Nicholas J. Myers
Is Russia’s military as good, or as bad, as they say?
The conclusion of the large-scale Russian-Belarusian Zapad-2017 military exercise allows some initial reflections. Though the Zapad exercise series is a regular feature of the Russian strategic-operational exercise family, this is its first installment since the 2014 Ukraine crisis and the ensuing standoff between Russia and the West, explaining much of the interest in this year’s event.
Throughout the buildup to the exercise, the Russians and Belarusians have been insistent that it is purely defensive exercise; “Zapad” may literally translate to “West,” but the west in mind was the western portions of Russia and Belarus. Nevertheless, loud concerns were expressed at the start of the exercise that the Russians might use this exercise as an excuse to establish a permanent base in Belarus or else to practice opening a land corridor to the exclave Kaliningrad Oblast. In response to these concerns, NATO launched its own exercise in western Ukraine, the Ukrainians conducted a large command-staff exercise across the country, right-wing groups assembled forces to defend northwestern Ukraine, Sweden held its largest exercise in twenty-three years on the Baltic Sea directly across from Zapad, and the United States increased the size of the NATO Baltic Air Policing presence.
For all these signs and warnings, the exercise has ended with nothing significant having happened (yet). The Russians are not promised to have fully withdrawn from Belarus until September 30 and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has remained vocal about how the occupation will not occur.
So, with this question yet unanswerable, what did we learn?