The Zapad 2017 military exercises will take place between 14 and 20 September on the territory of Belarus and Russia. The scenario leaked to the public indicates it will simulate a “Western” military incursion into Belarus. It will be the biggest combined test of combat readiness for the armies of both states.
In the first phase of the drills, fictional “Western” states, (Vesbarya and Lubenya) intervene militarily onto the territory of Belarus. The second phase foresees a common response by the forces of the “North” states (Belarus and Russia). There is no doubt that the role of the aggressors is meant to portray NATO states. Russia and Belarus claim the manoeuvres will involve 12,700 troops, including 3,000 from Russia. This falls just short of the 13,000-troop threshold in the Vienna Document requiring an invitation to all OSCE countries to observe the exercises. The exercises as announced will include 70 planes and helicopters as well as 680 pieces of other equipment, which also don't exceed the Vienna Document limits. However, as in 2013 and 2009, Russia will likely involve more personnel than declared, in part by conducting simultaneous drills of the Baltic Fleet.
The Zapad (“West”) manoeuvres take place every four years. This will be the first one at this scale, during which Russia will be able to check the combat readiness of modernised and newly created units in the structurally modified Western Military District (including the new 1st Guards Tank Army) and the Baltic Fleet one year after a change of command. The drills also are a sign of the priorities included in the most important security-related documents, such as the Russian military doctrine of 2014 and maritime doctrine of 2015, and the basis of state policy in the sphere of military and marine operations of 2017. Together, these assume the establishment of “special military capabilities” in the western territory of Russia. The Zapad 2017 scenario corresponds to their view of NATO as Russia’s main opponent in the world.
This year’s scenario shows that Belarusian military leaders, like the Russians, see NATO as the main threat. This proves there is a difference between the thinking and the military doctrine adopted in 2016 that stressed that Belarus does not treat any state as an opponent. At the same time, the exercises plan proves the weaknesses of Belarus, whose authorities, even at a rhetorical level, do not assume Belarus can defend its territory by itself and that support from Russia is crucial. It also indirectly confirms that Russia de facto holds military control over Belarus.
During the exercises, land forces and aviation units (including airborne and armoured forces) are to be used, which traditionally is a show of Russian military power to NATO and neighbouring countries (including Ukraine). These units will also be used to display the high level of the military’s capabilities to the Russian public. The scenario also shows that Russia wants to test its ability to quickly concentrate forces at the border with NATO, forces which significantly exceed the Alliance’s potential on its Eastern Flank. It also will highlight Russia’s capability to militarily support its allies. At the same time, the manoeuvres plan confirms that the Russian authorities perceive Belarusian territory as a potential area for its own military actions, either defensive or offensive (including counterattack and retaliatory actions).