“Zapad-2017”: Russian sabre rattling towards eastern Europe

Photo: www.info.cz 


Article by: Alex Kokcharov

Major border incidents unlikely but the upcoming Russia-Belarus military exercises demonstrate the extent of Russia’s potential reach.

A numbers game

Zapad-2017 is a joint strategic exercise by the Russian and Belarusian armed forces, planned for 14–20 September 2017. It will take place in Belarus and parts of the Western Military District of Russia, including Leningrad, Pskov, Novgorod and Smolensk regions, as well as in Kaliningrad region, the Russian exclave on the southeastern shore of the Baltic Sea between Poland and Lithuania.

According to Russian official statements, the exercise will involve a total of 12,700 Russian and Belarusian military personnel, 370 armoured vehicles (including 200 tanks), 250 artillery units, and over 70 aircraft. The number of troops is below the threshold of 13,000 which under OSCE rules would require mandatory formal notification and invitation of observers. According to the Baltic States, the last Zapad-series exercise in 2013 involved 75,000 military personnel, six times higher than Russia disclosed. IHS Markit has no evidence to support these claims, but it is quite likely that Russia has under-reported the numbers of Russian troops participating in order to avoid closer international scrutiny.

Russia’s objectives

We assess that Russia’s key objective in Zapad-2017 is to demonstrate its upgraded military capabilities to its Western neighbours, in order to discourage what would be regarded as any hostile moves against Moscow, or its ally Belarus. The exercise will likely be used to demonstrate the modernisation of Russian armed forces in the past decade, and demonstrate their capability to counter a range of military threats to its ally Belarus, whether of conventional attack or asymmetric fostering of separatism. If Russian forces deployed to take part in Zapad-2017 are larger than the officially declared number, this would serve as an indicator of such demonstration.


Moscow is also likely to use the exercise to pressure Belarus into a closer political and military alliance, pushing for establishment of its new military bases on Belarusian territory. But Russia is more likely to use trade disputes rather than military threats to achieve this goal. It is probably not coincidental that in late August Russia accused Belarus of breaking trade rules by re-exporting embargoed EU foods into the Russian market. Further trade disputes would serve as indicators to watch. Additionally, the withdrawal (or lack thereof) of Russian troops from Belarus upon the completion of the exercise would serve as another important indicator of reducing or increasing risk.

Outlook and implications

However, outright Russian occupation of Belarus, or any significant border incidents on the borders with NATO member states or Ukraine, are unlikely.

  1. First, this time Russia has not been conducting the kinds of information operations and propaganda that prepared the ground for military operations into both Georgia and Ukraine, ostensibly in response to requests for intervention.
  2. Second, Russia is aware that any permanent incursions into Ukraine would be likely to trigger new Western sanctions and would probably further mobilise Ukraine into a unified polity opposed to increased Russian influence – both results would be counterproductive to Russian strategy.
  3. Third, in the Baltic States and Poland in the past two years there has been a significant improvement in defence capabilities, including NATO’s deployment of small, but politically significant, multinational deterrent forces, fully operational since August 2017. Moscow is aware that any military conflict in the Baltics would risk quickly escalating to an interstate war with NATO, which Russia would be unlikely to risk.

On 6 September NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, while visiting Estonia, said that Zapad-2017 exercise does not pose a direct threat to any of NATO member states.

At the same time, Russia is likely to use what has become its routine tactic of small-scale intimidation, especially in airspace bordering the Baltic States, Poland and Ukraine. Incidents of Russian military aircraft flying close to or into the airspace of its neighbours, particularly the Baltic States, and buzzing NATO aircraft over the international waters of the Baltic Sea, will be likely. They are likely to be contained and have no more than a temporary impact on civilian aircraft and commercial shipping operations.


Alex Kokcharov is a Principal Analyst with the Country Risk and Forecastings Europe & Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) team at IHS Markit.


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Source: IHS Markit

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  1. Avatar Eolone says:

    Western military experts place the number of troops at 100,000, so well over the count for which there should be notification and observers. Putin might be testing the West’s resolve to defend Eastern Europe, but he’s a clown compared to the savage dictators of the mid-20th century.

  2. Avatar zorbatheturk says:

    Zapad presents a target-rich environment.

  3. Avatar Ihor Dawydiak says:

    The “Zapad” military exercise should be viewed as nothing more than a “tempest in a teapot”. While the displayed Russian tanks might be effective in a relatively low grade type of warfare, they would be useless against high tech missiles that could be used should any NATO country be attacked by the Russian Armed Forces. Moreover, the Kremlin is more than aware of this simple fact. Furthermore, why would the “putinistas” even have any desire to occupy or annex Belarus since that country would only drain Russian economic resources which in turn have already been heavily strained as a result of Western social and economic sanctions? In fact, should this entire affair not be viewed in the same way as a pouter puff pigeon enlarges its chest to ward off potential predators? As for Putin himself, he has on many occasions tried to bluff while probing for assumed weaknesses and in the process has tried to determine exactly what he could get away with but he has not been quite so stupid as to engage in a game of Russian Roulette. He has already been burned in his useless efforts to subjugate Ukraine and another major folly would only hasten his demise.

    1. Avatar Scradje says:

      Indeed. The chekist rodent doesn’t need to invade Belarus; it is already little more than a Russian oblast, same as Armenia. Very sadly the same will happen to Georgia, which has already lost 20% of its land to its criminal neighbour, unless it is granted NATO membership.

      1. Avatar Screwdriver says:

        Georgia`s on your mind ? Atlanta or Augusta ? Who would be the criminal neighbor , South Carolina ?
        So scary!

        1. Avatar Oknemfrod says:

          People who ill understand humor shouldn’t attempt trying it. It’s much worse than writing verses by those who have no sense of prosody or singing by those who have a tin ear.

  4. Avatar Screwdriver says:

    We were told before that Russia run out of money, so nothing to worry for the West, those tanks are cheap makets, made of hard carton.

    1. Avatar Oknemfrod says:

      What in the heck is a “maket”? You shouldn’t assume that folks not versed in Russian know of a French word “maquette” the Russian have stolen and appropriated for their own use. Also, you overestimate the hardness of carton from which the Russian tanks are made. About 1000 of them were lost to a single squadron of A-10 “Warthogs” in Iraq in a span of a couple of weeks, not to mention what kind of mince the Israelis made of them in the Six Day War.

  5. Avatar zorbatheturk says:

    This evil threat to the West will only end once the remnant of the Soviet Onion known as the RF, run by the fascist dictator Putin, implodes in the fashion of Tito’s former Yugoslavia. Siberia needs to split off and become a Republic which will attract plenty of inbound investment from China, Korea, Japan, and western companies, once its resources are no longer stolen by Moscow and transferred to Swiss Bank accounts by the siloviki.