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 offered Russia a chance to project its military prowess onto its uncooperative neighbor. Moscow undeniably had a political point to make to the West with Zapad—to counter what it perceives as an aggressive NATO build-up of military personnel and hardware on its western borders. The key purpose of the exercises, however, was for Russia to remind Minsk who the senior partner in the bilateral relationship is.

The Zapad exercises were unexceptional in and of themselves. The number of troops involved was large, but Russia has been conducting large-scale military exercises of this kind since the Soviet period. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu claimed that roughly 13,000 troops participated, while NATO estimated the number to be closer to 40,000. The discrepancy is likely due to different ways of calculating the numbers—the Russian military counts only troops directly involved in the exercises, whereas NATO’s calculations include civilians providing logistical support during the simulation. 

Much has been made of the exercises’ name. Zapad is the Russian word for “West,” and many NATO members, including Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite (a vocal critic of Russia),

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