Ministry of Defence has completed a review of military training Zapad 2017, jointly conducted earlier this year by Russia and Belarus.
Ministry of Defence believes that Zapad 2017 was an attempt to portray Russia as a transparent country to the world, and convince that Zapad 2017 focuses on defence. However, pseudo-transparency has failed to disguise Russia’s traditional methods, including geographically and quantitatively massive conventional attack simulations, attempts to deceive about the actual size of forces taking part in the drill and the use of inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Russia claimed that such excessive military force was meant to counter illegal armed groups.
Zapad does not promote trust and transparency between NATO and Russia, it does rather raise the tensions. Russia’s reluctance to provide transparency of such exercise justifies the need to ensure continued enhanced forward presence of NATO troops in the region.
Ministry of Defence does, however, appreciate the openness of Belarus in regards to Zapad 2017.
In September, Russian Armed Forces launched strategic command and control training titled Zapad 2017 in the Western region of Russia, and at the same time conducted joint strategic-level training, also called Zapad 2017, together with Belarus on the Belorussian territory.
According to official information about the two training exercises, both focused on very similar scenarios – attack and elimination of foreign aggressor or armed militants. Both drills were also conducted at the same time, which means that both exercises were a part of a larger scenario implemented under joint command.
By conducting two military drills under the same name, Russia probably tried to hide the actual number of troops that took part in the training. Reports submitted based on OSCE Vienna document show that military training in Belarus involved 12 700 troops. Although the Russian component of the training was bigger in scale, no official reports about the magnitude of this drill were submitted through Vienna document notification system. This way Russia tested the response of international community to violations of international agreements or cases when such breach is difficult to prove. This is another instance when Russia tried to interpret international agreements its own way.
To emphasise the defensive nature of Zapad 2017, contrary to what has been observed over the past 5 years, active training began without combat readiness orders. According to official reports, troops were first ordered to defend against massive air and missile attacks of hypothetical aggressor. Their task was to regain air space control from, as we can see, a strong and well-armed, combat-worthy hypothetical opponent. In Europe, the only organisation with matching capability is NATO. Hypothetical aggressor played by Russian armed forces, used Air Force long-haul bombers to fly through international airspace, near the borders of neighbouring countries. This may be interpreted as a way to show Russia’s capability to conduct a pre-emptive strike against a neighbouring country. During Zapad 2017, bombers flew across the Baltic Sea and along the Norwegian coastline.
It must also be considered, as officially reported, that the Baltic Fleet of Russian Armed Forces was given a task to block the access by sea and land the marines onto a rough terrain. Whereas the active training of Air Force parachute infantry component during Zapad 2017 required paratroopers to simulate an airfield take-over until arrival of support force.
Information activities and strategic communication was a vital part of the training. During Zapad 2017, Russia’s Ministry of Defence released images from active training, showing the launch of cruise missiles from Iskander Tactical Operational Missile Complex in Leningrad region. Posting of images from the launch of cruise missiles can be considered a part of Russia’s strategic communication, showing that it has heavy weaponry close to the border, which may be successfully fired at strategic locations on the other side of the border from Russia without any possibility to detect such attack before the hit. Cruise missiles have high precision rate, they can destroy strategic targets and are extremely difficult to detect when launched.
Usually such exercise is part of sudden attack training, and would not fit the declared purpose of the defence training. In the current geopolitical and regional context such training can be considered an additional threat, with Russian army demonstrating its ability to suddenly attack military infrastructure of the Baltic countries.
Another indication of Zapad 2017 being an attempt to test the Russia’s readiness to face NATO forces was the strong emphasis on testing military communications in cases of radio-electronic and cyber warfare. Russia’s Armed Forces specifically stressed that they have created a safe high-speed data exchange network, provided protected video-conferencing equipment for training commanding and other officers and communications via closed and open lines of telephone exchange. Hypothetical aggressor simulated an attack on networks used by Russian and Belorussian armed forces for military communication.
In 2009 and 2013, Zapad mostly took place in Belarus and Kaliningrad region. However, this year most of the troops and equipment were gathered at the Luga base near the Eastern border of Estonia. In 2013, the main training location was Khmelevka base in Kaliningrad and Gozha base in Belarus, near the Lithuanian border. 2009 training was conducted at Obuz-Lesnovka base in Belarus and Khmelevka base in Kaliningrad. Training was focused at these locations because President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin had decided to visit these training grounds and take part in formal demonstration of combat skills. However, it does not mean that exercises held in other locations are less notable. And the same can be said about Zapad 2017, as well.
In the early September, in the build-up to Zapad 2017, Russia conducted strategic missile command and control combat readiness training in the Moscow region. On 12 September, ICBM RS-24 Yars was fired from Plesetsk Cosmodrome at Kura missile test range on Kamchatka peninsula. Another ICBM RS-24 Yars was fired from Plesetsk Cosmodrome on 20 September, and on 26 September an ICBM RS-12M Topol-M was fired from Kapustin Yar launch site. During the previous exercise, Strategic Rocket Force used to fire ballistic missiles in October, the way it did this year. It is very likely that this year’s ICBM tests were aligned with strategic-level training and may have very well been a part of the drill, to emphasise that Russia is a nuclear-weapon state.
Extensive exercise, involving 8th Army, 49th Army and 58th Army, took place in Southern Military District (SOUTH) in parallel with Zapad 2017 official training in Leningrad, Pskov, Kaliningrad district, Belarus and Northern Fleet. SOUTH also borders with NATO member states.
So, the general conclusion with regard to Zapad 2017 is that it contained the elements of counter attack in addition to defence elements, as officially stated. In other words, Russia was testing its active combat capabilities. It was publicly announced, and active training showed, that all training elements began with defence and then counter-attack. Ministry of Defence of Latvia believes that it is not the sequence that matters, but the type of capability being tested.
Latvia’s Ministry of Defence underlines that strategic command and control training of Russian Armed Forces and strategic-level joint training Zapad 2017 between Russia and Belarus did not lead to direct military aggression risks. Scenarios played out during the training were based on the new situation in the region and enhanced forward presence of NATO battle groups in the Baltic countries and Poland.
Countries, which have signed the OSCE Vienna document, are required to notify other participating states of military training with 9 000 or more troops, and should ensure presence of observers when number of troops participating in an exercise exceeds 13 000.
It has been reported earlier that two Latvian observers participated in Zapad 2017 exercise in Belarus and one observer went to Russia. All observers were notified according to Vienna document procedures. Ministry of Defence would like to stress that the presence of observers at international military training is a standard practice, it should not be considered as exceptional – it is a standard procedure aimed at dispelling concerns about a certain military activity.
On 9 December 2016, Latvia offered Russia a bilateral agreement on one additional arms control visit and one monitoring mission in border area. On 9 March 2017, Russia officially declined agreement proposed by Latvia, demonstrating that it is not ready to ensure sustainable and transparent cooperation.
As Latvia’s Ministry of Defence reported several days before Zapad 2017, active movement of Russian military near Latvia’s borders was part of the build-up for Russia-Belarus joint military training.
Latvian Armed Forces have intensified the monitoring of national borders and exchange of vital strategic, tactical and operational data with allied forces since annexation of Crimea and Russia’s aggression in Ukraine in 2014. Latvian Armed Forces will continue close monitoring of the national border and will respond to any incidents appropriately.