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How to run Zapad-2017 with 13 000 people: To dispel Russian propaganda theories

On the eve of the large-scale manoeuvres Zapad-2017, the Russian military leadership has come across the dilemma of how to “frighten” NATO with the inflated power of the Russian army.

How will the 13,000 troops governed by the OSCE Vienna documents be placed within the framework of the exercise? How to prepare a springboard for aggression, at the same time the appearance of “exaggeration of threats”? The tactics have been developed for a long time in practice and continue to develop successfully.

Since 15 August 2017, transport and logistical support from the Russian armed forces arrive in Belarus. According to the press office of the Belarusian Defense Department [1], the Russian units will collaborate with their Belarusian counterparts “on issues of technical coverage” such as military roads, evacuation, reparation and repair of defective equipment and weapons, deployment of a field trunk pipeline, as well as areas of mass refueling technology”.

These special features will be held as part of the preparation of the Russian and Belarusian joint strategic exercises Zapad-2017. However, it should be noted that the preparation of the largest military manoeuvres this year near the borders of NATO and Ukraine appears somewhat differently.  The Press Office of the Belarusian Defense Department [2] on 21 July has stated that logistics support units of the Western Military district of the Russian Armed Forces “arrive from July 23rd“. So, from July 23 or August 15? Analysis of information on the preparation of the forthcoming manoeuvres in documents and open sources allows us to debunk two main theses of Russian propaganda about the Zapad-2017 exercises.

The first thesis

The first thesis: Zapad-2017 does not threaten security and stability in the region due to the small number of forces declared in manoeuvres.

On July 17, the Russian news agency TASS published an interview with the Belarusian Defense Minister Andrei Ravkov [3]. It should be noted that this interview, without exaggeration, can be considered as one of the few sources of detail (as far as his position allows) information about the Zapad-2017. Russian generals have not informed journalists a quarter of what the Belarusian minister shared about the forthcoming exercises. Consequently, he was forced to say what he said. According to Ravkov, “the military activities, control bodies and troops’ practical implementation will be held in Belarus at six exercise areas: Lepel, Borisov, Losvido, Osipovichi. Also on the airfields of the Air Force and Defense Forces of Ruzhanskiy and Domanovskiy, as in an area near the settlement of Dretun” (only seven places). About 10,200 troops will perform their tasks, including about 7,200 from the Armed Forces of Belarus and about 3,000 from Russia’s armed forces. Earlier, on March 20, the Sputnik Belarus agency quoted [4] Ravkov about which units would arrive in Belarus from Russia.  According to him, these are parts of the 1st Guards Red Banner Tank Army of the Western Military District of the Russian Federation, recreated in the autumn of 2014 in the Moscow region.

It should be noted that Ravkov always publicly has stressed that the total forces involved in the exercises in Belarus and Russia do not exceed 13,000 people. This figure is not accidental. The Vienna Document 2011 on Confidence- and Security-Building Measures [5], which all participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) must observe, says clearly that observers from other countries participating in the OSCE should be invited. That is why, we today can see a conscious emphasis on the figures concerning the exercises, allegedly only on the Belarusian territory.

In the information sphere, in the last month, a theory has also been launched, probably in Russia, about completely different exercises that will be conducted under the same name. Although the Belarusian minister Ravkov talked about the number of up to 13,000 soldiers (consciously or not, it does not matter anyway), he did not mention activities within the Zapad-2017 on the Kola Peninsula, Baltic Sea, western regions of Russia and Belarus. The minister spoke about the manoeuvres in whole. And already here, concerned voices began to be heard from the NATO member countries that the claimed 13,000 people could easily grow to 100,000 [6].

Fears are justified. For example, on August 11, the Russian Nezavisimaya Gazeta quoted [7] the commander of the Russian Airborne Forces, Andrei Serdiukov, who told about plans to deploy three divisions entrusted to him in the exercise Zapad-2017. But not in Belarus, but in the Pskov region of Russia. This is only one of the areas of Russia’s Western Military District. The website of the Ministry of Defense of Russia contains information on the preparations for the exercises of units deployed in the regions of Kaliningrad, Leningrad, Pskov, Moscow, Bryansk, Voronezh. In addition to the forces of the Western Military District, forces of the Baltic and Northern Fleets will be involved in the manoeuvres.

And here it is worth returning to the Vienna Document, which also obliges the OSCE participating States not to hold more than one military exercise within three calendar years, involving more than 40,000 people. Russia, starting in 2013, annually conducts strategic exercises, transferring troops with the number of personnel far beyond 40,000 people. This practice was formed during the Zapad-2013 exercises and was honed in the spring of 2014 on the border with Ukraine. The secret has two components. First, before each of the annual Strategic Defense exercises, the Ministry of Defense begins a sudden general verification of combat readiness in a given Military District. Then everyone is battle-ready, and the number of personnel in the declared exercises on paper still remains up to 13 000 people.

Secondly, in addition to the above, the outcome of several separate military exercises constitutes an opinion. Let us remember the “sudden verification of the combat readiness of the troops in the Western and Central Military Districts” on February 26, 2014. The troops were then raised at 14.00 Moscow time [8]. It was this day in Simferopol when people in Crimea blocked the building of the Supreme Council of Crimea and did not allow the decision to hold a “referendum” on separating the autonomy from Ukraine. And at night, there were already “green little men” around. Later on, April 24, 2014 [9], Russia “began” (in fact, continued) the concentration of its armed forces in regions bordering to Ukraine. They called it “the exercise of battalion tactical groups of the combined arms formations of the Southern and Western military districts”. But not for the purpose of controlling any combat preparedness, but because of a start-up of anti-terrorist operations in the Donbas. As a result, by the beginning of May only, up to 40,000 people had been concentrated along the Ukrainian border from Bryansk to Rostov-on-Don, and the “Vienna Document” was still formally observed.

