Since 2008, Russia has used its strategic exercises and large-scale snap exercises to hone its military capabilities, undermine regional stability and peace and – twice, first in Georgia and then Ukraine – to mask impending aggression. Exercise ZAPAD 2017 was the latest iteration of such exercises.

The Russian Armed Forces revived the practice of regular, annual strategic exercises with Exercise KAVKAZ 2008 in Russia’s North Caucasus region on its border with Georgia. According to official announcements, Exercise KAVKAZ was conducted with the participation of 8,000 troops. However, General Yuri Netkachev said in an interview with Independent Gazette at the time that the figures were “officially underestimated” to avoid inviting international observers. Russian troops remained on the Georgian border after Exercise KAVKAZ ended on 2 August 2008 and a force estimated at approximately forty thousand troops started operations on Georgian territory on 7 August, halting under international pressure five days later on the outskirts of Tbilisi.

Russian President Vladimir Putin uses a pair of binoculars while watching part of exercise Zapad 2017 with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu (L) and Chief of the General Staff of Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov (2nd R) at a military training ground in the Leningrad region, Russia 18 September 2017. © REUTERS

Russian President Vladimir Putin uses a pair of binoculars while watching part of exercise Zapad 2017 with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu (L) and Chief of the General Staff of Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov (2nd R) at a military training ground in the Leningrad region, Russia 18 September 2017. © REUTERS

Exercise ZAPAD 2017, officially conducted on NATO’s eastern borders in Russia’s Western Military District and on the territory of Belarus from 14 to 20 September, was the latest iteration of the exercise series thus linked to “Europe’s first war of the 21st Century.”

Exercising lessons learned

The Russian Armed Forces learned some hard lessons in Georgia. Low manning and readiness levels forced the Russians to attack with a scratch force. Shortfalls in C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) were sorely felt, as was the limited ability of the land and air forces to operate together, and the lack of precision weapons. The ultimate outcome was never in doubt, but the Georgia campaign highlighted a long list of essential military reforms.

Since the conflict in Georgia, Russia has used the nine subsequent annual exercises, including the three most recent ZAPAD exercises (see box) to put things right. The annual combined-arms exercises are conducted on an alternating basis in each of the Military Districts. (The Military Districts are also designated as Joint Strategic Commands. The Northern Fleet Military District/Joint Strategic Command was created in December 2014 but as of 2017 had not been integrated into the rotation of the annual strategic exercises on its own but has participated in snap exercises and exercised concurrently with the Western Military District ZAPAD 2017 exercise.)

The annual exercises are capstone training events culminating the annual training cycle with a three-fold test of:

- the selected Military District to operate in its assigned strategic direction;
- all other military districts to mobilise and operate in support;
- the General Staff and other command and control elements to direct strategic operations.

Following President Vladimir Putin’s 2013 decree to increase military readiness, the annual strategic exercises have been augmented by no-notice “snap” exercises comparable in size and scope or even larger than most annual strategic exercises. These snap exercises are conducted without warning to the units involved, thus avoiding the requirements for prior notification set out in paragraph 41 and 41.1 of the Vienna Document (an agreement between OSCE participating states intended to implement confidence and security building measures).

In a recent meeting of senior military leaders, Chief of the General Staff Gerasimov reported that 24 snap exercises of this size had been conducted by November 2017, along with many more smaller snap exercises. These snap combined-arms exercises have involved tens of thousands of troops; some conducted in the Western and Eastern Military Districts have reportedly involved approximately 150,000 troops.

Russia’s Annual Strategic Exercises 2008-2018
Year Exercise Military District Participating Troops (announced by Russian Ministry of Defence) Estimated Participating Troops
2008 KAVKAZ North Caucasus (now Southern) 8,000 40,000
2009 ZAPAD Western 11,900 13,000
2010 VOSTOK Eastern 20,000 -
2011 TSENTR Central 12,000 12,000
2012 KAVKAZ Southern 8,000 -
2013 ZAPAD Western 11,920 90,000
2014 VOSTOK Eastern 100,000 155,000
2015 TSENTR Central 95,000 100,000 – 160,000
2016 KAVKAZ Southern 12,500 120,000
2017 ZAPAD Western 12,700 60,000-70,000
2018 VOSTOK Eastern - -

The wider context

NATO’s response has been measured. The Alliance recognises the sovereign right of nations to exercise their armed forces but it is important that this be done in accordance with well established guidelines and agreements and international obligations. NATO leaders also perceive the destabilising way in which Russia has conducted its military exercises during the last ten years, evading its long-standing commitments to transparency and predictability contained in the Vienna Document, and leveraging exercises for intimidation purposes and to mask impending aggression.

