Mathieu Boulègue for Chatham House:
Western commentators were obsessed with the numbers of Russian troops being mobilized during the course of exercise and stuck firmly to the “100,000 servicemen” narrative. But Russia proved them wrong by keeping the drills small, managed, and contained.
The real numbers are still unconfirmed, but the actual number of troops deployed was almost certainly below what was initially reported in the West. This is primarily because Zapad-2017 focused on strengthening Command and Control (C2) and integrating forces, rather than emphasising troop displacements – which had already been done during Zapad-2013.
The Kremlin could therefore credibly claim that the West overreacted and fell victim to scaremongering and reporting rumours that Moscow was not being transparent about the nature of the exercise and its intentions.
Short of entrapment, proving the West wrong is increasingly part of the Kremlin’s political strategy which, in turn, strengthens Russia’s sense of superiority.
The real numbers will remain unconfirmed forever.