East vs. West: Toward the Zapad 2017 Exercise

"Zapad 2017 is primarily a political and military anti-destabilization operation that could lead to the use of new techniques for destructuring and disrupting the Western covert networks in the East." Prof. Giancarlo Elia Valori discusses the multinational exercise scheduled to begin this week

Russian forces during military drills at the Black Sea coast, Crimea (Photo: AP)

The Zapad 2017 exercise will begin on September 14, 2017. It will be carried out jointly by the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation and Belarus, as well as by other smaller allies.

It will be a technical test to check the full interoperability between the Armed Forces of Russia and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), namely Kazakhstan, Armenia, the above mentioned  Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. It will also include military leaders from Afghanistan and Serbia as observers. A possible candidate for the CSTO and the vision of the Zapad 2017 operations, Iran will send some unofficial observers.

Apart from China, considering the countries which founded the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in 2001, only Uzbekistan is missing in the CSTO.

Another essential geopolitical factor which is worth recalling is that in 2013, on the same day, Afghanistan, India, Iran, Mongolia and Pakistan joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

Therefore, the CSTO is basically the Russia-linked part of the strategic block which – pending the counter-terrorist and anti-jihadist struggle – merged into the China's current and future area of interest.

Preparations for the "Zapad" (namely West) maneuvers are already underway, especially in Belarus. The drills will be participated by at least 100,000 Russian and allied soldiers, with 13,000 Russian troops, 280 heavy artillery units and 25 Russian military aircraft. Currently, there is no news on the presence of Russia’s allies.

The Zapad 2013 maneuvers had been even more impressive, with at least 75,000 Russian soldiers officially declared and many others belonging to the Russian Federation’s allies.

Considering a 24% additional units compared to the official figures, including also the GRU, namely the  military intelligence service, the wide structures of the Russian "covert warfare" – improperly called hybrid warfare – the forces of other allied intelligence services, as well as the infowar and e-warfare ones, we reach approximately a number of 125,000 soldiers and officers.

In Belarus, however, the Russian operative units are not supposed to exceed 3,000, including those of the airborne division stationed in Pskov and those of another division, usually operating on the Western front of the Russian forces.

The maneuver areas of the current exercise are Belarus, the Baltic, Western Russia, as well as the Kaliningrad exclave – the old Koenigsberg of Immanuel Kant – and the command will be a single one mainly led by Russia.

Kant’s city is now central again in the Russian military system after the 2008 war in Georgia, and it is in this area that the Russian military system can plan joint operations capable of penetrating the enemy lines.

Currently, Kaliningrad’s Oblast can hit at a distance of over 300 kilometers.

Since August 2016, in the region there have been Oniks anti-ship cruise missiles (NATO reporting codename SS-N-26 Strobile), Mach 2 speed, which are also launched by the Hezbollah, Indonesia, obviously Syria and even Vietnam.

In Kaliningrad there are also the Iskander tactical ballistic missiles (NATO reporting codename SS-26 Stone), having a 415 km range in the version for the Russian Forces – carriers which can go undetected by the Patriot missiles and the North American THAAD networks already deployed in Chechnya and Poland.

Both the Oniks and Iskander missiles, as well as Kalibr (NATO reporting codename SS-N-27 Sizzler), an anti-ship and land attack cruise missile, are all adaptable to armament with nuclear warheads – as already defined in the chain of command of the Russian 11th Army Corps, created in Kaliningrad in 2009.

In the Russian decision-makers’ typical perception of the NATO and Western threat, Kalingrad is the center of an arc stretching from the Arctic to the Barents Sea, to the Baltic and Transnistria up to Crimea and the Black Sea – an arc which is now one of the most advanced Russian defense systems.

With specific reference to the Arctic, the issue is clear: for Russia, all attack and response missiles towards the United States transit mostly there.

From the Kola Peninsula, the Northern Fleet – the most powerful of the five Russian fleets – will anyway have easy access to the world's oceans through the Arctic waters.

It is by no mere coincidence that Putin's planning is fully focused on both naval power and the Northern Fleet, in particular.

For Russia, the presence of oil and gas in the region and Westerners’ pressure on the traditional route of Russian trade – namely the Northern and Arctic one – are real direct and explicit threats to national sovereignty.

According to Russian laws, the Northern Sea Route stretches from the Kara Sea, around Siberia, to the Bering Strait and surrounds the whole Arctic on the Russian side. The area is part of the Russian Exclusive Economic Zone.

Moreover, in Transnistria, Russia mostly sees threats to its full freedom of military maneuver.

