Zapad 2017 demonstrates the modernisation of the Russian armed forces

by Patrick Truffer. He has been working in the Swiss Armed Forces for more than 15 years, holds a bachelor’s degree in public affairs from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich (ETH Zurich), and a master’s degree in international relations from the Free University of Berlin.

Russia and Belarus held a large-scale military exercise between 14 and 20 September 2017 under the name Zapad (“West”, because it was held in Russia’s Western Military District). According to the Belarus Ministry of Defence, no more than 13,000 soldiers took part in the exercise. However, it is likely that this claim was only made in response to the OSCE Vienna Document. According to this agreement, exercises with more than 13,000 soldiers can be observed by its member states (OSCE, “Vienna Document 2011 on Confidence- and Security-Building Measures“, 30 November 2011). However Michael Kofman, an expert on Soviet and Russian armed forces at the Center for Naval Analyses, estimates that as many as 45,000 soldiers took part in Zapad 2017. Although the exercise was therefore larger than officially announced, it was still smaller than the major Russian exercises carried out in the past 4-5 years. Such joint exercises provide interesting insights. Based on Zapad 2017, especially in comparison with the Zapad exercises held in 1999, 2009 and 2013, we must ask what perceived threats are driving the strategic and operational planning of Russia and Belarus (the so called Union State), how developed the two states’ collaboration has become, and what conclusions about Russias military capabilities the exercises allow us to make.

Russia’s armed forces have been divided into the Western, Southern, Central, and Eastern Military Districts, as well as the Northern Fleet since the end of 2014. Every September, there is a large exercise in one of the military districts and smaller exercises in the others. After the Cold War, the first of these exercises was held in the Western Military District (Zapad 1999). It represented Russia’s reaction to the March 1999 eastern expansion of NATO and the NATO operation “Allied Force” that immediately followed. The severe, relatively precise air strikes against the military facilities of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia were a particular shock for Russia. On the one hand, this threat influenced Zapad 1999, while also triggering a modernisation of the Russian armed forces. In the scenario of Zapad 1999, Russia assumed that NATO would carry out an offensive against Russia and resort to the massive firepower of the air force and precision bombs, as well as cruise missiles. Finally, Russia compensated for the weaknesses in its conventional forces identified during the exercise by reducing the threshold for deploying nuclear weapons, which was subsequently written down in its military doctrine of 2000. [1] It was also the first time Russia and Belarus had engaged in a joint defence exercise (“Russia”, The Military Balance 99, No. 1, 1999, p. 105).

Mordovia, a Russian Zubr-class hovercraft, deploying marines during Zapad-09.

Mordovia, a Russian Zubr-class hovercraft, deploying marines during Zapad-09.

The next Zapad exercise, ten years later, involved some 12,000-13,000 men and, as such, was the largest Russian exercise after the Cold War. It also included a similar message in response to the missile defence shield initiated by the Americans in Europe. As a result of a strategic partnership between Poland and the US, long-range missiles were intended to be stationed in Poland to ward off enemy missiles. Shortly after the agreement was signed in August 2008, the Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, warned that Poland had thus made itself a target for a nuclear strike, a threat reinforced by the September 2009 Zapad exercise. The scenario for the exercise was a theoretical uprising of the Polish minority in Belarus, ending with a Russian nuclear strike against Poland — seventy years after the Soviet invasion of Poland at the start of World War II. Zapad 2009 also demonstrated the strength of Russia’s conventional forces after the Russo-Georgian War in 2008. Russia used the exercise to showcase a new self-confidence and a reclaimed position of power. But this proved to be counterproductive, at least if it was intended to get Poland to back down. Instead, Poland stepped up its efforts to acquire enhanced strategic security in the form of troops on the ground and strategic military installations from the US or NATO (Anna Dunin, “Intel Brief: Poland On Edge Over Russian Drills“, International Relations and Security Network).

Moscow probably recognised this as well and, as a result, dispensed with a nuclear element in the Zapad exercise that followed in 2013. This is also in line with the improvement of Russian’s conventional forces, as well as the development and introduction of precision-guided ballistic missiles such as the Iskander, which makes the use of nuclear weapons less likely. An estimated 90,000 soldiers from five service branches (Ground Forces, Aerospace Forces, Navy, Strategic Missile Troops and the Airborne Troops), special forces, and the Interior Ministry’s security forces took part in the exercise. The fictional scenario, however, turned the attention to the Baltic states in response to a theoretical attack on Belarus by Baltic terrorists. In this scenario, the terrorists had entrenched themselves in towns and the exercise practised a mix of counterinsurgency and conventional operations in built-up areas. The amphibious landing on the Baltic coast clearly showed that NATO was the real target represented by the theoretical “terrorists” (Stephen Blank, “What Do the Zapad 2013 Exercises Reveal? (Part One)“, Eurasia Daily Monitor, The Jamestown Foundation, 04.12.2013).

