NEWS

Here's an after-action report on Russia's massive European wargame

Russia finally concluded its quadrennial Zapad-2017 military exercises last week.


The exercises, which were held in Belarus and western Russia for six days, tested Russia's defensive capabilities against the fictional country of Veishnoriya which had supposedly been infiltrated by western-backed militias.

The games were not, as many eastern European leaders and even some US generals feared, used to occupy Belarus, invade Ukraine or for some other deceitful act.

In fact, Russian tank and airborne units are currently leaving Belarus and heading home.

A Russian T-72B3. Wikimedia Commons photo from user Vitaly Kuzmin.

The games also did not, as many in the west said, appear to involve 100,000 or more Russian troops.

Moscow claimed that only 12,700 troops participated — just under the 13,000 figure that requires foreign observation according to the Vienna Document — and that "official count ... in Belarus and parts of nearby Russia was ... probably fairly accurate," Dmitry Gorenburg, a senior research scientist at CNA, told Business Insider.

"The trick is that they have a lot of other official exercises that seem to be taking place nearby," Gorenburg said.

Russia's Northern Fleet Moscow conducted exercises in the Barents Sea, and its Strategic Rocket Forces test launched two new RS-24 YARS ICBMs. Additional exercises were also held, including some with China and Egypt in other parts of Russia.

Zapad 13 military exercise. Photo from Russian Kremlin.

"Most of these exercises are not part of Zapad 2017, but as always, it's a bit hard to tell," Michael Kofman, a senior research scientist at CNA, recently wrote.

Gorenburg said it's still too difficult to discern how many troops participated, but guessed that roughly 60,000-70,000 took part. Some analysts have estimated a similar range.

These overblown western estimations of 100,000 or more troops, along with fear of occupations and invasions, Gorenburg said, were a political win for Russia, which "is trying to show its military is back and strong."

The Kremlin can also now "credibly claim that the West overreacted and fell victim to scaremongering and reporting rumours that Moscow was not being transparent about the nature of the exercise and its intentions," Mathieu Boulègue, a research fellow at the Chatham House, wrote.

Embassy of the United States in Moscow. Photo from Wikimedia Commons user NVO.

"Short of entrapment, proving the West wrong is increasingly part of the Kremlin's political strategy which, in turn, strengthens Russia's sense of superiority," Boulègue wrote.

Some have even argued that Russia made western media look like fake news, and that these western exagerations were done out of ignorance or to fit their own political agenda.

Despite not appearing to have gone over or been close to the 100,000 or more figure, Russia nevertheless seems, according to Gorenburg and many other analysts, to have had more than 13,000 troops participating in the overall Zapad exercises, which is in violation of the Vienna Document.

While Belarus was rather transparent, and invited foreigners to observe the games, it makes sense that Moscow would want to limit such foreign observation as much as possible. After all, Zapad means "west" in Russian, and the games were essentially a simulation of how well Russian military branches could coordinate a defensive against NATO.

Russian President Vladimir Putin watches the Zapad '17 military exercises. Photo from Moscow Kremlin.

The first three days of the exercises were purely defensive, initially defending against a large aerial attack, which Russian military leaders have determined is the US and NATO's traditional opening move during invasions, according to the Jamestown Foundation.

The last three days of the exercises were all about "counterattack," Gorenburg said. For a thorough breakdown of all Russia's military maneuvers during the exercises, check out Kofman's blog summarizing all seven days of Zapad-2017.

Ultimately, Russia was able to repel the simulated western invasion, and while "it will take a more detailed analysis" to see how well Russia faired, Moscow initially seems to think "it went fairly well," Gorenburg said.

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