Russia and Belarus officially launched their weeklong war games on Tuesday, in a display of military muscle-flexing that has set much of Europe on edge. As the Wall Street Journal notes, the Zapad (“West”) drills began with Russian tanks moving toward Belarus, while a wary NATO keeps watch with a surveillance plane:
NATO had promised to keep a close watch on Russian military movements during the war games, known as Zapad. The plane’s deployment from its base in Germany to Riga, Latvia, was a high-profile display of its mission to reassure the Baltic states bordering Russia.
The Russian and Belarusian exercises are formally set to last until Sept. 20. While Russia has said they will involve only 12,700 troops, allied officials have estimated that because of simultaneous, interconnected drills held in Belarus and western Russia the true number of forces involved will be between 70,000 and 100,000.
Russia says the training exercise is meant to prepare the armed forces to deal with terrorist threats, but military analysts say the operation is being carried out with NATO in mind. The alliance and U.S. officials have warned of the possibility of an accident or miscalculation by Russian forces.
Russia’s Zapad drills occur every four years as part of its regular, rotationally scheduled war games, but this year’s installment has been the subject of unusually frenzied and anxious speculation. Some officials have warned that the drills are an opportunity for Russia to leave behind heavy military equipment and troops in Belarus, permanently moving its forces closer to NATO’s doorstep. Others have speculated in hushed whispers about the new “information operations troops,” formally incorporated into the Russian military in February, that Moscow may show off during the exercises. And some Western military planners fear that Russia could use the troop maneuvers as cover for another stealth invasion, à la Georgia in 2008 or Ukraine in 2014.
None of these concerns are entirely unfounded; given Russia’s revisionist behavior and its track record of covert military campaigns, NATO is wise to be on guard and vigilant. That said, the panic increasing in some quarters is out of proportion to the threat, and it could play into Moscow’s hands by amplifying perceptions of its military prowess.
In many ways, the Zapad drills are as much mind games as war games: a “massive psychological warfare operation,” in the words of Mark Galeotti. Part of the goal is clearly to spook the Baltics. The games’ underlying scenario imagines three fictional, Baltic-like countries that are being used as Western proxies to undermine the relationship between Minsk and Moscow, provoking a retaliatory Russian response. Given that framing, Moscow clearly means to communicate that it will aggressively fight any NATO-backed attempt to encroach further into its “near abroad.” The drills may also be meant to intimidate NATO-curious countries like Sweden and Finland who have lately toyed with the idea of joining the alliance.
Yet those psychological tactics are only as potent as we allow them to be, a point implicitly made by the Finnish Defense Minister when he criticized Western countries for “[taking] the bait completely” in overhyping Russia’s drills and conjuring nightmare scenarios in the press. Tabloid hysteria about Russia starting “World War Three” and panic about Moscow’s devious plans for a “Trojan Horse” in Belarus only benefits Putin by making him look stronger and more cunning than he actually is.
A more sober assessment of Zapad suggests Russia’s precarious position. The exercises are a conscious callback to the Soviet-era Zapad drills, but at that time Russia enjoyed the participation of Warsaw Pact countries that have since shifted their allegiances to NATO. Now, it must rely on lonely little Belarus, which has not been an entirely deferential partner. As Keir Giles points out at Politico, Belarus’s President Alexander Lukashenko invited NATO observers and Western media to monitor the exercises while Russia was opposed; he also decided to hold the drills in central Belarus, rather than near its borders, so as to ease NATO anxieties. Lukashenko has lately proven a deft middleman between the West and Russia, as he seeks to distance himself from his image as a Putin puppet. In short, he is not about to turn his country into a staging ground for a Russian invasion.
None of this is a reason to dismiss the Russian threat entirely. Russia will surely show off impressive new capabilities during the Zapad drills, it will surely employ provocative military plans designed to scare its neighbors, and it will continue to pose a long-term security challenge to Europe. But it won’t launch a massive new military campaign with NATO watching closely from the wings. And when the dust settles, the Zapad drills may prove as empty a display of psychological intimidation as the time that Putin unleashed his dog on Angela Merkel: the tactic of a strongman desperate to hide his weakness.