Russia launches war games
THE country does not exist, so it has neither an army nor any real citizens, though it has acquired a feisty following of would-be patriots online. Starting yesterday, however, the fictional state, Veishnoriya, a distillation of the Kremlin’s darkest fears about the West, becomes the target of the combined military might of Russia and its ally Belarus.
The nation was invented to provide an enemy to confront during a six-day joint military exercise that is expected to be the biggest display of Russian military power since the end of the Cold War a quarter-century ago.
The exercise, known as Zapad-2017, is the latest iteration of a series of training maneuvers that began under the Soviet Union in the 1970s. After a long break following the collapse of communism, Zapad was revived in 1999 and then was expanded after Vladimir Putin became president at the end of that year.
Zapad, “west” in Russian, used to include military forces from countries under the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet-led military alliance whose non-Soviet members have now all joined NATO. Today, the military exercise has shrunk to just two participants – Russia and Belarus – but it is still viewed warily by military planners in the West.
It comes at a time of deteriorating relations between Russia and the West, with Washington and Moscow trading diplomatic penalties seemingly weekly. From bitter experience over Russian election meddling and military adventurism in recent years, Western officials have developed a deep distrust of the Kremlin’s motives and its proclamations of good intentions.
There are fears that Moscow may be moving far more troops into Belarus than it intends to withdraw, establishing a permanent military presence there on the border with NATO countries. And officials in the Baltics and Poland have voiced alarm that the exercises could be used as a cover for Russian aggression, as happened in 2014, when Moscow staged large-scale exercises to camouflage preparations for its annexation of Crimea and intervention on the side of pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.
“NATO will be monitoring the exercises closely,” the alliance’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, said in an interview recently in Brussels, the site of NATO’s headquarters. Russia, he said, is entirely within its rights to train its forces. But it has stirred unease by routinely skirting mutually agreed upon rules designed to calm jitters.
“The lack of transparency increases the risk of misunderstanding, miscalculations, accidents and incidents that can become dangerous,” Stoltenberg said. He called on Russia to “respect both the letter and intentions” of the so-called Vienna Document, which commits Russia and Western nations to report all exercises with more than 13,000 troops or 300 tanks and to allow foreign observers to monitor those that do.
The West has been bracing for the Russian exercises for months. Then, late last month, a scenario outlined by the military leadership in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, described the main task for this year’s Zapad programme: to repel aggression by Veishnoriya, a fictional country that is backed by the West and intent on driving a wedge between Russia and Belarus. The scenario also includes two other fake countries, Lubeniya and Ves- basriya, which form a coalition with Veishnoriya to menace Russian security.
The Baltic states and Poland, which fear that the fictional nations invented by Zapad planners are thinly disguised proxies for their own countries, say they believe that the number of Russian troops taking part in Zapad-2017 could reach 100,000.
Western nations conduct war games, too, of course. This summer, the United States led an allied force of 25,000 in exercises in Eastern Europe. But the West follows the rules in the Vienna Document, and allows Russian observers to keep a watch.
Russia, Stoltenberg said, has a record of exploiting loopholes in the Vienna Document, habitually understating the number of troops taking part in war games by tens of thousands.
Moscow and Minsk insist that this week’s Zapad exercise will involve just 12,700 troops. This means that, like all previous Russian military exercises since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, it weighs in just under the 13,000-troop threshold and is therefore is free of observers from the West.
But Estonia’s defence minister, Margus Tsahkna, has pointed to a tender issued this year by Russia’s Ministry of Defense for more than 4,000 railway wagons to transport military equipment and soldiers to Belarus. The figure suggests that far bigger military contingents would be on the move than declared, the minister said, a sign that Moscow may intend to leave some behind.
The US military has echoed such worries, with Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, who heads the Army forces in Europe, describing Zapad as a possible “Trojan horse” that would send in Russian forces but not take them out.
Russia has dismissed Western anxieties over Zapad-2017, saying the exercises are defensive. Fuelling unease is Russia’s silence on what exactly the exercises will involve. Belarus has invited foreign military attachés based in Minsk to watch and released some details of its war games with Russia, including airstrikes and tank battles on Sunday and Monday.
But it is not clear that the attachés will have the freedom they need to move about and to talk with soldiers. Moscow, for its part, has said only that the exercises threaten nobody and will involve operations in Belarus, in Russia’s Western Military District and in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, next to Poland.
This vagueness, according to NATO officials in Brussels, continues a pattern of obfuscation deeply entrenched since the Soviet era.
Foreign observers from NATO were never allowed to watch Soviet-era Zapad exercises, and diplomats based in Moscow were barred from visiting regions where the exercises were taking place. That was supposed to change with the signing of the Vienna Document, adopted in 1990 by the Viennabased Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and updated in 2011, but Russia has always found ways to circumvent the agreement.
Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary-general, said he could not speculate about the real purpose of Zapad-2017, saying that this would become clear only once it was over next week. At the same time, he noted, the exercise fits a “pattern of a more assertive Russia” that is “exercising more aggressively” and, through its actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, has shown that “it is willing to use military force against its neighbours”.
Map of eastern Europe locating three distinct sets of military exercises along with countries that host NATO battalions.