Zapad 2017: A Call to Rearm

Written by Christopher Brown

Russian and Belarusian troops, 12,700 of them, in 280 tanks, 200 Artillery pieces, 70 planes and helicopters, ten warships, all participated in much more than just a numbers game this September. ‘Zapad’ or west, 2017 is the name of the Russo-Belarusian joint military exercise that took place this September in western Belarus, Kaliningrad, and parts of the Baltic Sea.

Zapad is not the first military exercise undertaken by Russia with a westward focus, but this is hardly reassuring to NATO’s commanders. If anything the history of past exercises has led to elevated levels of concern. In previous years, similar exercises have been followed by conflicts, such as the Georgian war (2008) and the annexation of Crimea (2014). The number of troops participating in this exercise has also been a cause for agitation among NATO commanders. NATO reports state the size of the force involved to be over 100,000 troops, while the Russian Defense ministry has stood by their original figure. This numbers game of rhetoric is only the first aspect of the exercise that has become contested

The organizational details of the exercise have also become a part of the dispute between NATO and Russian command. The objectives of this exercise, according to the Russian military, would be to develop Air-force capabilities in identifying and attacking militant groups, and the training of ground troops to “repel aggression.” The scenario used in this exercise, according to Moscow, is a defensive one wherein the Russian forces respond to militant uprisings within their territory with rapid mobilization. Meanwhile 2009 Zapad, ultimately resulted in a mock nuclear strike on Warsaw. Accordingly, Moscow’s diplomatic “mind game” can be seen as a demonstration of defensive stance to make NATO appear to be the aggressor. By portraying NATO as the aggressor in this instance and also by stirring up debates about the size of their force, Moscow covers for the real power of their operation.

Zapad still exerts pressure on the Baltic states, Ukraine and Poland. Just prior to Zapad, Russia asked Lithuania for permission to send one of their BUK-M1 surface-to-air missile systems to the port of Kaliningrad. The same system was allegedly lent to pro-separatist rebels in the Donbas region of Ukraine, and used to shoot down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17. Speaking of Ukraine, the presence of so many troops so deep in Belarus forces the war-ravaged state to refocus its attention to their northern neighbor. Poland has also expressed concern, with Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz claiming that Russia is “using force to pursue its political goals.” In the days before the exercise, Poland augmented its future military spending to levels well above that of the NATO guideline. Here, Poland appears to take the initiative by reacting to a buildup of Russian activity on its eastern border. Whether or not NATO has reason to do the same is still in question.

A Proportional Response?

Perhaps the Polish response to continued Russian probing could perhaps be ridiculed as overzealous; the Russian economy faces growth setbacks, its population is stagnating, and sanctions threaten every action taken by its leadership. Then again, perhaps not. Although the ultimate result of a total war may depend on economic factors, a state’s capability to seize territories is based, rather, upon the makeup of its military, and said military’s adaptation to modern tactics.

Zapad serves as an exercise. The battles that took place in the Donbas region in 2014 are experience. A briefing drafted by the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) argues, “fighting in Ukraine conforms to the template of other ‘testbed’ conflicts in the 20th century, notably the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and the Yom Kippur War (1973). The Russian military is hardened by conflict. It has detailed information about how to adjust its doctrine and react to scenarios. This form of information has been historically essential in determining the victors of land grabs and sudden conflicts, and is arguably still relevant today.

On the other side of the Suwalki gap, the contemporary progression of NATO states’ militaries has not satisfied CEPA analysts. In an era of slow-moving warfare dominated by main battle tanks (MBTs), Germany and the United Kingdom have severely reduced their Leopard 2 MBT and Challenger MBT inventories, respectively. The Netherlands have notably removed MBTs from their army entirely. The result of this is staggering. In its analysis of western MBT capacity, the global nonprofit RAND corporation remarks that not only would NATO be powerless to prevent a seizure of the Baltic states, but that this is part of a deadly pattern of defense spending by the United States. Furthermore, the development of the European defense project has, progressed in a complicated direction. The European Union’s defense policy has progressed in its partnership with NATO, with the development of an European Defense fund and rapid-response battlegroups. The purpose of these ‘battle-groups,’ despite the active nature of their name, is not for rapid response to invasion, but rather is for peacekeeping. In effect, the development of the European Union’s defense mechanisms fulfills a separate niche from the military development sustained by NATO throughout the cold war. As such, it does little to respond to the tactical development of the Russian military.

Zapad is but one cog in a larger machine, one tactic of a grand strategy to apply diplomatic and military pressure on NATO and its member states. Now is the time to respond, not to the cog, but the machine. Presented with various policy options ranging from verbal attacks to economic sanctions to rearmament proposals, policymakers must construct a cohesive doctrine if they want to upstage the coordinative capacity of Russia and Belarus as an ensemble. With Zapad, Russia demonstrated its initiative, and western leaders from the Baltic to across the Atlantic are given the stage to act out a meaningful response. The only remaining question is whether or not they can take it together.


AP, “Polish lawmakers OK more defense spending with Russia in mind”, Defense News, September 15, 2017. Web.

“EU Security and Defence package”, European Union External Action, last modified 13 September 2017,

Edward Lucas, “The Zapad Mind Game”, Center for European Policy Analysis, September 11, 2017. Web.

Galina Petrowskaja, Darko Janjevic, “Zapad 2017 drill – what does Russia want?” Deutsche Welle, September 14, 2017, Web.

Peter B. Doran, “Land Warfare in Europe: Lessons and recommendations from the war in Ukraine”, Center for European Policy Analysis, November 3, 2017, Web.

The World Factbook. Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency. Continually updated.