There are 2,000 Russian soldiers still operating on that small territory, which some NATO leaders see as the next point of tension between the Alliance and the Russian Federation.

In fact, it was Philip Breedlove, who served as NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) until May 2016, who noted that Russia tended to deploy large forces on the border between Moldova and Transnistria, with a view to annexing that small, but important region.

In fact, this half-Romanian and half-Russian territory is the major supply and logistics passageway for the Russian forces possibly operating on the Western front towards Europe.

Hence, in the Western diplomats’ and leaders’ logic, the Russian conquest of Crimea directly implies the attack on Ukraine as a whole.

A serious mistake. Putin has no interest in creating further tension with the EU and the United States. He simply wants to maintain and reaffirm effective control over his area of influence, which must be well-separated from that of the United States, NATO and the European Union.

Putin does not want to expand by incorporating dangerous areas that is useless to "hold" militarily. Conversely, he wants to eliminate the Western threat, especially the "covert one" from the countries bordering on the Russian Federation.

However, in a possible clash with NATO, for Russia Kaliningrad is the inevitable point for the Northern Flank’s intelligence data collection, especially if it cannot rely on its old bases in Belarus.

Therefore, in case of war, Kaliningrad’s Oblast structures would be authorized to destabilize politically and economically and later attack the anti-missile sites in Poland.

Hence, in the Russian doctrine, there is not much difference between military coercion and traditional containment.

Part of the threat is always put in place.

On the other hand, the Kaliningrad forces are those preventing NATO’s unrestricted and unlimited use of the Baltic Sea, in addition to stopping the penetration – through possible missile attacks – of NATO's ground forces wishing to pass through the Baltic straits.

Furthermore, some Western military decision-makers explicitly theorized the "conquest of Kaliningrad" as compensation for the Russian acquisition of Crimea.

This is another factor to be taken into account in the Zapad 2017 operation, a joint exercise which has been repeated every four years since 1999, although under different formats.

Obviously, all the four major operational commands of the Russian forces (the Eastern, Central, Caucasus and Western ones) have been alerted, but – apart from the purpose declared by the Russian Command – the purpose of Zapad 2017 is above all "to plan jointly with the allies, as well as develop a common command and advanced troop training tactic."

This means that the Russian strategic goal is to limit the presence of NATO troops in Eastern Europe and to make the link between the Alliance and the Russian local and peripheral ruling classes more difficult. An essential aspect to be highlighted is that the Russian strategic goal is also to avoid regime change attempts through actions such as the colored revolutions or, even worse, the various springs. Finally, its aim is to destabilize the pro-NATO subversive networks in the countries still linked to Russia thanks to the CSTO and, more widely, to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization – networks that Russia has already largely identified.

Zapad 2017 is primarily a political and military anti-destabilization operation that could lead to the use of new techniques for destructuring and disrupting the Western covert networks in the East.

Moreover, it is not surprising that Zapad 2017 will be an excellent training ground for both Russian and Belarusian special forces.

Moreover, the exercise is also designed to warn the Atlantic Alliance not to even dare to threaten Belarus.

At legal, historical and strategic levels, however – also for Zapad 2017 – the central point of the Russian reasoning is that the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia was absolutely illegal – and it is not by chance that 1999 was the year when the Zapad joint exercises started.

It was the bombing of Belgrade and the legitimization of Alja Izetbegovic's Islamic Bosniaks, as well as the obvious illegality of operations in Kosovo, to make Russia "open its eyes."

Since then, Russia has no longer trusted the West and clearly says so.

The Zapad 2017 operations, however, have already been planned in the exercises as early as last April, when the Russian and Belarusian special forces moved together to the Vitebsk region, an area of 12,000 square kilometers.

Therefore, with the Special Forces – operating with political and intelligence roles – the Russian war is changing. It is no longer the deployment of the 19th-century divisions of the brilliant Soviet General Shaposhnikov.

Between May 11 and 16 last, the 106th Russian Airborne Division, stationed in Tula, arrived in Brest and, together with Belarusian units, carried out exercises designed to block "illegal armed formations."

Again within the Zapad 2017 framework, e-warfare exercises have been carried out, clearly against a State enemy, although Zapad may have devoted minor actions against the electronic and Signal Intelligence ones, which currently are also often found in non-State group operations.

Hence, protection of Russia's peripheries, which are also the most significant areas at demographic and economic levels, as well as protection of the Russian exit routes both for strategic and commercial security, and protection of the hotspots, such as Crimea, allowing to have a direct line with Europe.

What about dealing with the security of the borders between NATO and Russia with new criteria?

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