What to Expect from Russia’s Zapad-17 Military Exercises
On September 12th, the Center for the National Interest held a panel discussion on Russia’s Zapad 2017 military exercises. The speakers included Peter Zwack, retired Brigadier General in the U.S. Army and a former U.S. senior defense attaché to the Russian Federation from 2012 to 2014, and Michael Kofman, a Senior Research scientist at the CNA Corporation and a Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute. Paul Saunders, Executive Director of the Center for the National Interest and a former State Department Senior Advisor during the George W. Bush administration moderated. The event was streamed live on The National Interest’s Facebook page and can be found here. A summary of the event can be found below.
Two experts on the Russian military agreed that the Zapad 2017 exercise will showcase Russia’s offensive capabilities. Peter Zwack, a retired Brigadier General in the U.S. Army, and Michael Kofman, a Senior Research Scientist at the CNA Corporation and a Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, argued that Russia will display its offensive measures by showing it can deploy a large force in the field. By deploying a large force, Russia will signal that it can deter an enemy and escalate a conflict if necessary, said Kofman. Zwack added that deploying a large force does not simply show the power of brute force, but also Russia’s infrastructure and logistic capabilities to move large forces across long distances. Despite the offensive display, both experts agreed that the exercise would not indicate any new foreign military adventures for 2017.
Peter Zwack, who observed the Zapad 2013 exercise as U.S. defense attaché in Moscow, described the earlier exercise as “classic firepower.” Given the context surrounding the event, including already-deteriorating U.S.-Russia relations, he deemed it was likely geared to impress the world and Western military officials, to intimidate Russia’s neighbors, and to reassure the Russian public that the military was strong. A series of snap readiness checks and drills followed the exercise, which started a trend of conditioning Russians to believe that a war might be imminent. However, despite the continuing decline of relations with the West, Zwack concluded by saying he believes that Russian president Vladimir Putin’s government feels more secure now that it did in 2013—in no small part due to its growing military capabilities.
Michael Kofman pointed out that Zapad 2017 falls within a longer series of exercises and readiness checks, some of which have already occurred on Belarusian and Russian soil. As Kofman said, the first phase of the exercise, beginning on September 14, will be for the Russian and Belarusian militaries to “find, fix and finish” subversive actors who are seeking either to cause turmoil in Belarus or to sponsor a “color revolution” of the kind that occurred in Eastern Europe and the Caucuses. The second phase will begin when the main group of the combined forces is deployed into a combat scenario in which a hypothetical crisis in Belarus turns into an open conflict sponsored by an actor analogous to the United States. Given the four years since the last exercise, the second phase of the exercise should provide observers with an opportunity to evaluate any changes in Russian capabilities, in both logistics and warfighting.
Kofman questioned the Western media’s claims that 100,000 troops will participate in Zapad 2017. He argued that, realistically, the number of troops will be sixty-five to seventy thousand distributed across Belarus, as well as near Kaliningrad and the northern portion of Russia, with an additional twenty thousand National Guard troops under the Ministry of the Interior’s command deployed throughout Russia. Kofman said around thirty thousand of the sixty-five to seventy thousand troops are already based in Belarus, with an additional fifteen thousand Russian troops to be deployed to Belarus and around the Baltic States. Russia’s Northern Fleet, comprising ten thousand troops, will also participate. “The real number, I’ll be frank, depends on how you count,” Kofman said. He also claimed that the Russian General Staff has a vested interest in inflating the numbers to project an image of even greater strength, which the Western media reinforces through its overreaction.
Kofman said the goal of the exercise is to establish a strategic deterrent against the United States by showcasing its abilities to deploy rapidly in the area, thus discouraging intervention by the United States and its allies. Furthermore, the exercise seeks to train the military to react quickly in a crisis to coerce an enemy coalition to sue for peace early with terms favorable to Russia. Kofman ended by saying that some of the most revealing insights into the Russian military’s capabilities and intentions might be in the follow-on exercises after the conclusion of Zapad.
Zwack also highlighted the potential to track the Russian military’s gains during the exercise since over “the last three years, they’ve been in a real world operational [setting].” Zwack went on to say that the Russian military is split into three levels of skill, “I would say one-third is really good now, a third is not bad, it’s credible,” and the last portion, while still lacking, “is much better than they were in Georgia in 2008 and even more so since 2014.” He argued that tracking these gains is crucial as the Russian military has studied how the U.S. military fights and has developed new tactics that mitigate American strengths. Therefore, observing how the Russian military employs these new tactics will be critical to maintaining U.S. dominance. “This is all a part of preparing for us,” Zwack noted.
As Kofman pointed out, “This is really more of a bilateral exercise between Russia and the U.S.” The U.S. then can utilize this opportunity to observe Russian advancements and watch closely to see whether Russian troops remain in Belarus after Zapad has concluded. Kofman observed, “the period of danger is what takes place after the exercise,” and thus watchful eyes should remain on the Belarusian and Russian troops beyond the Zapad 2017 exercise.