As Russia prepares for its annual strategic military exercises, speculation is mounting that the Zapad-2017 war games, set for Thursday through Sept. 20 in western Russia and Belarus, might be a prelude to war. Ukraine’s defense minister cautioned that Zapad could be a ruse to attack any European country “that shares a border with Russia,” while the New York Times proclaimed that the drills near NATO’s borders have raised “fears of aggression.” A CNN contributor wondered, “Could they turn into war?”
My analysis of Russia’s recent war games suggests that this is highly unlikely. The Russian military is preparing for war, but that is what generals in all countries do — prepare for worst-case scenarios, and carry out large-scale exercises to test the military’s readiness for them. Russia’s annual strategic exercises rotate among four regions: Zapad (“west,” last held in 2013), Vostok (“east,” 2014), Tsentr (“center,” 2015) and Kavkaz (“Caucasus,” 2016). If anything, this rotation suggests that Russian strategists are trying to for a strategic conflict from any direction, be it with NATO or China.
That does not mean Russia’s military-political leadership wants this scenario to materialize. Russia’s three foreign military interventions since 2008 — in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria — did, in fact, involve some deployments concealed as military exercises. But as these interventions suggests at least two conditions need to exist for Russia to seriously consider such a “disguised” form of large-scale use of force:
1) Russian leadership has to believe there is a credible, acute, serious threat to the country’s vital national interests or to the Russian ruling elite’s grip on power. Such threats could include: an attack against Russia, an ally or a client (as in the 2008 war with Georgia over its separatist provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia); the attempted ouster of a friendly ruling regime (think Syria); or concern that one of Moscow’s post-Soviet neighbors may “escape” to an alliance Russia sees as hostile (as in the 2014 conflict with Ukraine, as well as the Georgian war).
2) Russian leaders have to be sure they would prevail in a confrontation with the states against which they want to use force, or at least ensure a stalemate.
No new acute threats to Russian security
Neither of these conditions is present at the moment, in my view. Here’s why.
There have been no major new threats to Russia’s vital interests or ruling elite since last year’s Caucasus-2016 exercise, which also was preceded by claims that Russia was going to launch a “full-scale invasion” of a neighboring state, or even a “mega war.”
None of Russia’s post-Soviet neighbors is any closer to membership in NATO than they were last year. Georgia’s hopes of joining NATO remain futile, while post-revolutionary Ukraine has made little progress in its effort to accede to the alliance. Had Russian President Vladimir Putin thought otherwise, he would not have called for U.N. peacekeepers along the line of contact in Donbass, as such a deployment would make it harder for Russia to escalate hostilities in eastern Ukraine.
Belarus and Russia have had their differences, but Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko — unlike the victorious organizers of the “color revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine — does not appear to have any intention of steering his country toward NATO.
None of Russia’s neighbors is in a period of acute instability, which would let Russia quickly prevail in a conflict — as was the case with post-revolutionary Ukraine’s ability to prevent the loss of Crimea. And while Western nations were largely caught unaware as Russia stealthily deployed troops to Crimea in 2014, NATO is now all eyes — especially considering that some of the earlier Zapad exercises featured simulations of a first nuclear strike against the alliance.
In fact, NATO is sending observers to Belarus. You don’t let your ally invite observers from five NATO countries, plus Ukraine and Sweden, to watch strategic drills if the plan is to launch another Crimea-scale covert campaign against any of your neighbors. Observers can, of course, be kept out of certain areas. In fact, NATO has already complained that observers will be treated like “distinguished visitors,” with fewer opportunities to monitor the war game than full-fledged observers, according to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
“Annexing” Belarus? Not likely.
As stated above, the Belarusian leadership is not seeking membership in NATO, so there’s no evident rationale for what former Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili has described as Russia’s intention to annex Belarus. A surprise annexation of Belarus would seriously undermine Russia’s efforts to keep other post-Soviet republics in Moscow’s camp. If Russia were to seize Belarus, with which it formed a “Union State” in 2000, that would signal to countries like Kazakhstan, which participates in Moscow’s major security and economic blocs, that even membership in Russian-led integration projects wouldn’t protect their independence. These states would then probably look for guarantors other than Russia.
The Russian public is not likely to support further military engagement
Would the domestic situation in Russia be conducive for new military campaigns? Putin may be enjoying more autonomy on major defense or foreign-policy decisions than any Soviet/Russian leader since Joseph Stalin, but even he has to factor in the opinion of his citizens.
Russia is already heavily involved in Syria and Ukraine, and polls show that Russians aren’t eager for further military engagement, absent any clear threat to them or Russian-speaking minorities abroad. A July 2017 poll by Russia’s state-owned VTsIOM pollster showed that more Russians (35 percent) support noninterference in the conflict between the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian separatists in Donbass than any other policy option toward that conflict. As for Syria, 49 percent want Russia to end its military operations there, while 30 percent think it should continue, according to an August 2017 poll conducted by the Levada Center, Russia’s respected independent pollster.
It’s also worth noting that, contrary to news reports, Zapad-2017 won’t be the largest-ever Russian war game. According to Western estimates, some 100,000 service members will be participating — compared to 120,000 in 2016 or the record-setting 155,000 in 2014.
There is, of course, always room for greater transparency, and Russia’s neighbors and the international community as a whole would feel more reassured if Russia shared more details about its upcoming exercises and granted greater access to foreign observers of this war game. This would put Russia in compliance with the Vienna Document, which calls for OSCE members to share information each year about their military capacity and operations.
However, while helpful, greater transparency will not eliminate the chance of an emerging conflict between Russia and NATO and its partners. While Zapad-2017 isn’t likely to produce a new military hot spot, the possibility of conflict continues as long as the underlying animosities are not addressed, such as Russia’s concerns about NATO expansion into the post-Soviet space and Western allies’ concerns about Russia’s use of force against neighbors.
Simon Saradzhyan is the founding director of the Russia Matters Project at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. His research interests include international arms control, counterterrorism, and foreign, defense, and security policies of Russia and other post-Soviet states and their relations with great powers.