Marked blue: Veyshnoria occupying the western part of Belarus.

Marked blue: Veyshnoria occupying the western part of Belarus.

At Zapad 2017, the fictional states of Lubenia, Vesbaria, and Veyshnoria were used as a theoretical alliance of enemies. This alliance was seeking to take advantage of the worsening economic situation in Russia and Belarus to sow discontent between the two states using information operations. At the beginning of the scenario, the western areas of Belarus had already been occupied by Veyshnoria. In the first two days of the exercise, the focus turned to fighting terrorism and containing the invasion. However, the enemy coalition had impressive military potential more reminiscent of NATO, which meant that air defence in Kaliningrad and Belarus were used. The Russian armed forces used the first 48 hours to mobilise so that they could then strike back in Belarus. Finally, on the last day of the exercise, the scenario escalated to a conflict between Russia and NATO that took place on the Barents and Black Seas (Pavel Felgenhauer, “Lukashenka and Russian Officials Part Ways During Zapad 2017“, Eurasia Daily Monitor, The Jamestown Foundation, 22.09.2017). For that part of the exercise alone, the Russian Northern Fleet had 20 warships and 5,000 men in action. In the course of the escalation, two RS-24 YARS intercontinental ballistic missiles were tested from the Plessetsk Cosmodrome, aimed at targets 6’000 km away at the Kura Missile Test Range on the Russian island of Kamchatka in the Russian Far East (Daniel Brown, “Russia just finished the Zapad military exercises that freaked out NATO — Here’s what we know“, Business Insider, 25.09.2017). One missile was fired from a silo, another from a mobile platform. The RS-24 YARS can be fitted with 3-4 nuclear warheads and is intended to penetrate a missile defence shield.

Something particularly striking about the exercise scenario is that the areas in western Belarus occupied by Veyshnoria included large parts of the Grodno region and the north-western part of the Minsk and Vitebsk regions, which have a high proportion of Catholics and a tendency towards nationalism in the population. During the presidential elections in 1994, Zianon Pazniak, head of the Conservative Christian Party of the Belarusian People’s Front, and political opponent of the current Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko, received widespread support in these areas.

The scenario chosen for Zapad 2017 roughly follows what has happened in Ukraine, which, from the perspective of Russia and Belarus, is similar to what happened during the Colour Revolutions supported by the West for political reasons (see also Vladimir Putin, “Address by President of the Russian Federation“, 18.03.2014). At the same time, this shows what Russia and Belarus fear most: the interference of the US and its European allies (whether through NATO or the EU) in Russia’s and its allies’ internal affairs, providing ideological and financial support to states bordering Russia, and contributing to political upheaval through both civil and covert military means (Michael Kofman, “What to Expect When You’re Expecting Zapad 2017“, War on the Rocks, 23.08.2017). Zapad 2017 shows the consequences of Western interference of this kind from the Russian perspective: military escalation.

The scenario otherwise corresponds roughly to the threat of hybrid warfare that is also used as the basis of many Western exercise scenarios. In this context, the Gerasimov Doctrine is often invoked. However, what some Western analysts do not realise is that General Valery Gerasimov’s remarks in early 2013 were in reference not to a future military strategy for Russia’s forces. Instead, they reflected the operational environment and the character of future wars based on the findings of the NATO operation “Allied Force”, the Colour Revolutions, and the Arab Spring (Charles K. Bartles, “Getting Gerasimov Right“, Military Review 96 (2016), p. 36-37). According to Gerasimov, political goals were not achieved through military means alone, but through disinformation, political, economic, humanitarian, and other non-military action, used in combination with the potential for the population to protest. It seems cynical that both the “new West” and the “new East” are fundamentally afraid of a similar hybrid threat. This is a revival of neorealism, in which the actions of a state unintentionally result in other states’ heightened sense of threat. The compensatory actions of the state under threat in turn results in the other states’ feeling more threatened, thus creating a vicious circle. The only difference from classical neorealism is that the issue is no longer security, but instead increasingly political, economic, and cultural factors. It would be advantageous if both the “new West” and “new East” would return to instruments that break this vicious circle: institutional conditions that support communication, transparency, and trust over the long term.

