Zapad-2017: A brief explainer

I wrote the following article for The National Interest.

The Zapad-2017 military exercise that will take place in September in Russia and Belarus has already begun to draw attention in the Western press. In recent days, media outlets have published somewhat panicked accounts about the unprecedented numbers of Russian troops conducting drills on the borders of vulnerable eastern European countries like Poland and Lithuania. Others are arguing that once Russian troops enter Belarus to participate in the exercise, they are likely to stay behind “in order to give Moscow a more-advanced forward base in Europe” or, in the less carefully chosen words of some Ukrainian officials, to occupy Belarus possibly as a prelude to an invasion of Ukraine from the north. Given this level of excitement about a military exercise still six weeks away, it may be useful to analyze what we actually know about the upcoming exercise and its predecessors.

The Zapad exercise is a regularly scheduled event that has been held quadrennially since 1999. What’s more, it is part of an annual rotating series of large scale exercises that serve as the capstone to the Russian military’s annual training cycle. The series rotates through the four main Russian operational strategic commands (Eastern, Caucasus, Central and Western) that give name to the exercises. Similar major strategic operational exercises were held in the fall throughout the Soviet period as well. In other words, everyone has known that this exercise would be held in the early fall of 2017 since at least four years ago. The only uncertainty was regarding the scope and exact parameters of the exercise.

These aspects remain uncertain at the present time. Official Russian sources have indicated that the total number of troops involved in the exercise will not exceed 13,000, while Western officials and analysts have been quoted as sayingthat as many as 100,000 Russian personnel may be involved. Previous Zapad exercises have been on the larger side, with Zapad-2013 involving approximately 75,000 troops and personnel. Part of the discrepancy in numbers may stem from a disagreement over who should be counted. The highest Western numbers usually include not just members of the Russian armed forces, but also personnel from security agencies and civilian officials who may be involved in parts of the exercise. Furthermore, the Russian military may choose to conduct other related exercises that are not technically part of Zapad-2017 and would therefore not be included in the official declaration on the number of troops involved.

What we do know is that the total number of Russian troops on Belarusian territory is not expected to exceed 3,000 personnel. … <To read the rest of the article, click here>

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