Around 100 thousand troops, an aggressive scenario oriented against the Baltic States, potential provocation – these are the reasons cited as the most concerning regarding the Russian – Belarussian military exercise Zapad planned in autumn. NATO has announced further preparations, has been urging member states to remain calm. However other than the official concerns, there are other reasons to worry.
The name of the military exercise Zapad has become synonymous with the threat of Russia in the region. The exercise has been organised since the 1980s, but this year has garnered particular attention. For example Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė has described Zapad 2017 as preparations for war with the West.
"We can see various threats and they are increasing, at the same time we are awaiting the Zapad 2017 exercises with concern. During it very large and aggressive forces will be concentrated, it will be a demonstrative preparation for war with the West," D. Grybauskaitė said.
It is not only Lithuania that has expressed worry over Zapad, the other Baltic States and Poland have as well, while various conflict scenarios have long been discussed by analysts and military planners. NATO has requested for official numbers regarding Zapad from Russia. After meeting US Vice President Mike Pence, the Lithuanian head of state hinted that the Baltics can feel safer than ever before because the signals of concern are being reacted to.
D. Grybauskaitė reminded that extra US troops and equipment will be deployed in Lithuania during Zapad. An American battalion will reinforce the currently deployed US military company and the multinational NATO battalion already here, throughout the duration of the Zapad exercise there will be up to several thousand allied troops in Lithuania. Furthermore the Americans will also reinforce the NATO air police mission in Šiauliai, 8 fighter jets will be deployed there instead of the usual 4.
Nonetheless the constant escalation of the topic of Russia-Belarussian training, incited concerns, rumours and assumptions shows that this will not just be common training exercises. Thus what do statements from Alliance heads of state and allied actions actually mean? Could these exercises pose a real military threat to the Baltics?
Used to organising exercises prior to invasions
It is often stressed that the Kremlin often uses military exercises as cover for real military actions. Lithuania bore witness to this already in June 1940 when 220 thousand Soviet troops and one and a half thousand tanks were gathered for "training" near the Lithuanian border. On June 15 this "training" exercise flooded across the border and occupied Lithuania.
In late 1990, prior to the bloody events of January 1991, Moscow also announced "military exercises" during which extra troops were deployed in Lithuania.
In June 1968, with tensions rising between the then Czechoslovakia and Soviet Union, the latter organised military exercises, following which tens of thousands of troops remained on Czechoslovakian soil, while even greater forces were gathered on the border for "new exercises".
In August they invaded the country and quelled the Prague Spring movement. This exercises prior to invasion tactic has been inherited by Russia from the Soviet Union and used a number of times: 9 years ago the exercises Caucasus 2008 were held near the Georgian border. 8,000 troops and 700 tanks and APCs participated in the exercises. With the exercises ending on August 2, the Russian forces did not return to their original deployment zones, but remained on the border. Less than a week later a war began between Russia and Georgia.
In March 2014 after unexpectedly annexing Crimea, Russia began gathering forces in its Western and Southern military districts. Tens of thousands of troops were deployed during several unexpected exercises in a row near the Ukrainian border. Once the exercises ending, military action began in Eastern Ukraine where separatists began opposing Ukrainian forces with Russian supplied weaponry. Furthermore Russian troops and equipment began actively participating in the action.
Real numbers – tenfold greater?
Of course such tendencies do not have to mean that Zapad will also be preparations for a real invasion into the Baltics, who, unlike the previously mentioned countries, belong to NATO. Furthermore Zapad is not being organised for the first time – the first such exercises were held already in the 1980s and have been held by Russia 3 times in the past two decades.
Nevertheless it has been highlighted for a time now that NATO representatives are often concerned by the real number of troops participating in Zapad and the training scenario. Officially Russia stresses that only 13 thousand troops will participate in Zapad and that they will train in training grounds in Belarus and Kaliningrad. Their locations are already known.
The Lepel training grounds to the West from Vitebsk will be used by land forces – training for tanks and other armoured vehicles, while the Losvid and Dretun training grounds in the East of the country will become locations for paratrooper training. The Dretun training grounds hosted the largest military training organised by the Kremlin, Zapad 81 in 1981 which featured around 150 thousand troops.
The Borisov and Osipovich training grounds in the East and Southeast will thunder from various artillery systems. To the East from Baranavichy, close to Ruzhany (which is home to the ruins of the palace of the Sapiega family, former GDL nobles) there will be aviation training – airplanes and helicopters, while the nearby Domanovski training grounds will feature anti-aircraft defence training.
Officially training in Kaliningrad Oblast will be held only at the seaside Chemiovka training grounds and the Pravdinsk training grounds to the east of Kaliningrad. What is curious that at least for now the use of the Gozha and Dobrovolsk training grounds close to the Lithuanian border has not been confirmed for Zapad.
In previous exercises in these training grounds, Lithuanian citizens living near the border could hear the noise because the two training grounds are intended for aviation and artillery training – the sound of exploding shells, bombs and rockets could even reach Druskininkai.