The second thesis

The second thesis: Zapad-2017 does not threaten security and stability in the region due to the “defensive” character of the manoeuvres.

Both Belarusian and Russian generals repeat that the exercises Zapad-2017 are exclusively defensive to strengthen peace and security.

On the contrary, western sources note that, in the course of the Kaliningrad region, elements of preparations for launching missiles with nuclear warheads [10]from Iskander tactical missile systems can be worked out. This will not contribute to the strengthening of security in the region.

But even though official sources are used and uncontrolled information is omitted, there is much to think about. Again, we will quote the commander the Airborne Forces of Russia (Andrei Serdiukov) on tasks that will only be provided to staff in the Pskov region: “In a real war, paratroopers will perform tasks to reach the enemy forces from the air. They must conduct combat operations and act autonomously, isolated from the main forces”. However, even without this quote it is clear that nature of the tasks that are usually put before the airborne troops has little in common with defense.

In the Leningrad Region, the engineering divisions of the Western Military District started to work on fortification and engineering equipment for the training grounds in the run-up to the West-2017 exercise at the end of June. “When working out tactical operations, servicemen have to demine minefields, make passages for personnel and equipment” – the district’s press service reported [11].

From the spring, the 20th Guards Red Banner Combined Arms Army [12], which was transferred from Nizhny Novgorod to Voronezh after the war in Ukraine, is also preparing for exercise. Officially it is called “the largest accumulation of the Russian Armed Forces”.

It is not superfluous to note that starting from 2014, a shocking force of three armies directed toward the West is being formed in the Western and Southern military districts of Russia. And all of them grow new divisions with a dislocation near the Russian-Belarusian and Russian-Ukrainian borders. So, in the Moscow region, as already mentioned above, the 1st Guards Red Banner Tank Army is deployed. In the regions of Smolensk, Bryansk, Belgorod and Voronezh, the 20th Combined Army is positioned. In the Rostov region, the 8th Guards Combined Arms Army of the Lenin Order has been formed.

It is worth to mention the cynical statement of, Alexander Surikov, the Russian Ambassador to Belarus. In 2016, he pointed out that the extraordinary Russian military presence at the western borders is a “preventive measure” in connection with the radicalization of the Ukrainian society. According to the ambassador, it is justified to deploy full-fledged divisions for “protection of Russian borders” from an attack from Ukraine.

It should be noted that there have been at least two strategic exercises in recent Russian military history that have been used, far from strengthening peace and security. They rather had the character of an attack on neighbouring countries. In particular, when Moscow used the Caucasus 2008 exercises to deploy troops. Immediately after Russia carried out its invasion of Georgia.

And at the Zapad – 2013 exercises held in Belarus, the operational creation of grouping of troops fully coincided with the expansion of troop forces along the Russian-Ukrainian border in 2014. Below are some slides illustrating this theory, published earlier by the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine (click to enlarge images).

Playing on terminology or lack of time

Finally, the question of the causal relationship of the recent surge in publications concerning the Zapad-2017 remains open. The news was announced on August 10, after Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has presented his protocol [13] to the State Duma on ratification of the agreement between Russia and Belarus on the common protection of the Union’s external borders and the creation of a single regional air defense system.

As already stated by InformNapalm [14], these amendments were adopted in November 2016 and are of a purely technical nature. With the agreement, several conditions in line with the new states’ new military doctrines have been changed. Belarus approved the new doctrine in July 2016 [15], Russia in December 2014 [16].

The date of submitting the document for ratification by Putin is of fundamental importance. According to the legislation of Belarus, such a protocol should be approved by a decree by the president of the republic. Lukashenko did this on March 10, 2017 [17]. And according to Russian legislation, the president’s signature is not enough. There should also be a ratification in the Duma, however Russia’s State Duma resumes its sessions on September 11 [18] after summer holidays. Will there be voices in the Duma in support of the document? The question is rhetorical. The members of the Duma will vote on the first day unanimously. In other words, from November to July, Putin did not notice the adopted changes to the Agreement. But he did not wait for the formal opening day of September 10 being afraid of a long passage in the committees, as a result of which the exercises, which should start on September 14, will take place without an updated Agreement. It seems that the answer to these questions is not in bureaucracy, but in the need to scare the countries that Moscow already in 2000 defined as enemies

Russia easily dragged Lukashenko into its hybrid war (in exchange for what is the subject of a separate article). It was involved back in 2013, when Russian aviation was on alert at Belarusian military airfields [19]. Only the status as a subject in this confrontation for Belarus now seems to have been lowered to an object. Lukashenko may not understand that after such provocation, others will unavoidably follow. Moscow has not forgotten about the draft Interstate Agreement about an air base in Belarus [20]. Nor has Russia forgotten the plans to deploy Iskander complexes in Belarus, although no officials yet speak about this except for retired generals [21].

It should be remembered that the methods of the Hybrid War, honed by Russia since 2008, does not always mean marching along the avenues of European capitals. It is much more advantageous to use Belarus as a springboard for constant escalation of the situation at the borders with the EU and Ukraine.

[22]

This publication was prepared by Andrei Santarovich  [23]specially for InformNapalm [24].

Translated by Donbassföreningen Sverige [25]

An active link to the authors and our project is obligatory for any reprint or further public use of the material.

(Creative Commons — Attribution 4.0 International — CC BY 4.0 [26])

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