Is Russia Rehearsing for a Major War?

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The Liven missile boat of the Russian Baltic Fleet out at sea to take part in Zapad 2017, on September 16. Photo: Vitaly Nevar/TASS

On Thursday, Russia and Belarus began a week of war games, which rattled Eastern European NATO states and led to rampant speculation about the true purpose of the exercise before they even began. Dubbed “Zapad 2017” (meaning “West”), the games are meant to simulate an attack by a coalition of fictional Western states — Lubenia, Vesbaria, and Veishnoria — which some observers see as stand-ins for Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia.

The Zapad exercises are neither new nor unusual: The Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries carried out a series of “Zapad” exercises simulating NATO invasions from the West throughout the ’70s and ’80s, and this is the fourth conducted by the Russian Federation since 1999. What has Europe worried is that Zapad 2017 comes at a time of considerable tension in Eastern Europe, while the memory of 2013, when Russia used the Zapad exercise to lay the groundwork for the seizure of Crimea from Ukraine the following year, remains fresh. Military exercises were also used as a disguise for the invasion of Georgia in 2008.

By and large, NATO does not see Russia pulling a similar stunt with this year’s exercise, but the alliance has expressed concern that Moscow is not being transparent about the number of troops involved in the exercise, claiming that under 13,000 soldiers are participating when the total could really be as high as 100,000. What the Russian and Belarusian governments have depicted as a routine defensive drill looks from the outside like a rehearsal for a major war.

The Baltic countries, NATO members that see themselves as likely targets of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s expansionist ambitions, are particularly unnerved. Poland is upping defense spending and even neutral Sweden is holding war games of its own, its largest in 20 years. Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, meanwhile, characterized Zapad as “preparations for an offensive war of continental proportions.” The fear is that the military assets Russia deploys in Belarus for the exercise will somehow not find their way back to Russia, instead serving as forward bases for an offensive on “Veishnoria” — or, as the Belarusian opposition fears, a permanent occupation of their country.

Not everyone agrees that Zapad is worth making a fuss about, however: Finnish defense minister Jussi Niinistö called it a propaganda exercise and said the panic it had inspired was exactly what Putin was going for. “Western countries have taken the bait completely, they’ve plugged the exercises so much,” he added.

Zapad is indeed, in Poroshenko’s formulation, practice for a “war of continental proportions.” Russia and Belarus may deny that NATO is the enemy envisioned in these war games, but it’s hard to imagine who else they could have in mind. The lingering question is whether the exercise is indeed defensive, or a dress rehearsal for an attack.

Of course, it could always be a bit of both. It’s important to bear in mind that in Putin’s eyes, the post–Cold War NATO is not a defensive alliance keeping Russia from doing something stupid, but rather an instrument of American hegemony stepping ever more brazenly into Russia’s backyard. Both the invasion of Georgia in 2008 and the Ukrainian incursion in 2014 (and the ongoing frozen conflicts in both countries) have been sold to the Russian public (and anyone who believes what they see on RT) as defensive acts to protect Russian people and interests against American aggression.

In the fake news era, the line between genuine concern and convenient excuse is thinner than ever, but if Putin and other Russian elites are smoking what they’re selling, they really do see the U.S. meddling not only in Russia’s sphere of influence, but in Russia itself, seeking to destabilize the country in order to undermine and ultimately overthrow its government. In that light, the Zapad exercise is more an expression of fear than of confidence.

Alongside this fear is a suspicion that U.S. and Western encroachment on Russia’s sphere is actually harmful to regional and global stability. Putin and other Russian elites believe the U.S. has overstayed its welcome as a sole superpower, destabilizing the Middle East and Eastern Europe by inserting itself into conflicts it doesn’t understand and exporting Western ideas and values to places they don’t belong. As a critique of U.S. foreign policy in the 21st century so far, this is not entirely outlandish.

Yet if Putin is motivated by the ostensible threat of the U.S. and its allies to the global order, he is also a revisionist, with dreams of restoring Russia to its former imperial glory. Protecting the old Russosphere against the damaging influence of the U.S. does not mean leaving these countries to determine their own destinies. To Putin, while American influence does not belong in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, or the Middle East, Russian influence very much does. In this regard, his foreign policy may be “defensive” but also revanchist or expansionist, depending on one’s point of view.

Any attempt to read the tea leaves of Zapad 2017 must take all of these confounding angles into account. In any case, it is too early to conclude anything about what Putin is up to. The nature of the game will become clear when the Russian soldiers currently defending Belarus from Veishnorian aggression go home — or when they don’t.

Is Russia Rehearsing for a Major War?