After losing its influence in Ukraine, Belarus remains Russia’s most important geographical in the west situated ally. However, the relationship between Lukashenko and Putin was cool from the beginning and reached a low point during the war in Ukraine. The two countries’ relationship is based more on pragmatism than any kind of friendly partnership. The Union State, constituted in 1997, has remained a very limited confederation, restricted to a defence alliance, a common market, and nearly-meaningless joint political consultations. Since Russia unofficially considers Belarus as a part of its Western Military District, Belarus plays a strategically important role for Russia. Along with the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, Belarus offers a mere 65.4 km eye of a needle, known as the Suwalki Gap, that could stop NATO from quickly reinforcing the multi-national battalions in the Baltic states in the event of conflict (Thorsten Jungholt and Julia Smirnova, “Bei russischem Vorstoss: Die ‘Lücke von Suwalki’ ist die Achillesferse der Nato“, Die Welt, 09.07.2016). Conversely, Belarus is economically dependent on Russia, even if Lukashenko has shown increasing interest in better relations with the country’s western neighbours and the EU since 2014 (Belarusian Telegraph Agency, “Belarus eager to normalize Relations with West“, Belarus News, 30.12.2014). [2] Lukashenko, at least, achieved in November 2015 that the EU suspend part of its economic sanctions against Belarus. Since 2014, he has also advocated for a distinct Belarusian identity separate from that of Russia (Sergey Kozlovsky, “The Strange Death of Russia’s Closest Alliance“, Global Voices, 21.02.2017). From his perspective, Belarus is more than just a satellite state of Russia. This was evident during the Zapad 2017 exercise as well. Belarus, which is a signatory of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, had allowed foreign observers extensive access to the exercises on its territory without consulting Russia, a decision that Putin did not necessarily welcome (Aleksandr Alesin, “Недовольство Кремля. Вот Почему Путин Не Приехал На Белорусский Полигон“,, 26.09.2017). By comparison, Russia allowed 95 military attachés to observe the exercise on a single day at a single location (Felgenhauer, “Lukashenka and Russian Officials Part Ways During Zapad 2017“). For the past two years, Lukashenko has also rejected Moscow’s pressure to set up a military base in Belarus (Emily Ferris, “The true Purpose of Russia’s Zapad Military Exercises“, Foreign Affairs, 04.10.2017). It is therefore not surprising that the two presidents did not meet during Zapad 2017. Putin observed the exercise from Luzhsky, outside of St Petersburg. Lukashenko refused to join him and instead visited the troops to the west of Borisov in Minsk Oblast on the last day of the exercise (“Учения с Увлечением“, Газета ‘Коммерсантъ’, 21.09.2017). Nevertheless, Zapad 2017 would have clearly shown Lukashenko who holds the reins of power in the region. Despite these disputes at the highest level, the collaboration between the armed forces of Russia and Belarus appeared to run perfectly, at least at the superficial level.

Zapad 2017 demonstrated that Russia can effectively defend its own territory and that of its allies. Their command and control capabilities allow the Russian armed forces to direct their troops throughout the territory and along a front line extending over 600 km. Logistically, the Russian armed forces seem to be able to move an armoured division over long distances by rail and a light battalion using air transport (Michael Kofman, “Zapad Watch – Summary of Day Five“, Russia Military Analysis, 19.09.2017; Sergei Suhhankin, “Zapad-2017: What Did These Military Exercises Reveal?“, Diplomaatia, Nr. 170, Oktober 20178). The Russian armed forces are well prepared for the initial phase of a military operation with their air defence. If it involved the USA and NATO, this first phase would be characterised by the massive firepower of the air force. The S-400, already stationed in Kaliningrad and Saint Petersburg, as well as the S-300 systems in Belarus, were reinforced by more S-400s, S-300s and Pantsir-S1 systems during Zapad 2017. At the same time, the Russian air forces could combat ground targets outside of Russian territory with escorted bombers and/or tactical missiles. During Zapad 2017, notably Su-27, Su-35, Su-30SM and MiG-31s were used to combat enemy fighter jets, as well as Su-34s as bombers. A Su-24MR and on the tactical level supposedly more than 30 drone systems were used for reconnaissance and target recognition. As in the past, Russia has no armed drones (“Chapter Five: Russia and Eurasia”, The Military Balance 117, 2017, p. 193). Mi-35M, Ka-52, Mi-28N and Mi8AMTSh back up the close air support for terrestrial forces. The Baltic Fleet is ready to boost air defence as well as to combat enemy targets in the air, in the water and on the coast. During the exercise, an Iskander-M (which can be equipped with a nuclear or a conventional warhead) was used successfully to destroy a target 480 km away in Kazakhstan (Roger McDermott, “Zapad 2017 and the initial Period of War“, Eurasia Daily Monitor, Jamestown, 20.09.2017).

