract Russian military moves.

Russia presently does not have enough capability (political, military, and economic) and manpower to wage war against NATO. Neither does it have a reason to attack neighbouring countries. Looking at current state of affairs, there is no crisis in Europe to justify Russian deployment of combat troops to the Baltic States.

Jane’s delivers open source data and independent expert analysis on political stability, military capabilities, national security concerns, and international relations which provide a strategic, operational and tactical understanding of the global threat landscape. For more information visit Jane’s Military and Security Assessments Intelligence Centre.

Jane's Editorial Staff
Posted 4 October 2017

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Jane's Aerospace, Defence & Security Editorial Staff

Jane’s is the renowned global open-source intelligence provider to militaries, governments, intelligence agencies and industry. With more than 100 years of experience, Jane’s delivers critical knowledge and independent analysis in the specialist fields of defense, security, public safety, transport and law enforcement.