Date: 10 September 2017

Zapad-17. The first myth

One of the main theses in the Russian information offensive accompanying the Zapad-2017 exercises is a statement that they do not jeopardise the security and stability of the region, because they are simply defensive. Nonetheless, the analysis of exercise plans and existing experience combined with other Russia’s military ventures reveal that the rhetoric of Russian generals and politicians is completely out of touch with the reality of training grounds.

© Konstantin Alysh, via Wikimedia Commons

General Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, met on September 8 in Baku with General Petr Pavel, Chairman of the NATO Military Committee. During the conversation, Gerasimov was expected to emphasise the fact that the forthcoming Russian-Belarusian Zapad-17 exercises were not aimed at other countries. This topic of the meeting between the generals was seized upon up by the Russian media – such types of messages have been flowing from Moscow for months. The same formulas about purely defensive character of exercises had been previously recited by senior officials from the Russian Ministry of Defence, not to mention that the similar thing happened on the Belarusian side.
The recent scenario of the Zapad-2017 exercises, presented simultaneously by Minsk and Moscow, is about an incursion into Belarus and Kaliningrad Oblast with extremist groups “in order to carry out the acts of terror and destabilise the situation in the Union State of Russia and Belarus”. The actions of allies are said to be only a defensive reaction. However, there are a number of signals confirming the concerns of the neighbours and NATO that the Zapad-2017 exercises are in fact a simulation of Russia’s offensive activities. First of all, the exercises during September 14-20 in six Belarusian and three Russian training grounds are just a fragment of a military project on a much larger scale, both in terms of time (which actually started in April) territorial and numerical alike (a series of exercises in other regions of Russia). Besides, the exercises during September 14-20 imply that there is little room for doubt as far as their true character is concerned.
It is difficult to acknowledge mine clearing and creating safe passages for infantry and equipment as a defensive element, which is one of the tasks set up in June by Russian engineering units preparing for the September training exercises. One can also discuss a method of waging war with the use of airborne assault and “conducting operations in an autonomous regime, separate from the main forces”. Apart from that, there are some unconfirmed reports that the elements of the preparation for launching Iskander missiles equipped with nuclear warheads could be practiced in Kaliningrad Oblast. Some analysts also point out that the announced participation of the FSB and the National Guard of Russia in the upcoming exercises may serve as a potential hint that the occupation of hostile areas and the “clearing” of the lands acquired immediately after line units cross them are likely to happen. This argument is, however, much debated: it is possible that the role of the FSB and the National Guard in the Zapad-2017 scenario might be to fight hostile extremists and terrorists penetrating the territory of the Union State.

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