The Zapad 2017 exercises, held within the Russian province of Kaliningrad and Russian allied Belarus made headlines leading up to its kickoff last month, as NATO officials worried aloud about just how large a military presence Russia may be sending to Europe’s eastern borders.  Four years earlier, Zapad ’13 showed that the Russian and Belarusian governments had openly lied about the number of troops that were participating in the drills, and it is believed that the equipment sent to Belarus, as well as the training Russian forces executed in the region, helped to precipitate the Russian military annexation of Crimea the following year.

The number of troops participating in the drill matters a great deal, as the Vienna Document, which Russia signed in 2011, mandates that third-party observers be permitted in the presence of any military drill that involves more than 13,000 troops.  In 2013, Russia and Belarus claimed there would be fewer than that mark of 13,000, but satellite imagery taken during the exercises would show that somewhere between 70,000 and 90,000 were actually present.

With this in mind, NATO leaders throughout Europe, including the commanding general of the U.S. Army in Europe, General Ben Hodges, anticipated another show of force that dwarfed the figures offered up by the Russian government (who claimed there would be fewer than 12,700 total participants in the days leading up to the drills).  Estimates reached as high as 100,000 troops, as citizens of the Baltic nations, in particular, kept a weary eye toward both their eastern and western flanks, where Russian troops were massing.

Although the Russians made headlines a few times during this year’s Zapad exercises, notably for a Russian KA-52 helicopter opening fire on observers with C-8 rockets, little more has been discussed in the main stream media regarding the anticipated massive size of the drills – which may, in no small part, be because Russia employed an entirely new strategy when executing this year’s Zapad exercises.