However more than the noise, ever more often there are concerns regarding the number of participants. Just like in 2013 Russia declares that there will be 13 thousand troops participating, though the actual count then was around 75 thousand, hence this year it is suspected the training will have around 100 thousand troops participating.
The count can include not only the troops gathered in the training grounds in Belarus and Kaliningrad, but also troops gathered deeper in Russian territory, particularly troops gathered in the Western military district. During Zapad 2013 there were vast troop redeployments in Russia via rail, other land transport and air. Detachments were rapidly shifted from their place of deployment to training locations thousands of kilometres away.
Terrorist role for the Baltics yet again
Supposedly to dispel concerns over participant numbers the Russians have officially invited observers from neighbouring countries. As such, according to Moscow, concerns over the rumoured training scenario should also be dispelled. That said the observers will be invited only to carefully staged training displays in a few training grounds and will be unable to observe the real exercises.
There has been no official identification for the training scenario, but it is thought that it will not differ much from that of Zapad 2013, when Russian and Belarussian troops trained to accomplish simple tasks during conventional and non-conventional conflict – striking at "terrorists" that have invaded friendly territory, to disembark marines from sea and paradrop into "hostile territory".
A similar scenario was used in 1999 and 2009 when Russia could still justify such a legend, motivating it based on the Chechen War.
Most analysts have no doubt that the use of "invading terrorists" in 2013, when opposition in Chechnya was mostly quelled and Russia had yet to engage in military action in Syria, was simply a thinly veiled part of a scenario of invading the Baltics. Just the fact that the training features not just vast land and air forces, but also anti-air units shows that the potential opponents are certainly not terrorists, who wouldn't have their own aviation, but a country with a conventional military.
Furthermore, just as in 2013, this year's Zapad is to feature marine disembarking and paradrops, the goal of which will be the occupation of strategic ports, bridges and crossings.
Already in preparatory exercises Russian paratroopers recently trained to occupy active and unused airports, which could be used for rapid deployment of reinforcements. The role of the opponent was performed by troops driving around in SUVs. The equipment of these troops and their tactics were reminiscent of Lithuanian special operations forces reacting to the appearance of intruders.
Russian rocket detachment trainings being organised since last year regularly have carefully detailed striking hostile strategic objects and mustering locations.
There are plans to strike hostile headquarters and airports with winger and ballistic rockets Kalibr and Iskander during Zapad in order to paralyse the opposing chain of command. For now it has not been disclosed if the shots will be imitated electronically or actually fired at fake targets.
Nevertheless it is already known that there are plans for the use of anti-ship rockets from the Bal and Bastion systems. All of this shows that Russia is training its troops for conventional conflict in the Baltic Sea region for a reason and that the Baltics, just as in 2013 are identified as the most realistic target.
Employing psychological pressure and blackmail
Another factor in the Zapad exercises is psychological. For a time now Russia has been committed to an aggressive information campaign against the Baltic States, particularly Russia.
The Kremlin's reaction to the NATO video on the Baltic resistance fighters continues to this day, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs continues to post information on social media every other day which attacks Lithuanian freedom fighters, compares them to Holocaust participants.
The narrative of a "fascist" Lithuania and other Baltic States is also broadcast by Kremlin financed analysts and interviews. For some recent examples we can look at the editor of the scandalous Kremlin financed journal Baltijskij Mir, Dmitri Kondrashov, who assures that war in the Baltics is now practically inevitable and those "who love peace" should better leave because "there appear to be no peaceful means of resolving conflict".
Another Russian analyst, Anatoly Wasserman claimed that "legally the Baltic States belong to Russia" and supposedly the people of these countries will soon ask to return to the control of Russia. Wasserman even presented how he sees this could happen – how in 1940 "the citizens of fascist ruled countries asked to be taken into the USSR and the Soviet army simply assured their peaceful accession."
Such a tone being propagated prior to the training and the scenarios of "inevitable war and liberation" that are being manufactured could be a part of psychological operations – it is observed how the governments and regular people of target countries react, weaknesses are pursued, places where pressure can be applied. However intimidating the Baltics is just one side of the medal.
Even knowing of an aggressive training scenario, both the Russian and NATO sides are aware that the exercises will be carefully observed. Reinforced American deployments are also more a facet of psychological reassurance and reinforce capacities for aerial policing.
For example if currently Lithuania can rely on its own rapid response forces and four NATO fighters, then in September further forces will bolster the Alliance forces' capacity to respond. Of the currently deployed 4 fighters, two are on constant standby, prepared to rapidly lift off and identify unknown targets. Russian aircraft often fly without turning on their responders or presenting flight plans, thus this procedure is always used, the NATO fighter pilots visually identify the target. The other two aircraft are meanwhile under maintenance.
Keeping in mind that Russian and Belarussian aviation may be bolstered next to the Lithuanian border during Zapad, two fighters cannot be in two places at once even in a small area. With 8 fighters deployed, NATO capacities to respond to suspicious, dangerous or simply unidentified aerial targets will at least double.
