The dangerous tool of Russian military exercises
It all started with a military exercise in 2008. “Today, Georgia. Tomorrow, Ukraine. The day after, the Baltic states—and later perhaps the time will come for my country, Poland!” Those words were uttered 5 August 2008 by Poland’s late president, Lech Kaczyński, in the presence of five European heads of state who had come to Tbilisi in a gesture of solidarity with the just-invaded Georgia. Almost 10 years later, this statement anticipates Europe’s current security dilemma.
These days, pundits are increasingly speculating on what Russia’s next large-scale military exercise—code-named Zapad-2017—may bring. Will it be just another saber-rattling event that will once again lower the security threshold by adding uncertainty and unpredictability—and make us increasingly numb and desensitized to those large-scale exercises? This time, will a Russian ally have to reluctantly accept the stationing of more foreign troops on its territory? Or will it lead to yet another Russian military incursion into a neighboring country? Which security Rubicon will be crossed this time?
Understanding Russia’s modus operandi in recent years, and what its large-scale military exercises are designed to accomplish, could offer answers and highlight areas that the international community should closely watch. It also indicates a way ahead for the West.
In the last decade, Russia has expanded its military capabilities through regular and specific exercises that have often involved offensive, aggressive and anti-Western scenarios. Such maneuvers enhanced troop readiness status and effectiveness, especially since Russian forces train as they fight. Those drills also served concrete political and strategic communications purposes as a show of force and a narrative for the national leadership. They intimidate and threaten countries against whom the exercises were designed, but also, in some cases, they disguise military movements—helping Russia prepare and subsequently conduct real military operations.
Timing and geographic proximity are useful. In early August 2008, when Russian troops invaded Georgian territory, they surprised the rest of the world, which was following the Summer Olympics in Beijing. Russia’s 58th Army had just finished its Kavkaz-2008 military exercise, coincidentally occurring just ahead of the invasion (15-31 July) and located just north of the Georgian border.
Fast-forward five years to 2013. Russia re-introduced a military training concept known as the snap exercise. These occur with no-notice and often involve large numbers of troops. After putting into motion four such snap alerts in 2013, Russia conducted another such exercise from 26 February to 3 March 2014. That exercise engaged not only large numbers of airborne troops and transport planes but also long-range aircraft. Officially, the exercise also involved 1,200 amphibious combat vehicles, 880 battle tanks and 120 attack helicopters. Yet there was more. Under the guise of that exercise, Russia deployed a large contingent of troops to Crimea and its vicinity. The next step was Crimea’s effective capture by troops which officially had taken part in a regular military exercise. The result was Russia’s illegal annexation of Ukrainian territory.
Now comes 2017. Another large-scale Russian exercise is scheduled for September. Unlike previous snap exercises, Zapad (West) takes place every four years and is announced well in advance. It also encompasses several preparatory episodes and smaller exercises—some of them usually occur with no advance notice—and all of which culminate in these Russian-led multinational maneuvers.
This year’s exercise—set to take place both in Belarus and in western Russia (including the Kaliningrad oblast)—might be among the largest since 1991. As a possible indicator of Zapad’s size, Russia has ordered more than 4,000 railcars to transport its troops. Based on this, up to two Russian armored/mechanized divisions (around 30,000 military personnel) could be deployed to Belarusian territory. Along with troops already moved there, the anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) assets brought to Kaliningrad over the last few years, troops traditionally flown into the area during such exercises, and those stationed along Russia’s border with the Baltic states (numbering three new Russian divisions in the Western Military District), it’s clear that Russia can, if it so decides, easily exert significant pressure on its neighbors. Thanks to this military build-up, all under the pretext of the Zapad exercise, Russia’s options are many. It could, with little or no warning, launch a limited or provocative hybrid operation (to see what happens), test responses on NATO’s eastern flank, or present a security threat to Ukraine where the Russo-Ukraine conflict remains in full swing.
What to watch
Considering this grim view, what are some significant indicators and warnings to watch for? Observers should pay attention to three elements regarding Zapad-2017. The first is a military deception or maskirovka. Russia has learned to deceive the West by masking and disguising its movements effectively. It continues to hone this technique by mastering novel elements. A recent case in point was last year’s shipment of SS-26 Iskander-M missile launchers—under the guise of a logistics exercise—aboard a civilian cargo ship to Kaliningrad. Here, Russia’s chronic lack of transparency in continually sending false messages while pretending to be open—essentially offering a mixture of lies and disinformation—aims to encourage the idea that it is actually benign and seeks a true partnership with the West. But the West should be able to distinguish empty gestures from real offers of military transparency.
