Undocumented drills

Oliver Kund
, reporter
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Photo: Vasily Maximov / AFP / Scanpix

Russia’s Zapad drills lasted a total of ten weeks, and exercises in Belarus formed but a fraction of the whole. The real action took place east of the Baltics and in the Arctic. For a time, no fewer than 13,000 troops were close to the Baltic borders.

Residents of villages near Lake Peipus probably had no idea in September that dramatic evening news footage of the Zapad press day in Belarus and Kaliningrad would be repeated much closer to home without much ado.

Drills involved 13,000 troops equipped with tanks, fighter jets, and assault helicopters on a stretch of land just 100 kilometers east of the Baltics. Footage of these exercises – and drills in the far north – will probably never reach the public. Officially, that part of Zapad simply never took place.

Analyses by NATO countries conclude that Zapad was a chain of linked drills stretching from the Kola Peninsula to the Black Sea only a single part of which was public – Belarus. Putting the pieces together, it turns out the scenario of the series was how to go from the next Maidan to a nuclear war against the West.

“Many have asked the question whether it was an offensive or defensive drill, while we can say it was actually an exercise in escalation,” one source said. All sources will remain anonymous for the purposes of this article.

Authoritarian rulers seldom fear anything but being overthrown. The one-week so-called anti-terrorism drill held in Belarus in the middle of September was aimed at putting down a potential color revolution.

That a bloody conflict on Europe’s doorstep might not leave NATO impassionate is why the Kremlin sees the next stage as involving tank armies, the Northern Fleet, and even a strategic nuclear strike. That is why Zapad had to continue in the closed polygons of Russia’s Western Military District.

It is not important whether NATO would cross valid state borders in case of such a scenario. Threatening steps would be necessary if only to cater to the domestic audience, lest an uprising is allowed to cause a snowball effect.

“Joining Kaliningrad to Russia and closing the Suwalki gap would cut the Baltics off from Europe, and it is something that would need to be done as quickly as possible. That is what is being rehearsed. All previous Zapad exercises have played with the same scenario,” the source said.

Attention ruined the game

Belarus and Kaliningrad were the public focus of this year’s Zapad, while they weren’t its true center. Surprisingly, the Kremlin reshuffled its cards as recently as early spring.

If in December 2016 the Russian defense ministry applied for use of 4,162 railway cars to transport its troops to Belarus, only 400 were needed in the end. The popular opinion is that the initial plan was opposed by President Aleksandr Lukashenko who does not want to see Russian troops or military bases in his country. In truth, differences of opinion between Lukashenko and Putin do not run as deep.

One of the reasons was the disquiet and increased attention of European countries regarding what would happen in Belarus that is located right under the nose of NATO surveillance. “They changed their plan sometime in March as they realized everyone’s attention was focused on Belarus,” another source said.

Belarus was turned into a highly successful information operation to use the West’s weapon against it. The official number of participants was 12,700 – exactly as promised. Belarus invited international observes, including from NATO and the OECD. Russia moved all of its units out of Belarus in late September, even though both the Belarusian opposition and Ukraine feared they might remain there.

Because the main phase of the exercise was in accordance with rules, Russia had left itself free to conduct more substantial drills elsewhere – mostly in the Leningrad and Pskov oblasts and in the far north. A lot of the drills took place this summer, even before the active phase of Zapad began.

Establishing aftermath

The International Center for Defense Studies in Estonia counted more than 30 exercises held in the Baltic Sea and the North Sea from July based on public information alone.

The flagship of the Northern Fleet, battlecruiser Pyotr Velikiy, made the news in late July when it was scheduled to appear in the St. Petersburg naval parade. Few know that the 252-meter ship partook in a military drill in the Baltic Sea on its way back, even though a ship of its size is not meant to be deployed in such narrow waters.

Landings closest to Estonia took place on the Gulf of Finland islands of Suursaar, Lavassaar, and Tütarsaar the latter of which lies fewer than 60 kilometers from the Estonian coast. The scope of activities in the Baltic Sea would have been even bigger had stormy weather not caused some of the exercises to be canceled. There was no such problem in the Arctic, where the Russian navy rehearsed sinking enemy frigates and tactical landings.

What happened on the other side of the Estonian land boundary? The main focal points were the Luga and Strugi Krasnye polygons the closest of which was once again some 60 kilometers from Estonia.

“The entire Western Military District was put on battle alert on September 14. All general staffs moved out; even the district headquarters, headed by General [Andrei] Kartapolov, was moved out of St. Petersburg,” former commander of the Defense Forces, retired general Ants Laaneots said.

Three out of four airborne divisions participated in drills in Strugi Krasnye. While modernized T72 tanks were sent to Belarus, equipment closer to the Estonian border included T90 main battle tanks and the brand new armored fighting vehicle BMPT. No land, air, or naval border violations were established by Estonia.

A lot of emphasis was placed on electronic warfare at this year’s Zapad. Russia is among the leading forces in the world when it comes to disrupting enemy communications as jammers at its disposal range from those aimed against individual squads to major transmitters that can cover hundreds of kilometers.

Disruptions to Latvia’s cell phone network on August 30 and emergency call service on September 13 were probably Russian tests. Mobile communications were disrupted using a powerful network jammer in Kaliningrad aimed at Gotland in Sweden and Aland in Finland.

“Our allies’ weakness lies in their dependency on long-range communications. Major countries need to keep in touch with the homeland when at war. The Russians realize that a corresponding strike would give them an advantage,” a Postimees source explained.

Zapad also offered new and surprising elements. For example, nuclear forces were involved in very early stages of the drills. If during Zapad 2009, Russia simulated a nuclear strike against Poland, and a similar flight of strategic bombers took place near Stockholm four years later, the nuclear exercise concentrated on the Baltic region this time.

Secondly, the exercise largely concentrated on the far north where additional forces were deployed from several other military districts.

Norwegian counter intelligence said in early October that Russia used strong electronic jammers on the Kola Peninsula. They caused SAS and Wideroe passenger aircraft to lose GPS signal climbing beyond 2,000 feet over a week.

Norway’s F-16 fighters had trouble escorting Russia’s TU-22M3 long-range bombers on their way from the Kola Peninsula to Iceland and back.

A bigger scandal broke out in Norway when it turned out Russia’s 60-vessel Northern Fleet had simulated an attack on the Svalbard archipelago. Svalbard, that lies in the Barents Sea, is demilitarized but has major strategic significance in case of a potential conflict with NATO as it makes it possible to restrict all access and activity (A2/AD) in the Arctic. Interest in the area could be explained through the fact that in case of a hypothetical nuclear war US nuclear strikes against Russia would probably come over the North Pole.

It is peculiar how Zapad became a countrywide internal troops exercise. A wave of bomb threats hit around ten Russian cities in summer and fall. It is much more probable these threats were made to test the preparedness of internal defense and hospitals than as a result of increased terrorist activity.

Estimates differ

Commander of US Army Europe Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges said on October 2 that he believes Zapad had more than 40,000 participants. Hodges’ statement has been described by several member states as hurried.

NATO members close to the Russian border believe troop numbers to have been far greater. “We know there were just as many participants, if not more than in previous years,” a source told Postimees. The entire spectrum of the drills involved at least 100,000 men, as well as internal troops.

German newspaper Der Spiegel wrote a week ago that Russia plans to start staging Zapad exercises every two years instead of every four in the future.