Mathieu Boulègue
Research Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme
As Russian forces leave Belarus, what are the main lessons to draw from the Zapad-2017 drills?
Servicemen take part in the joint Russian-Belarusian military exercises Zapad-2017. Photo by Sergei Gapon/AFP/Getty ImagesServicemen take part in the joint Russian-Belarusian military exercises Zapad-2017. Photo by Sergei Gapon/AFP/Getty Images

Following seven days of "military operations", the fictional country of "Veshnoriya" (with a geography similar to that of the Baltic States) was forced into submission by Russian and Belarusian joint forces.

In a grand display, the "Union State" of Russia and Belarus destroyed the enemy after Veshnoriya tried to stage border incursions and massive air raids.

This scenario was, of course, played out in Russia and Belarus during the Zapad-2017 military exercise. But what were the key takeaways for the watching world?

Small is beautiful

Western commentators were obsessed with the numbers of Russian troops being mobilized during the course of exercise and stuck firmly to the "100,000 servicemen" narrative. But Russia proved them wrong by keeping the drills small, managed, and contained.

The real numbers are still unconfirmed, but the actual number of troops deployed was almost certainly below what was initially reported in the West. This is primarily because Zapad-2017 focused on strengthening Command and Control (C2) and integrating forces, rather than emphasising troop displacements – which had already been done during Zapad-2013.

The Kremlin could therefore credibly claim that the West overreacted and fell victim to scaremongering and reporting rumours that Moscow was not being transparent about the nature of the exercise and its intentions.

Short of entrapment, proving the West wrong is increasingly part of the Kremlin’s political strategy which, in turn, strengthens Russia’s sense of superiority.

Practice makes perfect

Russia practised two of the four main types of modern warfare: asymmetric and conventional (the other two being cyber and nuclear). In the first phase of the rehearsed scenario – during which "illegal armed groups" from Veshnoriya "penetrated" Russian and Belarusian territory – Russia and Belarus tested troop deployment, the setting up of advanced field posts and C2 components, as well as integrating forces ahead of a joint counter-offensive against a more conventional enemy, which took place during the second half of the week’s exercises.

In order to win, Russia practised what it does best: a heavy artillery-enabled, land-based forward push with the joint help of reconnaissance units and special operations, air superiority elements, air defence, and naval elements.

The Russian military also included asymmetric components to the Zapad drills – notably testing its ability to repel diversionary-reconnaissance groups (not unlike Russia’s own "little green men" used in the annexation of Crimea), test counter-electronic warfare (EW) measures, and defend its airspace from enemy incursions with transponders switched off.

Russia also deployed several new pieces of equipment, such as the T-72B3M/T-72B4 main battle tank and the BTR-MDM Rakushka armoured personnel vehicle (APC) - partly to test their effectiveness and partly to establish a shopping list for potential foreign buyers.

Draw on real-life experiences

All Russian army branches involved in the Zapad exercise drew from their combat experience and tactical feedback from Syria (and, unofficially, Ukraine) with the logic that recent changes in the Russian military can only be tested in practice.

Specifically, Russia rehearsed:

  • General preparedness, combat readiness, the integration of advanced systems, and interoperability with the armed forces of Belarus.
  • Tactical combined operations between ground forces and Aerospace Forces (VKS).
  • Blending together Airborne Assault Units (VDV) and conventional ground forces in special operations, using artillery coverage, tank units, and motorised rifle brigades.
  • Air superiority and air support missions from front-line bombers, jet fighters, and attack helicopters.
  • Air defence capabilities (especially S-300/S-400 missile systems, Pantsir-S1 anti-aircraft systems, and Iskander-M complexes), with the aim to test the effectiveness of Russia’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) bubble and long-range precision guided munitions.
  • Joint naval operations with air support from the VKS and the VDV as well as anti-submarine warfare.
  • Integrating unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for reconnaissance and target acquisition (ISTAR) operations as well as testing the effectiveness of real-time data transmission.
  • Trying out advanced C2ISR and electronic warfare systems such as the Sagittarius target acquisition complex and the RB-109A Bylina EW system.

This is actually all about NATO

Contrary to Russia’s initial "defensive tactical anti-terrorist exercise" narrative, the rhetoric used to describe the "Veshnoriyan enemy" changed during the course of the exercise and became increasingly about thwarting a "conventional enemy".

This meant that, in reality, Zapad-2017 became a drill about a limited conventional operation against an equally conventional and advanced enemy that resembled a territory with NATO-interoperable armed forces.

Indeed, "Veshnoriyan troops" went from initially conducting lightly-equipped border incursions to launching massive air strikes and land attacks with tremendous fire power, air supremacy  capabilities, submarines, and EW capabilities.

The Zapad scenario did always acknowledge that the reported enemy had access to support from outside, but the exercise itself looked like a dress rehearsal for defending against a NATO intervention. This is what Russia wants the West to believe is the Kremlin’s understanding of what a conventional war between Russia and NATO forces would look like.

Zapad-2017 reminds the West that Russia is not only reacting to a perceived threat, but is also able to repel conventional Western and NATO forces. Simply put, it is a test-run for Russia’s strategic deterrence and coercive capabilities.

Russian messaging is shifting from deterrence

At a time of tension with the West, the Kremlin used the Zapad drills to convey several messages. On the one hand, Russia seeks to control the escalation dominance during a conventional conflict with NATO.

It did not rehearse a total war scenario but rather showed it is ready to raise the cost of deterrence in order to win while also imposing a tremendous cost on an invading army. Veshnoriya did not stand a chance.

Furthermore, intimidating NATO while bolstering Russia’s sense of military power on the home front allows Moscow to use supposedly increased insecurity in the West and the shared neighbourhood as a credible deterrent. Deterrence is one thing, but if you can prove to your enemy that their incursion will result in a catastrophe, you create insecurity among your opponents – and your neighbours.

Zapad showed that any army seeking to burst Russia’s A2/AD bubble would bear a high enough cost as to be effectively beaten. At the end of the day, Russia demonstrated that its borders with Eastern Europe are not only conventionally tough to breach but also benefit from solid anti-access capability to deny entry to enemy forces – not just geographically but also on many strategic fronts, from space down to the sea. 

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