Russian paratroopers wait to board a helicopter during a military exercise outside the southern city of Stavropol, Russia, October 27, 2015. REUTERS/Eduard Korniyenko - RTX1TGUD
Russian troops during earlier military exercises. This year's Zapad war games are taking place with east-west relations at their most strained since the fall of the Soviet Union © Reuters

They are still more than two weeks away, but Russia’s Zapad 2017 war games — potentially the country’s largest European exercises since the cold war — are creating jitters across eastern Europe.

For seven days from September 14, Russia will conduct large-scale military manoeuvres spanning western Russia, its Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad and its ally Belarus — which borders three Nato members, Poland, Latvia and Lithuania.

While Moscow claims fewer than 13,000 troops will take part in Zapad 2017, western capitals expect the number could reach six figures.

Concerns are understandable. The exercises are taking place with east-west relations at their most strained since the fall of the Berlin Wall almost three decades ago and shortly after the US imposed new sanctions over Moscow’s alleged interference in its presidential election.

Russia has also used drills in the past as cover for real military action. A “snap” exercise in 2014 masked the launch of Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.

The head of Ukraine’s national security council said last week it was “not excluded” that Russia could use Zapad 2017 to create strike forces for the “military invasion” of Ukraine. Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, the three former Soviet Baltic republics, have voiced similar fears.

A graphic with no description

Ben Hodges, the commanding general of the US army in Europe, has warned the exercise could be a “Trojan horse” to bring Russian soldiers and weapons into Belarus and leave them there. “They say, ‘we’re just doing an exercise’, and then all of a sudden they’ve moved all these people and capabilities somewhere,” he said.

Russia dismisses such fears. Grigory Karasin, its deputy foreign minister, countered that “artificial buffoonery over the routine Zapad 2017 exercises is aimed at justifying the sharp intensification of the Nato bloc” along Russia’s borders.

Based on preparations to date, western officials estimate the exercises will involve nearer 100,000 military personnel rather than the 12,700, as well as 680 pieces of equipment, that Moscow says will be deployed.

Zapad, which means “west” and refers to Russia’s western military district, is part of a four-year cycle of exercises that rotate through its eastern, central and Caucasus as well as western districts.

Alexander Golts, an independent Russian military analyst, says previous exercises in this cycle have all deployed 100,000 or more personnel, while Zapad’s geographical scope suggests a “huge concentration of troops”.

Russia’s general staff are “geniuses” at manipulating an international agreement obliging it to invite European observers to any exercise involving more than 13,000, by holding multiple supposedly separate drills concurrently, he says.

Keir Giles, an associate fellow at the UK’s Chatham House think-tank, says: “Put those things together and there are strong grounds for believing this is likely to be a much larger event than the Russian official figures”.

The manoeuvres are clearly designed to send a strong message to Nato, which has strengthened its eastern flank since the 2014 Ukraine crisis by siting four multinational battle groups in Poland and the Baltics.

But despite the nervousness among Russia’s neighbours, there is less reason to believe the drills could be cover for an attack, say analysts.

Unlike in 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia days after completing exercises in its Caucasus district, there has been no sign of Moscow laying the political and propaganda groundwork for military action this time.

“The political message delivered by . . . these military drills is ‘hands off’ Russian interests’,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of Russia’s Council on Foreign and Defence Policy, a Kremlin advisory group. “But there is absolutely no willingness to escalate anything.”

Moscow’s mood is “confusion” and “wait-and-see” after the Trump administration confounded its hopes of a sharp improvement in US-Russian relations, says Mr Lukyanov.

Even leaving equipment in Belarus would need the agreement of Alexander Lukashenko, its autocratic president. But Samuel Charap, a senior political scientist at the Rand Corporation, says Mr Lukashenko is anxious not to make Belarus a target for the west and has resisted pressure in the past to host Russian military infrastructure.

“It takes preparation to permanently base forces in another country. Are they just going to stay in tents?” says Mr Charap.

Jens Stoltenberg, Nato’s secretary-general, criticised both Moscow and Minsk on Friday for failing to meet international commitments to make the exercises transparent.

But Belarus says it has invited Ukraine, Poland, the Baltic states, Sweden and Norway, plus organisations including the UN and Nato, to send observers. Minsk itself may be aiming to ensure Russia does not try anything unexpected, say analysts.

Whether or not they are invited to observe, western governments and militaries will be closely studying the drills, which come after a decade of Russian military reform and investment following its erratic 2008 Georgian campaign, and amid its operations in Ukraine and Syria.

Moscow’s new “information operations” troops, responsible for cyber warfare and “psy ops”, are expected to take part, as well as the powerful First Guards Tank Army, a second world war and cold war vanguard disbanded in 1998 but reformed in 2014.

“We’re seeing the Russian military on display in a way that you don’t often see it,” says Mr Charap, “and seeing how they think about contingencies and about potential conflict . . . with Nato.”

Get alerts on Russian politics when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article