Practicing an air and naval blockade near the Suwalki gap connecting the Baltics to their NATO allies is merely a part of an anti-terrorist drill, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Aleksandr Fomin said when introducing the Zapad 2017 major training exercise yesterday.
Fomin’s (58) monologue took up the lion’s share of the 30-minute briefing in Moscow where the much-speculated Zapad was first introduced to the public. Guests included defense attaches of neighboring countries and the media, even though journalists did not ask a single question.
Fomin said that the aim of the Zapad 2017 exercise, to be held on September 14-20, is to check the ability to cooperate of the armed forces of Russia and Belarus after modernization of technology and chain of command on both sides in recent years.
Despite the official number of fewer than 13,000 participants, that does not obligate Russia to allow Western observers access, according to the Vienna convention, the final phase of drills will unfold at around a dozen Russian, Belarusian, and Kaliningrad polygons located in the shape of sickle around the Baltic states.
The closest, the Pravdinsk polygon in Kaliningrad, is located a mere ten kilometers from the Polish border.
The scenario of the drills will see Russian and Belarusian troops countering a major extremist group cells of which have established footholds in Kaliningrad and the territory of Belarus. Because the enemy is a terrorist group, special units and security services, including the FSB, will also take part in the exercise. One of the most controversial elements of the drills will be a naval blockade by Russia’s Baltic Sea fleet to cut off the extremists’, who are supported from the outside, escape route west.
Fomin dedicated a notable part of his presentation to the Western media that has allegedly been spreading myths of a Russian threat, saying that the exercise is stepping-stone for a Russian invasion of Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine. “None of these versions have anything to do with reality,” Fomin said. “I emphasize that despite its anti-terrorist scenario, Zapad 2017 is a fully defensive drill in nature.”
The West believes otherwise: figures Russia has provided are severely understated, and the true aim of the drill is to test offensive capacity.
Minister of Defense Jüri Luik (IRL) said that the Zapad exercise involves around 100,000 men. “In addition to a lot of offensive weaponry, the nature of the exercise’s elements is also offensive. Zapad will culminate in a drill of Russia’s nuclear triad,” Luik said.
The defense minister said that a number of troops near the border have been put in heightened combat readiness to considerably cut the alliance’s reaction time. “It is crucial to ensure NATO troops access to the region in defending the Baltics; the Zapad drills practice denying that access,” Luik said. “Russia will try to close the Baltic airspace with an A2AD mission.”
Luik said that Estonia expects Russia to honor agreements and officially report the drills, invite observers, and give them actual access. Belarus has taken a few friendly steps in reporting a part of the exercise and inviting observers.