Russian military vehicles conducting a march during the Zapad-2017. (Source)
Russia’s Zapad-2017 exercise ended on Wednesday 20 September after months of preparations and an intensive political standoff between the West and Russia.
In the official Russia’s Ministry of Defence press release on Zapad-2017, 12 700 soldiers from Russia and Belarus conducted a 6-day intensive anti-terror exercise to demonstrate Russia’s conventional counter-terrorism capabilities. However, in the western interpretations, in turn, the extent and motive of the Zapad-2017 differs from Russia’s official statements; Firstly, member states of the EU and NATO presented a notably greater numbers of troops and hardware participating in Zapad-2017 and secondly, Russia’s western neighbours addressed their concerns of Russia’s prospective aggressive motives behind the large-scale exercise.
In the following text, I will analyse the possible meaning of the Zapad-2017 and present a view of Russia’s political-strategic outlook on internal and external security.
What Zapad-2017 Was About
In the Bild article Europa zittert vor Putins Grusel-Manöver I provided my commentary on the nature of Russia’s Zapad-2017 exercise:
“In my personal estimates based on long-term observations and the variety of Western and Russian sources, the overall strength of Zapad-2017 exercise will likely be between 100 000 and 240 000 soldiers while the emphasis of the dress rehearsal is on manoeuvrability, concentration of firepower, and implementation of new command and control procedures. The actual geographical extent of Zapad-2017 depends on the possible separate drills that are held simultaneously in remote or close-range locations from the official area of operations.”
The previously mentioned commentary was based on a large number of texts, press releases, analyses, and open-source information thus representing a somewhat balanced and comprehensive western-leaning view of the prospective Zapad-2017. The strength estimate was a combination of previous exercises (Kavkaz-2016, Center-2015, Zapad-2013) and official statements of European countries, while the emphasis conclusion had a basis on long-term observations of Russia’s readiness checks and separate drills, and the geographical assessment represented a standard view how Russia conducts large-scale exercises.
On my other expectation from early June based on the previously mentioned long-term observations, the four key tactical¹ details were focused on a conventional performance without an emphasis on hybrid or unconventional features. The new form of battle (Grad rocket artillery pockets reconnoitred by scouts), deep manoeuvre of Tactical Battle Groups and airborne forces, long-haul railroad marches to swift rapidly both focus and the centre-of-gravity, and concentration of firepower. In other words, this previously mentioned prediction resembled the classical blitzkrieg and spearhead doctrines.
¹The way how Russia sees the four layers of war (political-strategic-operational-tactic) differs from the standard western perception.
My observations during Zapad-2017 were limited to concern only the information provided by official Russian sources and Twitter-enthusiasts/experts to enhance the effectiveness of research and the possibility to detect weak and strong signals in a limited period of time. Next, I am going to present my observations and compare them in the light of estimates and expectations.
Firstly, on a tactical-operational level, Zapad-2017 demonstrated hardly anything previously unseen excluding the media-covered appearance of BMPT Terminator 2 and the implementation of the new form of battle. The latter was executed by using KRUS Sagittarius system that allowed reconnaissance scouts to reveal and provide targeting information for artillery units. Also, motorised and railroad marches were conducted and the concentration of firepower was present in a number of sub-scenarios.
However, on a political-strategic level, the exercise provided highly interesting details and information about Russia’s views on prospective threats and conflicts. Interestingly, Zapad-2017 was a two-stage joint exercise that demonstrated almost an identical scenario with the previous Zapad conducted in 2013: In the first stage of the training scheme, Russia and Belarus were attacked by an “unconventional and well-equipped militant adversary” that was repelled by the Belarussian and Russian forces. On the second phase of the scenario, “the active phase”, Russian and Belarussian forces conducted an aggressive counter-attack to neutralise the prominent threat by using all means of conventional force and every branch of Armed Forces and Rosgvardia (the National Guard).
In addition, there were also a plethora of simultaneous and remote exercises conducted at the same time with Zapad-2017. This raises the question of whether the additional drills were linked to the actual Zapad-2017 training scenario.
Nucleus Of Zapad-2017
During the past decades, the Zapad military exercise framework has functioned in two separate ways; firstly, as a testing platform of different aspects and details of Russia’s² latest military doctrines, enhanced tactics, and technology, and secondly, as a show-off force against Russia’s rivals, enemies and neighboring countries.
On a tactical-operational level, the latest Zapad-2017 did not present any difference in a general trend of previous exercises; there were a large number of small-scale enhancements both on tactics and operational level planning. In general, the extensive use of UAVs and C3-platforms is aimed to reduce the operational level organisation time (OODA-loop cycle) to provide an advantage against conventional adversaries. This previously mentioned trend has been one of the key emphases of Russia’s military doctrine already for years. Also, the implementation of practical experiences from Russia’s previous and current conflicts were likely present. Hence, from this point of view, Zapad-2017 was only a well prepared dress rehearsal of the series of readiness checks conducted during the present and past years.
