My latest article on the upcoming Zapad 2017 exercise on War on the Rocks
Don’t be surprised if in the coming days you increasingly hear the word Zapad echoing across media outlets and the blogosphere as though it were a category five hurricane, or an apocalyptic event approaching. Zapad, meaning “West” in Russian, is the Russian military’s annual strategic exercise, scheduled to commence on Sept. 14. Such capstone training events have been held on a quadrennial rotation since 1999 between four strategic directions, including Vostok (Eastern), Tsentr (Central), and Kavkaz (Caucasus). As anticipated, Zapad 2017 will take place in the Baltic region, held jointly with Belarus, and led by forces based in Russia’s Western Military District.
The ongoing confrontation between Russia and the United States, together with the exercise’s geographical focus, makes this a particularly significant event. Large-scale Russian exercises have always imparted a sense of foreboding, yet the reaction to Zapad 2017 is especially sensational this year. The Center for European Policy Analysis has even created a dedicated website with a countdown clock as though awaiting doomsday. Ahead of Zapad rolls a strong wave of anxiety among NATO members, senior officials, and the Russia-watcher community. Such exercises call for vigilance and caution, but panic is unwarranted.
Ironically, much as the leaders of NATO members dislike Russia’s deployment of forces along their borders, the exercise should be treated as an opportunity. Zapad 2017 is happening whether NATO likes it or not, and Russia will keep holding this exercise every four years, just as the Soviet Union had a penchant for running major exercises in the fall. In truth, Western observers are bound to learn much from this event about Russia’s ability to deploy combat formations to the region, the current state of Russia’s armed forces, and how Moscow intends to leverage military power to shape Western decision-making in the event of a crisis. The conduct of the exercise may even help validate, or invalidate, some of the current thinking in NATO on how to deter Russia.
Ultimately the exercise is a test of what Russia calls “strategic deterrence,” an integration of military, non-military, and nuclear capabilities to shape adversary decision-making from crisis to actual conflict. Although small countries are naturally anxious when large neighbors flex their muscles, in reality this entire affair is about Moscow establishing coercive credibility with Washington, and in that respect it is quite effective. Zapad is part of one long conversation on deterrence and compellence facilitated by the Russian General Staff.
Read more on the site.