Zapad 2017: Could Russia Succeed in Opinion War?
On September 14-20 Russia jointly with Belarus conducted large-scale strategic military exercise - the Zapad (West) 2017. The exercise takes place in the Western Strategic Direction, at ranges located in the Republic of Belarus as well as in the Kaliningrad, Leningrad, and Pskov regions every four years. This quadrennial exercise is not a new one, but the Zapad 2017 exercise has received a huge attention, even before it has formally started.
The communication component of the exercise was important for Russia as an assessment of military capabilities in the Western Strategic Direction. The communication activities were conducted even before the exercise was started. It accompanied the Zapad 2017 during the drills and most probably it will also continue to do so after the military exercise. According to Janis Sarts, a director of the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, Zapad 2017 was a big communication exercise.
Main subjects of the information confrontation were about threats (military interventions in neighboring countries) of the Zapad 2017, a number of military servants and possibility of Russia could leave troops and military equipment in Belarus after the drills.
Mainly NATO’s eastern flank countries (Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia) and also Ukraine alarmed about real threats of the Zapad 2017 war-games of Russia. On the one hand, such warnings were based on the historical experiences (Russian military intervention in Georgia in 2008 and occupation of Crimea in 2014 after similar military exercises). On the other hand, form and tactics of the exercise fueled suspicions. General Petr Pavel, head of NATO’s Military Committee, stated that the Zapad 2017 is similar to a serious preparation for big war. Edward Lucas estimated these concerns as the intimidation tactics of Russia. According to him, the signs so far suggest that Russia is trying to downplay the exercise’s intimidating effects.
The number of troops who participated in the exercise was another subject of discussions. According to the Ministry of Defence of Russian Federation, about 12.7 thousand troops (including 7.2 thousand of Belarusian troops, about 5.5 thousand of Russian troops and 3 thousand of them – on the territory of Belarus), about 70 aircraft and helicopters, up to 680 pieces of military hardware including about 250 tanks, up to 200 guns, MLRSs and mortars as well as 10 warships were planned to be involved in the exercise. And also, Russia detached operational groups of MIA, Rosguard, FSB and EMERCOM to plan the joint actions. Several experts and officials estimated the number around 100,000.
For instance, Oleksandr Turchynov, a secretary of Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council, claimed that over 120,000 troops and 10,000 units of military hardware are engaged in the active phase of the Russian-Belarusian Zapad 2017. However, the “real” size of the exercise was hard to measure; there are technical ways to make it look smaller than it actually is — for example, dividing the big exercise into several parallel exercises taking place “autonomously.” But the huge difference shows the mistrust and tensions between Russia and the West.
Russian military officials denied attack nature of the exercise and claimed that it was absolutely peaceful and defensive. Although Russia organized a tour for Western media representatives during the drills, officials left most questions unanswered.
It looked like Belarus was interested in to demonstrate more transparency than Russia during the drills. Ministry of Defense launched a website (exercise.mil.by) dedicated specifically to the Zapad 2017. Open accesses for accredited journalists were guaranteed. Observers from international organizations (the UN, OSCE, NATO, CIS, CSTO, ICRC) and also the military-diplomatic corps accredited in the embassies of foreign states in Belarus had been invited. The Belarusian Defense Ministry also invited military observers from Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, Estonia, Sweden, and Norway.
In Zapad 2017, Russia could conduct an assessment of military capabilities (deployment of troops, advanced high-precision weapons, electronic warfare capacities and using of Soviet partisan tactics which are embodied in reserve-based “territorial defense units”) and testing of a variety of improvements and lessons drawn from Russia’s recent experience of conflict. Together with these, the communication component of the exercise had huge importance for Russia in the Zapad-2017 as well. The communication targets of Russia might be intimidation of the post-soviet and post-socialist Eastern Europe countries, displaying of power - advanced military capabilities for the West and also, for the local audience who will vote in the next presidential election after several months, in the face of economic difficulties. It is most probable that the Kremlin will use footages or images from Zapad 2017 for a strengthening of the political campaign of government candidate in 2018 presidential election. Even if they will not be used, the exercise has already begun to play as a component of political campaign beforehand of officially starting the election campaign.
About the author: Nurlan Aliyev is a PhD Candidate/Researcher at the Institute of International Relations of the University of Warsaw. From 2000 to 2017, he had worked as an expert at various government, non-government and international institutions. His research area is primarily focused on political processes in Central and Eastern Europe, post-soviet countries, regional security and also the strategic communication and asymmetric warfare threats.