A quick online search for Zapad 2017 might give the impression that Europe should be preparing for war. In September, Russia will launch a joint military exercise with Belarus in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. Codenamed Zapad, the Russian word for ‘West’, many commentators are perhaps taking this term a little too literally. Labelled as ‘war games’ and an ‘exercise in intimidation’, most Western media outlets seem content to perpetuate an image of an aggressive and bellicose Russia.

Their concern is that Russia might use Operation Zapad as cover to stage an invasion of the Baltic states. Others worry that is that Russia could launch a small-scale, provocative assault in order to gauge NATO’s reaction and willingness to spring to the aid of one of its member states. Both of these outcomes are highly unlikely; Russia knows its military limitations and that full-frontal war with NATO can only end in defeat.

When dealing with Russia, the recent invasions of Georgia and Ukraine are often brought up as a warning to all those who might underestimate the chances of a Russian military thrust into neighbouring lands. But parallels are difficult to draw in this case. It was Georgia’s incursion into the disputed territory of South Ossetia in 2008 that provoked a backlash, albeit disproportional, from Russia; and in the case of Ukraine in 2014, the strategic importance of Russia’s naval base in Crimea was deemed cause for action. In both instances, the Russian offensive may have been heavy-handed and aggressive, but not without what Russia considered to be provocation or the need for territorial protection. Neither appear to apply here.

What is Operation Zapad?

Zapad-2017 is a series of military exercises that takes place every four years to simulate a large-scale operation. It involves all the armed forces, as well as logistics and support teams. Dr Igor Sutyagin of the Royal United Services Institute claimed that the “main driving force in this exercise” is to practice moving troops, equipment and machinery quickly around a certain area. Russia’s size means that it cannot be defended at all times.

There is no suggestion that Russia is planning anything other than this. Despite this, the head of the US Army forces in Europe, Lieutenant General Ben Hodges stated that Russia could be planning to leave troops in Belarus: “People are worried, this is a Trojan horse. They say, ‘we’re just doing an exercise,’ and then all of a sudden they’ve moved all these people and capabilities somewhere,” he told Reuters.

Russia has strongly refuted this accusation, with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin labelling the claims “artificial buffoonery … aimed at justifying the sharp intensification of NATO bloc [activities] along the perimeter of Russian territory”, when speaking to Interfax in July

t-72 tank operations zapad russia army
The T-72 tank participating in exercises. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

How will NATO respond?

Zapad-2017 is a planned operation, unlike other ‘snap’ exercises, which give the military limited time to prepare. This means that NATO can study the exercises to better understand Russian military strategy and planning, thereby improving defensive strategy in response. Indeed, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov pointed out, NATO colleagues “were invited to attend these exercises”.

The rhetoric from US Army generals, western publications and NATO officials is of deep distrust of Russia. The news that Russia is conducting a routine military operation with Belarus is taken not only as cause for concern, but also as an opportunity for people to speculate on Moscow’s intentions. The Center for European Policy Analysis has done just this, calling upon NATO to display ‘unity, cohesion and readiness’ and not to ‘take regional stability for granted.’ The danger of this is a lapse into a state of Cold War era panic. If Russia does indeed intend to launch an attack against NATO in the Baltic states, then a full-scale military exercise is hardly the best-disguised ‘Trojan horse’. In the face of Russian aggression, calm and considered action is required.

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