Russia’s Zapad military exercises will boast up to 100,000 Russian and Russia-allied soldiers, security services personnel, and civilians, making it the largest Russian military exercise since 1981. The maneuvers, whose official name means West in Russian, will take place Sept. 14-20, and their official purposes include testing new equipment, tactics, logistics, and combat readiness for a confrontation with NATO in or around Belarus, which is still considered the most likely reason for a major conflict involving the homeland security of Russia.
Russian defense officials will carefully monitor the results of the operation, which “serves as the capstone to the Russian military’s annual training cycle,” according to Dmitry Gorenburg. But Zapad’s unofficial purpose -- its political impact -- has in large part already succeeded. First, Zapad shows Russia’s maintained security relevance on the European continent. Second, it intends to rattle regional neighbors unsure of the extent of Russia’s interests. Third, the exercises are meant to alert Aleksandr Lukashenko, the leader of Russia’s closest ally Belarus, that his recent moves to chart a more balanced course between Russia and the European Union can be easily quashed.
The exercises, though claimed by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu as being “strictly defensive in nature,” take place in a highly combustible political environment. In a speech earlier this summer outlining Zapad, Shoigu reminded his audience that Russia’s chief defense mission was to deter NATO invasion of itself and Belarus. Shoigu was speaking not simply in terms of physical homeland security, but about any form of conflict with the goal of toppling the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Shoigu remarked that the relationship between Russia and its Western neighbors “tends to deteriorate due to the increased military activity of NATO countries in Eastern Europe.” He stressed that “what is happening demonstrates the outspoken reluctance of Western partners to abandon the anti-Russian course. This is evidenced by the May NATO summit, in which international terrorism and Russia were put in one series of threats … These unjustified actions of our Western colleagues lead to the destruction of the security system in the world. They increase mutual distrust and force us to apply response measures, primarily in the Western strategic direction.”
Reasons for alarm?
These comments and the sheer number of troops, weapons, and equipment brought to Russia’s borders and into Belarus alarm neighboring states. Russia’s neighbors fear that Moscow will use the exercises to test the resolve of the NATO alliance by simulating a counter-invasion of the Baltic countries and Poland. These countries may be protected by NATO’s security guarantees, but they are difficult to defend from actual invasion. Hence, a tepid response from NATO and the United States to a simulated invasion, on the heels of Donald Trump’s equivocation on NATO commitments on the campaign trail and in the early months of his presidency, may embolden Russia to take a harder line on regional security at the expense of vulnerable Eastern European states. As an additional symbol of Russian offensive power, Russian defense officials have selected the First Guards Tank Army for the mission; this recently reconstituted fighting force has a pedigree dating back to World War II. In its earlier incarnation, it fought its way across Western Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus before attacking Berlin and serving as part of the occupation force in Germany after the war. Later, it participated in the invasion of Czechoslovakia to crush the Prague Spring and define the contours of the Brezhnev Doctrine, under which no military ally of the Soviet Union could unilaterally liberalize and thus threaten the Soviet Union.
Beyond the implication of a potential incursion into Europe itself, there is a related fear that Russia may use Zapad as a precursor to regime change in Belarus. Although Belarus is a closely allied state, its leader, Aleksandr Lukashenko, has made a career of trying to balance between Russia and European neighbors. Now facing some of the strongest domestic opposition of his 23-year rule, Lukashenko has moved purposefully westward in orientation. As Russia held large-scale military exercises just prior to invading Georgia in 2008 and to its annexation of Crimea in 2014, there is sufficient precedent that Sergey Lavrov, the Foreign Minister, has had to repeatedly deny the idea that it could happen again.
The fear around Belarus and the region is that a legal pretext for future occupation via an expansive view of joint defense has already been created, and its logic set in motion. On Aug. 10, Putin submitted a draft federal law to the Duma on the joint air defense of Russia and Belarus. In it, the Russian President asks the Duma to ratify the protocol of Feb. 3, 2009, to defend the common borders and airspace of Russia and Belarus via the creation of a unified regional air defense system. The aim of this bill is to “improve the security of the external air border of the Union State [and] contribute to strengthening the security of the two states.”
While the legal move is more likely meant as a signal to Lukashenko to stay in his lane, Russian actions in Georgia and Ukraine both proceeded under highly specific legalistic justifications to achieve significant security outcomes. Russia intervened in Georgia to protect newly minted Russian citizens — people who had recently acquired citizenship to provide, in part, the reason for intervention. In Crimea, local authorities first seceded from Ukraine, then held a referendum to join Russia, and then voted to join Russia — all within a few days — to avoid the the specific charge that Russia had annexed Crimea directly. Although Russia does not need the Zapad military exercise to remove Lukashenko from office or to overpower Belarus, the protection of joint borders can be interpreted very broadly.
The Zapad exercises will be an important event for Russia to assess its military and civil capabilities under duress. For the United States and NATO allies, the maneuvers should similarly provide an opportunity to observe not only Russia’s physical capabilities, but the anxious and combative worldview that takes invasion and regime change as its main challenges. The likelihood of anything beyond the pre-planned exercises is pretty low: there has been no demonization of Lukashenko or Belarus on Russia media, and the likely consequences of invasion or regime change, such as the 2018 World Cup being taken away, further sanctions on the Russian economy and individuals, and the tumult that this would introduce into Russian society ahead of presidential elections next year, are all clearly understood. Nevertheless, a massive military exercise on NATO’s borders will help both Russia and its adversaries understand the conditions of Europe’s security environment.