War games in the times of mistrust: exercise “Zapad 2017”

Marko Savković

07. September 2017

War games in the times of mistrust: exercise “Zapad 2017”

The military exercise “West 2017” of the armed forces of Russia and Belarus will take place from September 14 to September 20, but their significance and implications in professional circles have been speculated for a good month. How in the analysis of the Atlantic Council of the Washington-based organization that advocates the strengthening of NATO and the so-called transatlantic connections – says, “military exercises do not exist in a vacuum and they must always be understood in a broader strategic context.” In particular, we add, when this “wider context” is filled with an atmosphere of utter distrust, where the neighboring country (Ukraine) continues to be hostile in which the US and NATO members are on the one hand, and on the other hand, Russia directly helps the conflicted parties.

The purpose of a military exercise (exercises) is to raise or preserve combat readiness. However, the time when they served exclusively as preparations for the war is behind us. With the development of awareness that security is indivisible, that is, in the interests of our neighbors is that we are safe; and that it is a common good, something to strive for, the emphasis is on transparency. That is why, to the extent possible, a transparent approach to the exercise of military exercises is desirable.

In order to understand the tension that these days prevail in the Baltic capitals, it is enough to look at the map. Exercises will be held in: the western military region of Russia; Kaliningrad; and throughout Belarus. The spatial arrangement is such that a semicircle about three formerly Soviet republics is formed, today EU and NATO members – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Their leaders, as expected, are reminiscent of the Russian annexation of Crimea and the conflict in Ukraine that is still ongoing. Poland, a more powerful military neighbor, first pulled a concrete step, closing the air space on the border with Belarus in September. In Kiev, according to the first reactions, exercises are perceived as an ideal cover for a new attack by the armed forces on their territory.

The first problem from the perspective of countries such as the immediate environment and the West is that the Russian and Belarusian parties have not announced the holding of exercises, nor have they invited NATO to send observers – which has been a regular practice so far. This would mean that the two countries have violated the provisions of the Vienna Agreement of 2011, which was agreed with the mediation of the OSCE in order to strengthen confidence and build security, and increase transparency in the treatment of the armed forces. At the same time (which was also the subject of the agreement), no exercise scenario was presented, and it is speculated that some sort of conflict with NATO will also be simulated this time.

The second point of dispute is about the number of soldiers who will participate. An analysis by two Polish researchers, Colonel Armed Forces Colonel Tomasz Kowalak and senior officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Dominic Jankowski, showed that 4,000 railway wagons were fixed for the needs of transport of soldiers and equipment in Russia. They point out that the composition of this size in Belarus can be transferred to 30,000 people. Former NATO commander in Europe, General Philip Bridelove, argued that the biggest Russian military exercise before us was the end of the Cold War. Representatives of Russia and Belarus reject such claims, saying that the number of soldiers involved will not exceed 13,000 – which, according to the aforementioned international agreement, is the limit beyond which the presence of military observers must be accepted. All, however, know that this limit is relatively easy to bypass, with one great exercise being divided into a series of smaller ones.

And yet, the “West” exercises are not something unexpected or even new. They have been held since 1973, every four years. The Russian side, unlike many exercises it has held in the past few years, announced them in advance. During the 1990s, they were not maintained, to continue with them in 1999, when Moscow felt again capable of doing so. It is especially interesting that the last exercise in the series took place in exactly the same territory (hence this “West” in the title, from the Russian perspective), only then were the circumstances different. The Synopsis is intended to combat the terrorist threat, air and sea attacks, the navy’s effects on land targets, until the launch of the Iskander-M missile system and a general test of news in the command and control system. Here we must not be distracted by the mind that the Russian armed forces have been in the reform process for well over ten years – and that reform requires constant rehearsals.

On the other hand, the United States, and then NATO, have been working in their response since 2014. It started from an American, rather rogue name, the “European Reassurance Initiative”, which in practice was translated into the so-called ” “Enhanced forward presence” NATO agreed at the Warsaw Summit in 2016. The four are “robust, multinational, combat forces (units)”, which in the official publication of the Alliance called “the largest reinforcement of collective defense (NATO) this generation. ” In total, 4,500 soldiers, mainly mechanized infantry, in four countries – three Baltic republics and Poland – with four leading countries (USA, Germany, Canada and Great Britain). From our region, only Albania (with 18 deminers) participates, but, interestingly, not Croatia.

It’s a fairly tense Sunday before us. To make matters worse, now that NATO is determined to “show their teeth” to the Russian side, plans for new, similar exercises involving the strength of the Alliance countries will be intensified. In November, the Trident-Javelin (“Trotter-thrower spear”) will be held much less, with 3,000 participating soldiers; while for the next scheduled exercise Trident-Juncture (“Trozubac-Crossroad”) for as many as 35,000 people. In the east of Europe, the initiatives for mediation and reduction of tension give way to war games, the chances of achieving peace are reduced.

The text was first published in New Magazine no. 332, 7 September 2017.

Photo: Delfi