The Russian-Belarusian military exercise Zapad-2017 led to massive speculations about Russia's ambitions. Are they defensive or offensive? The Kremlin in its conspiratorial world view really fears that it might face a military challenge from the West. But the West is paranoid as wel, argues security expert Mark Galeotti for RaamopRusland. Mutual incomprehension is dangerous. Time for a realistic assessment.

 zapad 2017 1Zapad 2017 (pictures Russian ministry of Defense)

by Mark Galeotti

The much-discussed joint Russian/Belarusian Zapad-2017 military exercises are in full swing and, at least as of writing, Russia has not mustered 100,000 troops on NATO’s borders, invaded Ukraine or the Baltic States, shown signs of planning to occupy Belarus, or done any of the things that the more alarmist Western reports suggested. Instead, they seem to be precisely what one would expect, a major, regular sequence of training exercises, with a side-order of psychological warfare to exacerbate and exploit European neuroses. Zapad offers a useful window into Russian military thinking and capacities, but it also provides an interesting example of one of the fundamental issues behind the current Russia-West crisis: mutual incomprehension exacerbated by the retreat of expertise and a clash of world views.

Western worries…

In part, the Western hype about Zapad reflects institutional and individual interests. Getting European countries to reach the NATO target of spending 2% of GDP on defence is an uphill struggle, and there is a political imperative to keeping people nervous as a means to this end. For Ukraine, and some frontline European states, there is also an advantage in leveraging a presumed threat from Moscow to attract support and deflect criticism. Then there is also a growing body of self-proclaimed experts eager to capitalise on the crisis of the moment with all kinds of half-understood but fully-bloodcurdling assertions about a mythical 'Gerasimov Doctrine' and a 'new way of war'.

Yet at the same time, it also reflects understandable concerns about a Russian regime that is not only still involved in combat operations on the territory of one of its neighbours, but also maintains a high tempo of intelligence and subversion activities across the West. It is also pouring a considerable proportion of its resources into military modernisation (around 30% of the total federal budget goes to security in its various forms), and its exercises seem to be wargaming aggressive, 'shock and awe' operations. Combine that with the bellicose rhetoric of the Kremlin and its propaganda mouthpieces, such as TV presenter Dmitri Kiselev’s relish at the thought 'Russia is the only country in the world capable of turning the USA into radioactive dust', and suspicions about the Kremlin’s intentions are not conjured from thin air.

…meet Russian paranoias

At the same time, though, the world looks very different through the Kremlin’s windows. Zapad is a wargame of two halves; the latter days are testing how Russian forces would fight a full-scale conventional war with a well-armed enemy – NATO – but the earlier stage was built around the premise that they faced a combination of high-tech long-range attack and close-quarters operations by foreign saboteurs and special forces. Although there is always a degree of theatricality about exercises, for them to be useful and effective, they ought to model as closely as possible the actual kinds of warfare an army thinks it may be called on to fight. To Westerners it may sound bizarre and implausible, but the Kremlin genuinely fears that it might some day face a military challenge not necessarily from the whole NATO alliance, but perhaps from a coalition of some NATO states, and that they would start their aggression by stirring up dissent behind the lines, and sending in commandoes to engage in military-political operations intended to spread chaos and break lines of communication.

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