These perceptions are reinforced by the context of eroding stability and security that Russia has created by suspending its participation in the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE Treaty) in 2007, as well as its aggression against Georgia in 2008 and against Ukraine in 2014. Allies gradually perceived during this period that Russia’s approach to warfare and conflict short of war, combines all elements of state power, including military force, in a seamless continuum that culminates with overarching nuclear messaging. This is the lens through which Russia’s strategic combined-arms manoeuvre warfare exercises near NATO’s borders are – or at least should be – viewed.

Fudging the numbers

The conduct of ZAPAD 2017 was consistent with this track record. The Russian Ministry of Defence announced that a total of 12,700 Russian and Belorussian troops would participate in ZAPAD, with 10,200 troops in Belarus (including 2,000 Russian troops) and 2,500 troops exercising in Russia. It also announced that it would involve approximately 70 aircraft, 680 pieces of military equipment, including 250 tanks, and 200 rocket and artillery systems. The numbers in Belarus fell just shy of limits requiring mandatory invitation of foreign observers under the Vienna Document (13,000 troops is the threshold) and Russia declined to notify the exercise because they claimed that only 2,000 troops would exercise on its territory as part of ZAPAD. No Russian general said explicitly that the ZAPAD numbers were “officially underestimated” for this purpose, but General Salyukov, Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Army, said in an interview with TASS after the conclusion of ZAPAD that Russia “displayed only part of the exercise, actually these exercises deployed on many ranges. These were vast exercises, very interesting.”

Armoured vehicles and helicopters take part in exercise Zapad 2017 at a range near the town of Borisov, Belarus – 20 September 2017. © REUTERS

Armoured vehicles and helicopters take part in exercise Zapad 2017 at a range near the town of Borisov, Belarus – 20 September 2017. © REUTERS

A look at the table of exercises conducted since 2008 highlights how Russia adapts its reporting of their size based on whether they fall within the Vienna Document’s zone of application or not. The numbers of troops reported by Russia as participating in exercises in the Central and Eastern Military Districts – which are not covered by the Vienna Document – matches expectations for the force requirements for strategic warfare. In the case of the Western and Southern Military Districts, Russia simply compartmentalises its large-scale exercises into chunks small enough to evade Vienna Document requirements. The Russian Armed Forces do not train only for limited, small-scale war in the Western and Southern Military Districts, they only make it appear that they do. The creation of the Northern Fleet Military District has greatly facilitated this approach by creating an administrative divide between major components of Russia’s exercises in the Western strategic direction.

The Russian Ministry of Defence also announced that ZAPAD 2017 was strictly defensive, organised around an anti-terrorist scenario and – though being conducted in part on Belarusian territory – bore no connection to any actual region.

Foreign analysts have said that the actual event was substantially larger than claimed by the Russian Ministry of Defence, with 60,000 to 70,000 troops estimated to have participated – about 12,000 on Belorussian territory and the rest on Russian territory. Day-to-day reporting on the exercise by the Ministry of Defence also contradicted its own official version of ZAPAD’s scale and intention.
The “terrorist” formations confronting the combined Russian and Belorussian forces were of sufficient size and strength to require three days of operations by combined-arms and armoured land forces with extensive fixed and rotary-wing air support, large-scale aerospace operations and engagement by the Baltic Fleet and coastal defence units.

The strategic nature of ZAPAD

The strategic nature of ZAPAD was highlighted by a simulated defence of the Moscow region by S-400 air defence interceptors against a mass cruise missile attack. Dual capable (conventional and nuclear) precision strike capability was also a major element of ZAPAD, including SS-21 SCARAB and SS-26 ISKANDER missile unit activity, with live firing in other regions by ISKANDER units not stationed in the Western Military District. The Ministry of Defence also reported extensive exercise activity by Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear (CBRN) defence units, underscoring the Russian Armed Forces’ ability to operate in a CBRN-contaminated environment. The exercise activities were conducted in two phases – a first defensive and counter-offensive phase, followed by transition to a second offensive phase.

Varying levels of exercise activity were conducted in all the other Military Districts simultaneously with the officially acknowledged ZAPAD activities in the Western Military District. These other activities involved aerospace defence operations, test launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles (some of which may not have been linked to ZAPAD but driven by required service life testing), naval battles in Russia’s coastal waters in the Barents, Baltic, and Black Seas and the Pacific Ocean, land force engagements of various sizes, CBRN unit activity, and repair by the Rail Troops of stretches of railway damaged by enemy cruise missile strikes. Exercise activity in the Northern Fleet (Arctic) Military District was particularly intense. It included a simulated intercontinental submarine launched ballistic missile attack by a Northern Fleet ballistic missile submarine against the simulated enemy on Day 3 of ZAPAD and a missile strike by a Northern Fleet strike group against an enemy naval grouping on Day 6.

