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.
Instead of conducting one massive drill that placed all Russian and Belarusian troops under the same operational parameters for the extent of the exercises, Russian leaders broke the drills up into separate exercises, each of which saw fewer than 13,000 total participants. That meant that they would not be obligated to permit third-party observers when they opted not to, and they could dispute any claims of violating the Vienna Document, as they had been before.
All told, even despite Russian guile, the overall military presence in the Zapad drills was still significantly smaller than what NATO officials predicted. While some anticipated as many as 100,000 troops, the total figure in Belarus and Kaliningrad was likely closer to 40,000, which is still more than three times the size Russia and Belarus claimed, but not nearly as daunting as the massive force General Hodges worried might be a “Trojan Horse” for further military actions, as would have been in keeping with previous Zapad exercises.
Although that figure is technically smaller than anticipated, the true numbers are nearly impossible to know. Russia executed a series of military drills within their own territory simultaneous to the Zapad drills, for instance, including the launch of two nuclear capable ICBMs in what appeared to be a massive, interconnected war game that approximated open war with the western powers of NATO. All told, the actual footprint of these interconnected drills was likely much larger than the media will ever know.
Russian forces also played a few other dirty tricks during their drills, including the blocking of Latvia’s emergency services’ 112 hotline (similar to America’s 911) for a short time as the largest parts of the drills kicked off. The blocking of their emergency services line may have been unintentional, as the primary target of their signal jammer was not Latvia.
“Russia appears to have switched on a mobile communications jammer in Kaliningrad, a very powerful one that wasn’t aimed at Latvia, but towards Gotland, the Aland Islands,” said Karlis Serzants, the deputy chairman of the Latvian parliament’s National Security Committee. “One of the edges (of the beam) affected Latvia too.”
Despite Serzants, other NATO officials aren’t so sure the jamming was unintentional. U.S. intelligence experts have stated that this year’s Zapad drills placed a much larger emphasis on cyber warfare than previous exercises, and according to NATO officials, the jamming was intentional to test their ability to intercept or jam civilian communications “within a significant radius and with relative ease.”
Zapad 2017 did not lead to the outbreak of war, as some worried, but the larger concerns demonstrated by NATO leaders as Zapad approached were never about open war, they were about the ongoing chess game Russia is playing with NATO in the region, and how the drills would help better position Russia for future military action.
As to whether those concerns were founded, is yet to be seen.
Image courtesy of the Russian Ministry of Defense