Furthermore it is possible that during Zapad, NATO surveillance aircraft will be flying over the Baltic Sea, Poland, Latvia and such, primarily the American electronic surveillance aircraft RC-135 and RC12X Huron. The latter already appeared over Lithuania on Thursday. Also the Russian and Belarussian exercises may be followed at long range by the US UAV Global Hawk.
NATO will be particularly interested in the real aspects of the Russian-Belarussian military exercises, not the staged performances for the observers. For example just the organisation of the Russian logistics detachments could be cause for concern.
This is particularly pertinent given the country is notorious for its chaotic organisation of work – it takes a great deal of time from an order to move a detachment with all its personnel and equipment to a different location in the country to actual actions and then it turns out that part of the equipment breaks down along the way, is not delivered in time or simply does not exist despite being logged.
Nevertheless Lithuanian intelligence services warned in their report this year that Russia is capable to prepare for war in 24-48 hours. This is how much time it would take for peacetime Russia to turn into a country at war capable of rapidly deploying at least tens of thousands of troops with the necessary equipment, whose institutions could smoothly perform wartime objectives.
Specifically large scale trainings such as Zapad can be a realistic test of the preparedness of troops, equipment and leadership elements. Furthermore successfully accomplished objectives can become a symbolic means of psychological pressure.
After all it is one thing for Lithuanian intelligence to talk about Russian preparedness and something else when the Russians display or deny such predictions. Knowledge that Russian forces have the capacity to rapidly initiate military action making use of even the most absurd justifications was proven during the wars in Georgia and Ukraine.
Demonstrating capacities is also a signal to NATO because Alliance countries are constantly reminded by Russian diplomats, what a mistake it was to allow the Baltic States into the organisation and that any allied actions to reinforce deterrence measures in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia will be viewed as provocative and receive a tenfold "response".
This is used to pressure Alliance members and convince them that any NATO deterrence measures in the Baltics are a "provocation" and "annoying Russia" is something that should not be done. Because large scale military training is held in Russia when Russia itself takes up provocative actions abroad – over the past two years Russian aviation has provoked NATO aircraft and ships a number of times with dangerous manoeuvres over the Baltic Sea.
One NATO diplomatic source assured Delfi that the Alliance continues to worry about "accidental incidents in the grey zone" when "there are no clear game rules". This means that there would not be much clarity if NATO and Russian aircraft collided on the border during the exercises or if troops lacked clarity in who was at fault, on what side and why the incident occurred.
One thing is clear however – such an "accidental incident" can also be a staged provocation intended to escalate the conflict. Furthermore the tension between Russia and NATO means that the conflict may be hard to contain and halt because connections between Moscow and Brussels have been frozen for the past years. The Russians themselves imply that such a conflict is real.
"I believe that the "red line" has not been stepped over in Russian-American relations yet in the regard that limited relations regarding Syria remain. Diplomatic relations continue," Aleksey Pushkov, the Chairman of the State Duma Committee on International Affairs said on Wednesday.
"We are dangerously close to it. Instead of heading toward normalisation the US is drawing closer to the line and this provokes the concern of innumerable people. Overall we are left with the question of whether there won't be a military conflict between the two countries?" he mused.
Imitating a nuclear attack?
Such declarations are not seen as coincidental – it could be a means of blackmail when the alternative to talking and playing by Moscow's rules is the real risk of war. Finally, according to Delfi sources, much can be drawn from an element of Zapad absent in 2013, but seen in 1999 and 2009 – the usage of nuclear weapons.
During Zapad 2009 Russia imitated a nuclear strike against Warsaw. At the time Russia-NATO relations had not yet gone awry as they have now, while Western countries still were positively inclined to Russia as a country that had forgotten the Cold War. This attitude was changed by Russia's actions in Ukraine in 2014, its military operation in Syria and aggressive actions in the Baltic Sea region and they leave questions as to what surprises to expect from the Kremlin during Zapad 2017.
If Russia imitates a nuclear strike against NATO states with its Iskander missiles – both land targets such as military bases, airports and cities, and naval targets, this would be a signal that in case of war, Russia would be inclined to risk first.
Even using a tactical nuclear weapon, which is viewed as part of conventional warfare in Russian military doctrine, is a dangerous step. After all tactical nuclear weapons mark the thin line between their relatively small power and the tens, hundreds of times more powerful strategic nuclear weapons.
Knowing that Russia would risk using tactical nuclear weapons against NATO which also has such weaponry could be yet another means of psychological pressure and blackmail. It is hoped that Alliance members would not hazard nuclear warfare and would withdraw their troops from the Baltics.
On the other hand this could lead to a NATO response because the Alliance would be forced to also react – organise training during which nuclear strikes on Russian military objects would be imitated.
This is how NATO reacted to the Kremlin's nuclear blackmail during the Cold War, when both sides trained for both conventional and nuclear confrontation, fearing that the opponent may lose their nerve. This is why the usage of nuclear elements during Zapad exercises can make the security situation in the region even tenser, even as we feel the safest during all our history, being protected by extra allied NATO forces, Lithuania can become the hostage of Russian blackmail.