Nevertheless, Zapad-2017 provided an interesting cross-section into the Russian military thinking and into the view how Russia sees prospective threats and conflicts. During the previous Zapad in 2013, Russia’s main scenario was similar with the latest large-scale exercise which involved an invasion of “Baltic terrorists” against Belarus. The Zapad-2013 resembled both a conventional war fought in the Middle East and a conflict between the West and Russia. However, in the light of recent developments such as the war in Ukraine, annexation of Crimea, and the war in Syria, the latest Zapad-2017 scenario could be seen in a very pessimistic view: Is Russia prepared for an internal conflict?
I will not be speculating with the stability of Russia’s internal integrity due to a combination of reasons including sensitiveness of the subject and the lack of personal expertise in Russian economic structure: it will not be beneficial to create assumptions of Russia’s internal balance without proper knowledge. While there are multiple reports ranging from the problems of banking system to decreased oil revenues, the Zapad-2017 functions more as a mirror how Russia sees the west rather than a preparation for a unavoidable collapse and civil war.
In the Russian way of thinking, Russia is surrounded by its enemies and the tense situation between Russia and the West stems from an aggressive behaviour of the United States, the EU, and NATO. Russia sees itself merely as a victim and a defender of their national interests and sovereignty. In this mentality, the interpretation of “colour revolutions” differs from the western way of thinking: Instead of being spontaneous uprisings stemming from the combination of struggle for democracy, human rights, and better life, Russia sees these events as a western conspiracy to install a global hegemony.
The reason to understand the previously described knowledge is simple: In the Zapad-2013 and Zapad-2017 exercises, Russia has sent a clear message to the west: If there will be an uprising either in Russia or its sphere of influence³ (Belarus, CSTO countries), the West is the one to blame. Hence, when examined the scenario of the Zapad-2017 exercise, it possible to interpret Russia’s strong and simple message: an uprising or a “colour revolution” inside the “Russian circle³” will be countered by force and retaliated. Here, the difference between the 2013 and 2017 scenario is that the Ukrainian revolution in 2014 was retaliated against Ukraine itself, but this time Russia might conduct it directly against the west, even if it would be highly unclear and unlikely whether the West would even be the perpetrator.
To support this theory, it is important to take into account the change in the political circumstances during the past four years: Russia and the West are in a mutual and tense political-military stand-off without a short way out from the situation. Russia has introduced a large amount of legislation to strengthen the role of security institutions and most recently, the Armed Forces were subordinated under the National Guard, Rosgvardia. This could indicate either a possible preparation to counter internal threats or to strengthen the power of the political executive over the military.
Moreover, the simultaneous exercises conducted at the same time with the official zapad-2017 can be regarded either as an inseparable part of the main event, completely separate events, or interestingly, the way how Russia could see the prospective future of warfare as small and separate low-intensity conflicts fought in a number of mutually remote locations throughout the regions of political-strategic interest. However, this vision requires significantly more research and currently functions merely as an opener rather than a well-reasoned fact. In addition, the art of deception, maskirovka, plays an important role by scrambling the Zapad-related activity effectively with the separate drills. Also, both the media and political focus was stronger in the latest Zapad than compared to the previous ones.
³In the Russian way of thinking
Side note: It is quite interesting how Russia acted partly in the similar way as the unconventional adversary in Zapad-2013 during the annexation of Crimea.
Conclusion: Thin and Unclear Red Line
The conclusions of this text are following: Firstly, Russia’s Zapad-2017 was a political-strategic exercise, rather than an operational level scenario, to amplify the message of Russia’s foreign and security policy towards the West, and secondly, Russia is prepared for the only possible “external” threat that stems from the possible instability within the internal framework.
Instead of being solely a military exercise to test the performance of the Armed forces and Rosgvardia, Russia succeeded on the political and information domains to amplify their message of “red line” for the alleged “western conspiracy” against Russia. The Zapad-2017 media coverage and political debate in the West ensured that Russia was able to be seen the most favorable light the country prefers itself to be regarded: Important and fearful. In the operational-tactical level there was hardly anything new or unseen.On the political-strategic level, in turn, it was surprising in how little the actual scenario differed from the previous one thus indicating the fundamental establishment of colour revolution scenarios into the military doctrine.
In the political-strategic sense, the only way Russia seems to view itself to be externally threatened is a machinated coup d´etat that would create an implosion of the current system. Still, even if the actual reason for a prospective or unlikely meltdown would stem from completely different combination of factors than external reasons, the Russian way of thinking leads to an outside-in or an inside-out outcome regardless of reality. In my opinion, this interpretation is the dangerous part of the west-Russia standoff because the only way for Russia to handle an internal conflict would be to channel it outwards. The old rule still applies on Russia’s way of war: Russia never fights a war on its own land, and the possible internal imbalance will be the west’s fault.
Lastly, I am quite satisfied of the accuracy of my own predictions and estimates. Here, an old rule also applies: Hard work pays off. Thank you all the experts and the Russia-enthusiasts for providing the necessary information.