Accessibility links

Breaking News

Are Western Fears Over Upcoming Zapad Military Drills Warranted?

Viktor Litovkin

Viktor Litovkin

TASS military commentator

“[Western analysts] have written that these exercises will become a prelude for deployment in Belarus for a new Russian military base with Iskander M missiles and Su-30 destroyers.”

...Russia has track record of using military drills for other purposes.

As earlier reported regarding the joint Belarusian- Russian Zapad-2017 military exercises to begin September 14, Western commentators have expressed doubts over the scale of the military drills, fueling speculation the Kremlin has more in store than what officials are publicly stating. Russian commentators have scoffed at the concerns, and pointed to a NATO build-up on their borders.

Yet there is good reason to suspect the drills could preclude something more sinister. In July 2008, Russia’s 58th Army finished the Kavkaz-2008 exercises July 31 and then a few days afterward ​invaded their neighbor Georgia; in March 2014, Russia massed 150,000 troops near the Ukrainian border which were later used not only in actual combat missions inside Ukraine (notably in the Battle of Ilovaisk in August 2014) but came and went over the following years to keep Kyiv under pressure.

Then, as now, some Western leaders and analysts said the masses of troops at the Ukrainian border were not yet prepared for an invasion, or were “behaving normally” for troops needing to keep readiness or that Russia has the right to move its troops within its borders.

But in fact, in April 2014 some of those Russian forces did find their way into Ukraine and also served as backup for thousands of fighters -- locals as well Russian contract soldiers and “volunteers” - to take over hundreds of administrative buildings all over eastern Ukraine.

Aleksandr Grushko, Russia’s ambassador to NATO was quoted by TASS August 2 as saying that the political situation in Europe was “seriously worsening” and that there was a “pump-up of arms and armor by the NATO countries on the eastern flank” over the “contrived pretense of a Russian threat”.

Such statements hinge on the ability of Russian commentators to persistently deny and obfuscate the reality of Russian troops and tanks in eastern Ukraine, as well as the Kremlin’s past behavior in Georgia, and to leave out the context of reduced Western military spending in recent decades and an imbalance between European and Russian military capacities.

As has reported in the past, Russian tanks and troops already significantly outnumber those of NATO countries. As Kurt Volker, the new US special envoy to Ukraine noted in an interview with RFE/RL,"There are more Russian tanks in there [Ukraine] than [tanks] in Western Europe combined.” That means even with the US helping to bolster the forces of the Baltic states before these September Russian maneuvers, there is still no parity with Russia.

To be sure, Zapad-2017 will need to be watched carefully to ensure that justified fears do not cloud reporting of actual events. Recently, posts appeared on Facebook expressing the fears of Belarusian citizens that Russia was already sending “little green men” or military personnel without any identifiable chevrons into their country, as they had done in Crimea in February 2014.

But after some debate and comparison of a number of photos of soldiers from Belarus along with knowledge about the locality, Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Lab concluded that the soldiers in the photos were in fact from a Belarusian unit.