The second area of concern is Russia’s inclination to train its troops in the use of its nuclear arsenal during these large-scale exercises. According to numerous media reports, during both Zapad-2009 and Zapad-2013, nuclear attacks on NATO member countries were allegedly considered—to the West’s amazement. Imagine NATO troops training for a nuclear strike on Russian cities. Now consider the many tactical nuclear weapons in Russia’s arsenal and recent developments in doctrine that allow for an easy transition from conventional to nuclear warfare during military operations. Nuclear forces are a factor of consideration for Russia’s neighbors. Add to that Russia’s obvious violation of the 1987 INF Treaty—which eliminated all short-range and intermediate-range nuclear and conventional missiles, as well as their launchers—and one could easily conclude that Russia has the potential to be on a collision course with the West.
In that context, Russia’s planned training of Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear defense (CBRN) troops should be closely watched. If indeed large CBRN formations engage in such an exercise, it could imply that Russia is getting ready for a potential nuclear development.
The third and final element to monitor is Russia’s long-term military build-up and regional stability. How will Belarus—Russia’s only ally in the region—react and behave during the exercise? On one hand, it provides a de facto Russian military forward presence, as some Russian units are already permanently stationed there. On the other hand, what if Russia suddenly decides not to leave Belarus with its military build-up after Zapad-2017? This not so improbable scenario might further destabilize the region’s already tense situation. What would NATO and the West do?
In advance of the Zapad exercises, three things should be considered. First, we need to stay the course with the decisions taken at NATO’s Warsaw Summit and make sure the Alliance’s enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) is fully implemented, along with a Multinational Divisional HQ in Poland to better coordinate multinational efforts. The eFP—defensive in nature—should be properly trained and equipped to fulfill its mission of providing deterrence and defense in allied states. NATO should also make sure the follow-on forces are more regularly exercised, including in a non-permissive environment. Moreover, NATO should keep working on a comprehensive strategy to counter Russia’s A2/AD systems. This should be closely linked with enhancing the NATO Defense Planning Process and investing in the right kinds of military capabilities that can defend alliance territory.
Second, we need better and more robust intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and situational awareness. NATO requires a proper reporting mechanism at the highest political and military levels to function across the alliance. In essence, NATO members need a solid multinational tool to provide reliable, accurate, measured and sober analysis of intelligence and capabilities along the alliance’s eastern border from Norway in the north, via the Baltic states and the Suwałki gap, down to Romania and Turkey in the south. In today’s security environment, a well-functioning indicator and warning mechanism that can distinguish true posture and intentions from a maskirovka is crucial.
Third, reciprocal transparency is key in avoiding an uncontrollable military escalation or “spillover” effect. Russia frequently violates the provisions of the OSCE Vienna Document, which was designed to ensure transparency in military exercises. Russia often intentionally lowers the number of troops involved in its exercises or splits them—either by providing a small gap in time between events or holding them in different training areas simultaneously under joint command—with the goal of avoiding notification or observation thresholds. Let’s be blunt: essentially, the Russians are trying to dupe the West.
Finally, a growing lack of transparency on the Russian side, combined with an increase in Russian snap exercises (four in 2013, eight in 2014; 20 in 2015 and 11 in 2016) limits room to maneuver with a genuine dialogue and puts political pressure on Western decision-makers. Since 2016, Poland, along with numerous allies, has strived to avoid situations in which a military incident or a snap exercise might unexpectedly spark armed conflict. Three Polish proposals are now on the table: modernization of the Vienna Document (Chapter III on risk reduction); reciprocal, advanced briefings in the NATO-Russia Council on one Allied and one Russian exercise (preferably Zapad-2017) this year; and voluntary briefings on national exercises in 2017 in the OSCE (Forum for Security Co-operation). Not surprisingly, we are still waiting for Russia to engage on a basis of reciprocity regarding any of these proposals.
Russian military exercises have become a dangerous tool, politically and militarily. The “train as you fight” approach—especially when nuclear attacks are an option—poses a serious threat to the West. It’s not enough that we be prepared to respond militarily. We must also be able to send clear unambiguous messages of unity, cohesion and readiness. As long as Zapad-2017 style exercises are a tool of coercion, no one can take regional stability for granted.
All in all, the West needs to send Russia an unequivocal message that it is ready to engage in confidence-building measures. At the same time we must verify Russia’s actions. We should undoubtedly make efforts to build reciprocal trust, but that will not come immediately.
Finally, Russia needs to understand that if it messes with the alliance, it will pay dearly.
Europe's Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or Center for European Policy Analysis. Col. Tomasz K. Kowalik, PhD, is director of the Military Foreign Affairs Department at the Polish Ministry of National Defense. Dominik P. Jankowski is head of the OSCE and Eastern Security Unit at the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.