The joint Russian-Belarusian strategic military exercise called Zapad 2017 is scheduled for 14–20 September 2017, and will be mainly held in Belarus and Russia’s Kaliningrad Oblast. Запад-2017 means West-2017 in English, and is clearly aimed at demonstrating the geographical area where the military exercise will take place.
Both countries are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization—CSTO—a military alliance between former Soviet Union republics similar to NATO.
In what could be Russia’s largest war games since the end of the Cold War, Lithuania said approximately 100,000 troops will take part in the military exercise. However, according to Moscow, 7,200 Belarusian and 5,500 Russian troops will take part in the military exercise. Minsk assured all Russian troops will redeploy to Russia after the exercise.
The Russian Defense Ministry stated that Zapad 2017 aims at fighting terrorism, not invade Europe. Moscow also added that the drills are purely defensive as the scenario is a simulated insurgency intending to overthrow the Belarusian government, and sabotaging the alliance with Russia.
On August 22, the Belarusian Defense Ministry invited observers from Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Sweden, and Norway in compliance with the 2011 Vienna Document.
According to the Vienna Document, exercises totalizing more than 13,000 troops are subject to mandatory inspections, and is limited to six military activities within a calendar year. The Vienna Document (40.1.1) also states that notification must be sent to the other side if those conditions are met:
—at least 9,000 troops, including support troops, or
—at least 250 battle tanks, or
—at least 500 ACVs, as defined in Annex III, paragraph (2), or
—at least 250 self-propelled and towed artillery pieces, mortars and multiple rocket launchers (100mm calibre and above)
That said, according to Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, Lithuania’s Defense Minister Raimundat Karoblis said that Moscow could deploy as much as 100,000 troops during Zapad 2017.
On June 20, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and Lithuania President Dalia Grybauskaitė held a joint press point where a journalist asked the following question in regards to Zapad 2017: “Mr. Secretary General, is it taken into account [inaudible] Europe NATO military threat not only from Russia but from Belarus during the exercise Zapad 2017?”
Stoltenberg replied with the following statement: ″We are going to follow and monitor the Zapad exercise area here closely, and all nations have the right to exercise their forces but it is important that nations, be it Belarus or Russia, exercise their forces that they do that in accordance with well-established guidelines and agreements and international obligations and we have something called the Vienna document which outlines how exercises have to be notified and be subject to international inspections and we call on Russia and also Belarus to do that in accordance with the Vienna document so that we have transparency, predictability related to Zapad 2017. We are also working in the framework of the NATO-Russia Council to have more transparency, predictability, connected to military posture but also exercises, and that is always important but especially important now when we see more military presence along our borders in this region. It’s even more important to have transparency, international observation of exercises like Zapad.″
Although many will argue Russia is beating the drums of war and getting ready for a possible incursion in the Baltic States, it is highly unlikely that it will happen. Russia and Belarus have the right to conduct military training as Stoltenberg stated during the joint press point. Because of the size of its country, Russia’s military is stretched out and needs to train in strategic and tactical redeployment.
Exercises such as Zapad 2017 is not only for troops to conduct joint training with another member of the CSTO but also for training the logistician in redeployment through different terrain. NATO allies conduct the same type of training on a yearly basis, especially now with the fear of Russian expansionism in the Baltic States in Eastern Europe.
Some may argue Russia is conducting this training with as many as 100,000 troops to absorb Belarus through the Union State but it is only speculation and it will not happen. As a matter of fact, exercises such as Zapad 2017 is being conducted to enhance collaboration between two independent countries through military alliance.
Both Belarus and Russia will benefit from a military exercise such as Zapad 2017 in many ways; training the soldiers, airman, and sailors is only a part of this whole war game. In fact, as stated earlier, the logistical challenge to move large numbers of troops between Russia (including Kaliningrad) and Belarus is enough to justify a 12,700-strong military deployment. Even if the numbers stated by Lithuania is true, 100,000 soldiers on such a vast territory is justified.
For many, this number equals the number of troops in the field carrying an AK-74MN and conducting battle procedures. However, a large part of this 12,700 troops is providing support and logistics to a very small number of soldiers in the field, in the air, and on the sea.
Unfortunately, many uninformed persons don’t understand the amount of logistics it takes to sustain a soldier in the field. So while pro-NATO analysts are saying both Russia and Belarus are deploying a vast number of troops, it is totally understandable that it requires it to overcome the logistical challenge behind this war game. Fighthing an insurgency trying to overthrow a government also requires a large amount of troops, supplies and movement. As stated in the Zapad 2017 briefing, both Russia and Belarus are training their troops for new command and control as well as new military procedures.
Nevertheless, Russia and Belarus have the right to conduct war games and there is no threat whatsoever to both the Baltic States and Europe coming out of it.