Global Affairs

Russia looks west with war games in Europe's heart

A military exercise that is more than meets the eye, under a president who has twice seized territory during drills.


LONDON • "Go west, young man, go west and grow up with the country" was a popular rallying cry in 19th century United States, a call for Americans to settle and develop the fertile farmland which lay westwards from the initial settlements of the Atlantic coast.

Americans have long forgotten that phrase. But "going west" could soon become a favourite expression in the country which sees itself as America's chief global adversary: Russia. For in not more than a week from now, Russia will launch a massive military exercise in northern Europe entitled Zapad-2017; the word means "west" in the Russian language. And its purpose will be to test Moscow's abilities to conduct a major westward army thrust into the heart of Europe.


The Zapad-2017 exercise is a perfect reminder of just how high tensions between Russia and the West run currently, and how neither side seems either willing or able to contain them. But it is also an example of a return to a tradition of using military exercises not as a military training framework, but as an instrument of political coercion. Hence, the Zapad-2017 episode has broader security ramifications, beyond the European continent.

The staging of military exercises is, of course, hardly a novel concept; ever since armed forces around the world started emphasising mobility, coordination across various branches of the military and the integration of increasingly sophisticated technology, military exercises became an essential training instrument, as well as an opportunity for security planners to test their capabilities and warfare plans.

And, as security threats evolved to include those of a more domestic nature, military-style exercises were extended to other branches of government; the biggest growth in the number of such drills involves testing how well police, the fire brigade and the medical services work together in response to terrorist attacks, or major natural disasters.

In principle, therefore, the Russians cannot be faulted for wishing to stage a drill and, at least at first sight, they are also right to dismiss the expressions of concerns about the staging of Zapad-2017 currently emerging from various Western capitals as just efforts aimed at "disseminating myths about the so-called Russian threat", as Russian Deputy Defence Minister Alexander Fomin recently put it.


Alas, if only matters were that simple. For although military drills should not automatically be regarded as hostile actions, they are frequently treated as inherently hostile, for the simple reason that they can easily be transformed into a surprise invasion of a neighbouring country.

And nobody should know this better than Russian President Vladimir Putin who, back in 2008, ordered big military drills on Russian soil near the border with neighbouring Georgia, and then promptly seized two bits of Georgian territory. Mr Putin also repeated the tactic in February 2014, when an estimated 150,000 Russian troops conducted a large exercise on the borders of Ukraine, just as Russian troops seized the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine. So, to put it politely, Mr Putin has a reputation to live down.

Furthermore, the experience of the two past Russian drills also highlights the multitude of hostile uses to which such military exercises can be put. The large 2008 manoeuvres on Georgia's borders tested Russia's logistical supply lines and were a prelude to the invasion of that country. But the large military exercises near Ukraine in early 2014 were merely a diversion to confuse the West about what was really happening; Crimea itself was seized by Russian special forces wearing no markings - the guys who came to be known as "Little Green Men" - and who operated quite independently of the military exercise at that time. In short, a military exercise can not only be a prelude to action, but also a masquerade for planned action elsewhere.


Yet there are other key elements which are even more worrisome about next week's Zapad-2017 drills. The first is Russia's deliberate obfuscation on how big these really are. Precisely because military exercises can be destabilising, all European countries, including Russia, are party to an agreement - referred to as the Vienna Document - under which any military exercise which is bigger than 13,000 troops must be notified in advance to other European nations, which in turn are entitled to send observers to the drill.

The Russians claim that "about 12,700 soldiers" are taking part in their Zapad-2017 manoeuvres, just below this legal threshold. And they may be entirely honest: the approximately 4,000 railway transport cars now moving military hardware between Russia and Belarus, Moscow's closest European ally and the site of the exercise, tally with the figure of troops declared by Russia.

But what the Russians fail to say is that, on the margins of the official exercise in Belarus, they are also staging many other exercises of their fleet, various garrisons and large armoured formations. Each one of these exercises is classified as a "local" affair which is not controlled by the headquarters in Moscow and does not, therefore, fall under the requirements of the Vienna Document.

But this is just a legal wheeze, for the reality is that the total number of troops under Russian command concentrated in the heart of Europe next week may top 100,000. In effect, the confidence-building provisions built into European security structures are being bypassed.

And what scenario will Zapad-2017 exercise? Officially, the drill intends to test Russian responses to an attack on its soil and that of its allies by some mythical "separatists"; in practice the Russians are testing their invasion capabilities in the European heartland at one of the continent's most vulnerable points: the area surrounding the Baltic states. Every Russian unit taking part in the drills starting Sept 14 has its engineers, pontoon bridges and modular pipelines designed to deliver water and fuel at long distances for an army on the move.

And further surprises may lie ahead. The 2013 Zapad exercise ended with a simulated Russian nuclear attack on Sweden, a country which is not even a member of the US-led Nato alliance in Europe; the Zapad-2009 drill concluded with a simulated nuclear strike on Poland.

No analyst in any European country believes that President Putin will use the forthcoming manoeuvres as a prelude for any kind of invasion. So, what is all this sabre-rattling for? Partly it is about preparations for the possibility of an armed conflict with Nato; as odd as it may seem to other European leaders, Mr Putin and his military commanders are genuinely persuaded that this is a possibility, even under US President Donald Trump who has not shown much respect for Nato.

Zapad-2017 is designed by Moscow to create what Ms Kristin Ven Bruusgaard, a Norwegian expert working at Stanford University in the US, described as a Russian posture of "strategic deterrence". It is an attempt to merge all of Russia's different instruments of national power in a coherent posture designed to deter the West from interfering in Russia's self-declared sphere of influence, by proving that the Russians are determined to fight, and answer any attack with an offensive of their own.

It is, as seen from the Russian perspective, the only way Moscow can stand up to the US and its European allies, countries which, as President Putin knows only too well, are likely to maintain their economic and technological superiority over Russia. This is not the case of a powerful country strutting on the global stage, but an example of a country which is weak, yet still determined to be taken seriously.


Be that as it may, the Russian method of staging spectacular military exercises in order to deter rather than necessarily prepare to fight one's enemies is increasingly being copied by other nations. Most of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation's military drills which include China and Russia fall into this category, and so are the US-South Korean current military exercises. Furthermore, after their current border showdown in the Himalayas, one should expect both China and India to follow the route of holding border drills, all couched in reassuring terms of "testing responses to terrorist attacks", but all configured to impress and deter each other. The age of the "drill diplomacy" may be upon us.

One could argue that, as long as such games don't result in wars, they should not command too much attention. But that's far from guaranteed. For, back in 1983, Nato held an exercise called Able Archer, which was meant to test its internal defensive procedures, but was interpreted in Moscow as the start of World War III, prompting Russian leaders to ready their nuclear missile for a potential attack. It was only years later that Western leaders learnt how close they were to a nuclear exchange with Russia.

So, playing war is like playing with matches - a seemingly childish pursuit which can easily cause a major fire.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 04, 2017, with the headline 'Russia looks west with war games in Europe's heart'. Subscribe