Zapad was not a test for the West

Igor Fedyk tries to derive some conclusions about the just finished Zapad 2017 exercise in this piece called Zapad 2017: A Test for the West for Jamestown.org. I think some of his points are somewhat sensationalistic, though, and Fedyk partly falls into the trap of confusing the nature of warfare with sinister intentions on behalf of its practitioners. So let me add a few comments to some of Fedyk’s points where I think the conclusions are dubious:

Generally speaking, the military tasks accomplished within the scope of Zapad 2017 were typical for maneuvers of such scale. But at the same time, the exercise had some distinctive features. In particular, the Russian military top brass was using the joint drills to check the readiness of the Belarusian army to act under the command of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces. The exercise also included an assessment of the Belarusian Armed Forces’ compliance with Russian military standards in order to ensure their full compatibility in joint operations (Regnum, September 19). […]

In other words, within the framework of Zapad 2017—and Union Shield 2015 before it— the Russian side specifically sought to evaluate how smoothly the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation could bypass various pre-existing layers of command and control, including the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Belarus, in order to take direct command of Belarusian units. Russia’s ongoing focus on this issue is telling. It highlights the thinking in Moscow that, in the event of an offensive operation in the western strategic direction, the Russian General Staff would need to be certain that all its orders will be carried without question by Belarusian soldiers. Russian commanders also want to be sure they will not encounter any obstacles or push back from individual patriotically-minded (to their homeland) Belarusian military leaders.

In fact the ability to coordinate operations between nations is perhaps the most important aspect of any combined exercise. It makes a lot of sense that Russia and Belarus would practice the compliance of standards, and it also makes sense to subject the smaller nation to the standards of the larger. It surely is possible that the Russian General Staff would like total subordination of its Belarussian counterparts, but it is not a valid conclusion based on the fact that they practiced compatibility and the ability of Belarussian forces to act under Russian command.

Connected to this, Zapad 2017 once more underscored that Belarusian territory would be highly important to Moscow in the event of a Russian military drive westward because of the lack of sufficient invasion routes from Russia’s own territory. Moreover, Russia lacks large numbers of offensive units in the Kaliningrad exclave. Thus, the ability to conducting offensive operations from the territory of Belarus is of strategic importance for Russia.

This is obvious. Of course Russia will want a land connection to Kaliningrad in case of a war.

Finally, despite Russian assurances as to the purely defensive and anti-terrorism-focused nature of the exercise, the real purpose of Zapad 2017 was arguably offensively minded. Thus, the exercise scenario obliquely revolved around forcing the neutrality of the Baltic States, stopping the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) growing military presence on their territory, seizing “Russian historical territories” (in Latvia and Estonia), and securing a land corridor to the Kaliningrad region. To this end, Russian forces were essentially practicing occupying Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, closing the Suwałki Gap (the narrow land corridor linking Poland and Lithuania), transforming Kaliningrad into an anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) zone (as, for example, Russia has done with Crimea), and at that point beginning further offensive operations in the direction of Warsaw (see EDM, September 14).

Military operations by definition involve the use of coercive power, and to some extend the geography of the exercise area defines what useful scenarios can be created to practice that application of military force. The scenarios provide for certain training opportunities, but in reality the political aspects and sophisticated subtleties do more to entertain observers like Fedyk than they have meaning for the soldiers in the exercise. Zapad was a large joint exercise with conventional forces, and it is hard to see how the exercise could have been arranged in a way where the training outcome wouldn’t be useful in an offensive operation as well.

The rest of Fedyk’s conclusions are related to political signals, and I do believe that they are fine. But the overall premise of the article is skewed. Zapad was a signal to both the West and to the Russian public, and it was a military training exercise with the purpose of … well, training military operations. But Zapad was not a test for the West.

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