Finnish Expert: Russia's Zapad 2017 War Games Were Not Anti-NATO Drills
(Source: Finnish Broadcasting Corp., YLE; issued Nov 15, 2017)
Many Finnish eyebrows were raised in concern when Russian and Belarusian troops carried out the week-long Zapad 2017 joint military exercises in regions across the two countries in September.

But Juhani Pihlajamaa, a Russian military specialist at Finland's National Defence University, says that while a comprehensive Finnish analysis of the Zapad 2017 drills is not yet complete, he doesn't think the drills were meant to be interpreted as threat towards Nato.

Western media outlets, including Finnish daily Helsingin Sanomat, reported the drills were a clear signal from Moscow that it was preparing for a major confrontation with Nato forces.

"Not Nato attack drills"

Pihlajamaa told Svenska Yle the exercises were "not Nato attack drills." He said military drills carried out by any country, including Russia's, always include some element of attack preparations.

But Pihlajamaa said the drill was actually less aggressive than it could have been, saying that they did not include testing of the Iskander short range missile system in Kaliningrad this year, as they did a year ago.

Precisely how many troops took part, however, remains up for debate.

Just before the exercises began, Russian officials claimed that about 13,000 troops took part in Zapad 2017, while Nato estimated there were as many as 40,000 troops involved.

Troop number discrepancy

The difference has likely added to the intrigue among geopolitical observers. But Pihlajamaa says the discrepancy is due to the way Russian counts troops.

"Russia saw Zapad as one part of continual drills carried out during the year in western military districts," Pihlajamaa says.

At the same time, however, Pihlajamaa acknowledges Western suspicions about information from the Russian military. After the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, the crisis in Ukraine and the Syrian war, he says, many people think Russia is a threat.

"That is something Russia has earned itself by its own behaviour," Pihlajamaa says. However, he still contends that he doesn't think Zapad was meant to be a threat to Finland, saying that the focus of the drills was elsewhere.

Research continues

Pihlajamaa says that examination of all of the information gathered about the Zapad drills will occupy military researchers for a long time.

Analysis of war games involves determining whether the actual exercises and activities truly measure up to a country's publicly-announced plans.

Pihlajamaa says it is also interesting to examine the techniques used in military exercises as well as learning whether new weapons are being used in them.

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