NATO Spokesperson Oana Lungescu consequently said that, “in effect, all these activities together constituted a single strategic exercise...ZAPAD was clearly a large scale state-on-state conflict.” The character, scale and intensity of Russian military exercise activities during September 2017 is consistent with the system of strategic operations that Russia would conduct in conflict with NATO, focusing on the Western Strategic Direction, with supporting military activity nationwide in all strategic directions, and potential global operations, in an escalating conflict. If ZAPAD 2017 were actually conducted in line with its official description, it would exercise just a portion of Moscow’s strategic plans for potential war with NATO. The exercise activities should instead be viewed in the context of the exercise activities conducted concurrently across Russia during 14-20 September 2017.

“Maskirovka” and info ops

The March 2015 strategic snap exercise which began as a crisis in the Baltic and Barents Sea regions and quickly escalated to nationwide and then global strategic operations is another good model for where ZAPAD fits in the larger scale of Russia’s military planning for strategic operations. Because of the heavy emphasis placed on maskirovka (military deception) by the Russian military, estimates of the size of exercises and the official figures provided by Russia for exercise participation should be assessed against likely political, organisational, operational, and technical measures to hide, mask, minimise and otherwise deceive about the size, composition and location of participating forces. Training and testing maskirovka is doubtless a major component of Russia’s strategic exercises.

Russia endeavoured to maximize the impact of ZAPAD 2017 with months of related information operations. These info ops in Russia’s virtual sixth military district – the “Information Military District” – had several aims, including to portray Russia’s military strength, to project a related sense of risk to neighbours, to undermine existing arms control and confidence building regimes, and to provoke exploitable reactions by NATO and individual nations. Russia’s approach was to trumpet the military capabilities on display while ridiculing any expressions of concern as symptomatic of “anti-Russian hysteria.”

Dual capable – conventional and nuclear – precision strike capability was a major element of ZAPAD, including SS-21 SCARAB and SS-26 ISKANDER [pictured here] missile unit activity.

Dual capable – conventional and nuclear – precision strike capability was a major element of ZAPAD, including SS-21 SCARAB and SS-26 ISKANDER [pictured here] missile unit activity.

In keeping with its asymmetric approach to obscure and confuse through mixed messages, Moscow followed a two-pronged approach to its Vienna Document obligations: violating its spirit and intent, while claiming that Russia’s selective release of information and invitation of military attaches to a distinguished visitors day near St. Petersburg under strictly controlled conditions was equivalent to the more demanding requirements set out in Chapter VI Observation of Certain Military Activities.

Then, having forced outside analysts to estimate the true size of ZAPAD 2017, Moscow asserted that subsequent admissions that ZAPAD had been smaller than the largest estimates proved that Western concerns had been wildly exaggerated. By this sleight-of-hand, Russia tried but failed to obscure the fundamental fact that signatories of the Vienna Document should, precisely, not have to estimate the size of other participating states’ military exercises in the first place. Russia’s next planned strategic exercise is VOSTOK 2018.

Allied vigilance and readiness

The response by NATO collectively and Allied nations individually was far from the “hysteria” of which Moscow accused them and was well described by Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg as a policy of “continue to be vigilant and ready to act if needed.” NATO will need to stick to this approach as Russia continues its military build-up in the Western Military District and its programme of provocative and destabilising exercise activities. Allies will also need to continue to reject Russian attempts to substitute improvised and selective “transparency” in place of its existing international obligations to genuine, verifiable confidence and security building measures.

Meanwhile, NATO has no need to justify its efforts to estimate the size and scope of Russian military exercises, while Russia deliberately abstains from fulfilling the commitments that would make such estimates unnecessary. At the same time, NATO’s moderately increased military exercising in response to Russian aggressive actions against Ukraine continues in full transparency and compliance with international commitments.

As the ten-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Georgia approaches, the origins of Russia’s revived programme of annual strategic exercises in that aggression should be recalled. This anniversary should also cause reflection on Russia’s use of a snap exercise to mask troop movements at the start of the Ukraine crisis, and the way that Russia’s strategic exercises enabled power projection into Syria. Russian forces continue to operate in both Ukraine and Syria, proving wrong the many foreign analysts who predicted after the Syrian intervention that Russia would be unable to sustain simultaneous operations. Russia has not only managed to sustain both operations, but to continue its extensive exercise programme.

The increasing size and complexity of Russia’s annual strategic and snap exercises, in particular the Western-oriented ZAPAD series, underscores the need for Allies to ensure full and timely implementation of the strengthened deterrence and defence measures agreed at the NATO Summits in Wales (2014) and Warsaw (2016). Such measures, along with Allied commitment to meaningful dialogue and engagement with Russia, are the most effective response to Russia’s long-term negative trajectory.