Russia Conducts Three Times More War Games than NATO

The Russian side conducts significantly more training. Major maneuvers are just the tip of the iceberg. Russia conducts many more exercises involving more than 1,500 soldiers than the West does. The real figure could be even higher than currently known. Russia also conducts numerous combat readiness inspections, but the West hasn't conducted any.

Mid-September is just around the corner. And as it does every year at this time, the Russian military is set to hold its annual fall exercises. Once again, it will likely be far larger than anything the Western world sees at home. Known as Zapad (“West”), the war games are designed to test the readiness of the Russian military for a clash on Nato's eastern flank. Russia has said that only 13,000 soldiers will be involved, but Western experts believe that fully 100,000 will take part in the exercises. That official number is far from accidental. If Moscow were to add even just a single soldier to that total, the Kremlin would have to allow foreign observers in accordance with its obligations as a member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

The war games, which have been in detailed preparation for months, awaken unpleasant memories from the Cold War era, and not just because of the name. The focus of the exercises likewise provides cause for concern. They are to be held in the area surrounding the most vulnerable territory belonging to the Nato alliance: the Baltic states. Zapad is to take place in Belarus, the Baltic Sea and in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, separated from Belarus by the Polish-Lithuanian border, which is only just over 100 kilometers long. If the Baltic countries are the most vulnerable part of Nato territory, then this border is its Achilles' heel. It would be almost impossible to hold in the face of an attack by the vastly superior Russian military, meaning that Nato troops stationed in the Baltics would likely be surrounded within hours by a pincer movement.

The participation of the 1st Guards Tank Army lends Zapad additional, symbolic importance. The newly reassembled unit spearheaded the Red Army's march on Berlin in World War II and combines well-trained troops with modern, well-armored vehicles. Senior military officers, such as the commander of American troops in Europe, have offered their assurances that there is no cause for concern. “Look, we'll be ready; we'll be prepared,” Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges recently told The New York Times in reference to the deployment of 600 airborne troops in the Baltic countries. But how well is the West really prepared for a military conflict with Russia?

Apparently not as well as has long been assumed. It is essentially a foregone conclusion that Nato, with its multinational battalions in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, along with those countries' domestic militaries, would be hopelessly outnumbered by a conventional Russian offensive. The American think tank Rand estimates that it would take a maximum of 60 hours for the Russians to occupy the capitals of Riga or Tallinn – or both. And even if Nato member states stack up well compared with Russia on paper, it isn't entirely clear if the alliance would be prepared to liberate Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania in the event of Russian occupation, despite the pledge made by all alliance members to defend Nato's territorial integrity in its entirety.

Similar to the situation in West Berlin during the Cold War, the multinational Western military presence in the Baltic states is more of a political deterrence than a military one. In the event of conflict, multiple Nato alliance members would automatically be affected. The hope is that the Kremlin wouldn't be interested in taking on the entire alliance at once. With an eye toward its own fighting capability, however, Nato is nevertheless trying to close the gap with Russia by way of additional exercises and maneuvers. But it's not easy.

It is already known that the large exercises thus far performed by Nato have not approached the scope of those held by Russia. But now it has also become clear that the alliance is much further away from the targets it has set for itself than previously known. Reporting by this newspaper has revealed that even three years after the annexation of the Crimea and the beginning of the war in Ukraine, the volume of Russian military exercises is still many times that of Nato. That conclusion is the result of an analysis of thousands of English-language press releases from the Russian military in addition to information from Nato and its member states. For the period from Jan. 1, 2015 to the middle of August this year, all maneuvers were considered that clearly included 1,500 troops or more, a number chosen due to its equivalence to the minimum size of a brigade, and thus of an independently operating military unit. The results are alarming, particularly given indications that the number of Russian exercises could in fact be even larger. Nato secretary-general demands greater transparency from Russia.

Whereas 38 exercises carried out by Nato states could be counted in the time period under investigation, the Russian side held 124 of them, three times as many. It is a difference that gives one an idea of just how much better the Russian units are prepared to work together when large numbers of troops are involved. The smaller the exercises are, the greater the difference becomes. Whereas the ratio with exercises involving more than 10,000 soldiers is almost two to one, it is 2.5 to one for exercises with 5,001 to 10,000 troops. For exercises involving 1,500 to 5,000 soldiers, the ratio is almost four to one.

In addition, the Russians carry out hundreds of combat readiness inspections each year, which involve placing military units ranging in size from just a few hundred to tens of thousands of soldiers on immediate war footing. In the period in question, this newspaper counted 23 combat readiness inspections for Russian military units of over 1,500 troops. Over that same period, Nato didn't conduct a single one.


Nato's efforts aimed at closing the exercise gap have been slow at best. And what progress has been made is likely merely the result of Russia's slightly slower rate of troop exercises more recently, presumably due to its overseas deployments such as in Syria. The number of Russian war games involving more than 1,500 soldiers sank from 54 in 2015 to 44 in 2016. The current year will likely end with a similar number, with 26 exercises having been carried out by the end of the period under consideration. Nato and its member states, by contrast, slightly increased their training activities, carrying out 14 exercises in 2016 compared to 13 in 2015. In the current year, 11 exercises have been held thus far. How we counted the maneuvers.

Whereas the ratio of all observed war-game activity in 2015 was over four to one, the year 2017 has thus far produced a ratio of not quite 2.5 to one. Yet the number of Russian exercises identified should be approached with caution. Other investigations, which include Russian-language reports on additional exercises, back up that skepticism. So too does the Gerasimov Doctrine from the Russian armed forces' General Staff, which – in addition to its oft-cited emphasis on hybrid warfare – also seems to indicate that Moscow isn't necessarily interested in compiling a complete accounting of its military's activities.

But the focus of Russian activities is clear: The frequency of exercises is extremely high in the western and southern military districts, which border on Nato alliance territory and on Ukraine, respectively. Additional concentrations can be found further east, both in areas that are home to important troop training sites and on the border to Mongolia, China and North Korea. Nato, by contrast, carries out far fewer exercises in the Baltic states than Russia does in the neighboring region. Most alliance exercises continue to take place in Germany, where the majority of American troops in Europe are stationed.


Western researchers have observed that the Russian military has for years been increasing its preparations for large-scale operations, often including an implicit contingency for escalation that involves the use of nuclear weapons. “In 2011, a combat readiness inspection or a strategic maneuver involving 100,000 participants would have been a sensation,” Johan Norberg of the Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI) told this newspaper. ”Now, it has become the new normal.” That means, he says, that Russia enjoys an asymmetrical advantage.

This advantage says little about whether the Kremlin is considering applying it militarily one day. Particularly given that a conventional altercation with Nato could quickly develop into a nuclear conflict from which no side would emerge victorious, if they would survive at all. But the country's operative superiority on Nato's eastern flank fulfills a purpose as it is. The fear that it could be attacked at any moment creates instability and the fear of war in the West. And that is doubtlessly in accordance with Russia's most recent military doctrine.