Statistics about some important systems of the Russian Armed Forces (click on the image to download the PDF version).

Statistics about some important systems of the Russian Armed Forces (click on the image to download the PDF version).

Russia has been modernising its forces since 2000, since the shock of the NATO operation “Allied Force”. The Russo-Georgian War in 2008, however, showed only modest success, which led to a reorganisation and finally to an increase in the pace of modernisation of the ground troops from 2011 on. Russia’s Western Military District in particular profited from this, which resulted in an expansion of military capabilities (Guillaume Lasconjarias and Lukáš Dyčka, “Dealing with the Russian Bear: Improving NATO’s Response to Moscow’s Military Exercise Zapad 2017“, IAI Comentaries 18/17, 12.10.2017, p. 2). The Russian armed forces have significantly increased their command and control capabilities’, for example with a new high-bandwidth system (1MB-20GB over a distance of 1,000 km), mobility, communication, conventional power, precision-controlled ballistic missiles, air defence, and range (Eric Schmitt, “Vast Exercise Demonstrated Russia’s Growing Military Prowess“, The New York Times, 01.10.2017; Lamont Colucci, “The Coming Russian Aggression“, US News & World Report, 10.10.2017). It can be assumed on the basis of this exercise that the Russian armed forces are capable of defending their territory and that of their allies effectively and sustainably, although the Central and Eastern Military Districts may have somewhat lower capabilities. Offensive capabilities, which came to the fore in the second part of the exercise, remain conservative, however. This does not change the fact that the cards are stacked against NATO regarding the defence of the Baltic states. An Armored Brigade Combat Team and parts of a Combat Aviation Brigade, both of which are distributed throughout Eastern Europe, as well as NATO Enhanced Forward Presence, each with a multi-national battalion of around 1,000 soldiers in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, do not represent a significant counter-concentration for Russia. In a military exchange, NATO would have problems deploying its 5,000 men Very High Readiness Joint Task Force via air transfer into the operational space within 2-5 days because of Russia’s and Belarus’s dominant air defence (Elisabeth Braw, “Europe’s Readiness Problem“, Foreign Affairs, 30.11.2017). The land and sea route offers few better alternatives because with this sort of escalation, Russia would probably close the Suwalki Gap and mine the Baltic Sea (Michael Kofman, “Fixing NATO Deterrence in the East, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love NATO’s Crushing De­feat by Russia“, War on the Rocks, 12.05.2016). Offensively, Russia could destroy crucial military facilities in the immediate vicinity and thus neutralise the military command capabilities of the Baltic states in particular.

Such scenario should not be ruled out, but is unlikely. The NATO Enhanced Forward Presence works like a tripwire. Any Russian aggression against the Baltic states would trigger Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, but Russia has no interest in this scenario (see also Kofman, “What to Expect When You’re Expecting Zapad 2017“); the costs would be too high. But what would happen if there were a regime change in Belarus, and Russia — whether or not justified — sees the West as the mastermind behind it? Other unanswered questions include whether the concept of the tripwire, which dates back to the Cold War, is suitable for a hybrid threat when particular in the early stage of conflict are mostly political, economic, and cultural factors relevant? How would NATO behave if the other side did not use force at a strategic level, as was the case in the annexation of Crimea? Is NATO prepared to risk a nuclear exchange with Russia to defend, for example Ida-Viru, the eastern tip of Estonia, which has a population consisting of 72% ethnic Russians (see also Kofman, “Fixing NATO Deterrence in the East“)?

[1] In the military doctrine of 2000, Russia stated that it would reserve the use of nuclear weapons for cases of widespread aggression by means of conventional weapons leading to a critical national security situation for Russia. This reservation was further expanded in the military doctrine 2010 through the removal of certain self-imposed limits. The military doctrine of 2014 saw no further changes (Patrick Truffer, “Comparison of the Russian Military Doctrine 1993, 2000, 2010 and 2014“, 31.01.2016).
[2] In 2016, 46.3% of exports went to Russia, followed by 12.2% to Ukraine, 4.6% to the United Kingdom and 4% to Germany. During the same period, Belarus imported 55.5% from Russia, 7.8% from China, 4.9% from Germany and 4.4% from Poland (CIA, “Belarus”, The World Factbook, 17.01.2018).

This entry was posted in Armed Forces, Belarus, English, International, Patrick Truffer, Russia, Security Policy.

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