The True Purpose of Russia's Zapad Military Exercises

Why Moscow Wanted to Send a Message to Minsk

Jet fighters release flares during the Zapad 2017 war games at a range near the town of Borisov, Belarus, September 2017.  Vasily Fedosenko / REUTERS

When the Russian military conducted exercises in Belarus known as Zapad–2017 on September 14–20, NATO members, particularly the Baltic States, worried that the drills were a precursor to a potential land invasion of their territories. Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, the commander of the U.S. Army in Europe, maintained that Russia could use the exercises as an opportunity to leave behind some troops or hardware in Belarus. In fact, the West’s concerns were misplaced. The primary target of the military message from Zapad–2017 was Belarus itself. The large, week-long war-games exercises may have taken place on Belarusian soil with the participation of Belarusian troops, but they came amidst heightened diplomatic tensions between Moscow and Minsk, which has historically been a close Russian partner.

Disputes over natural gas, diplomatic spats, and Belarus’ refusal to host a Russian military base have all seriously damaged the bilateral relationship in recent years. These exercises

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