Every two years, Russia holds massive military exercises in its north-western territories that open a window onto its strategic thinking and combat capabilities. September’s demonstrated both a growing aggression in Russian military posture, as well as an underlying strategy to keep the West off-balance.
The latest of these Zapad (“West”) exercises were amongst the biggest yet, a six-day event running until September 26 involving ground, air and sea forces from Russia and its ally Belarus. The exercises were run in Belarus, near the Polish, Lithuanian and Latvian borders, and in Russia’s Kaliningrad territory, between Poland and Lithuania.
Zapad-2013 was officially described as a joint Russian-Belarusian exercise meant to prepare forces “to ensure security of the Union State” and to rehearse the “interoperability of command staffs.” Furthermore, it was supposedly anchored around a “counter-terrorist operation,” against “illegal armed groups,” its real purpose was to simulate a war triggered by a “deterioration of relations between states due to inter-ethnic, and ethno-religious controversies, and territorial claims.”
As the deployment of tanks, warships and long-range missiles, and marine landings on hostile shores demonstrated, this was really about wargaming a full-scale military conflict against a near-neighbor with whom Russia has long grievances. It is hardly surprising that the Baltic states, who have Russian minorities which Moscow in the past has used as a pretext for leverage, have expressed their dismay.
Furthermore, the size of the exercise has been questioned. Officially, Zapad-2013 involved 13,000 Russian troops (including some 2,500 paratroopers and other special forces on Belarus soil) and 10,400 Belarusians, along with a small contingent of around 300 soldiers from Russia’s Collective Security Treaty Organization allies Armenia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan were also involved.
However, Western intelligence reports suggest that it was rather more extensive. Furthermore, Moscow launched an associated mobilization of at least 10,000 Interior Troops of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, paramilitary units meant to maintain domestic security. They wargamed combating “terrorists” in a series of exercises that actually seemed more aimed at testing how quickly they could deploy on the streets in case of protest or unrest.
All this fits within a wider pattern of increasingly assertive and even confrontational Russian military activity. In March, for example, it wargamed a bombing attack on Sweden, just a month after it similarly ran simulated airstrikes on U.S. ships and a ground base in Japan.
There is, however, no real prospect of any Russian invasion to the west. Russian forces are improving, but lack the capacity to take on NATO on its home turf, and the political and economic implications would be devastating. Instead, this represents both a genuine effort to rebuild Russian forces still recovering from over a decade of decay and a strategy of tension.
As far as Putin is concerned, the more Western nations feel vulnerable and at threat, the more willing to compromise on economic and political issues they are, a belief only strengthened by events in Syria. To this end, Zapad-2013 is just one more psychological play in a long-running political game.