In 2012, Dr. Lamont Colucci was approached by U.S. News and World Report to write a weekly column on foreign policy and national security. This is under the aegis of World Report – Insights, perspectives, and commentary on foreign affairs. View the article on USNews.com
Late last month Russia and Belarus engaged in one of the largest military exercises along NATO’s border, the Zapad (West) 2017. This was cause for concern in western capitals, since the last time Russia engaged in a Zapad exercise in 2013 they followed up with the invasion of Crimea and amplified their aggression in Ukraine. Under the 2011 Vienna Document of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, or OSCE, any exercise exceeding 13,000 troops must trigger foreign observers. They outright lied about the number in 2013, when they claimed 10,000 troops participated rather than the actual number believed to be in the area of 70,000. It is believed they lied again, though official estimates are unclear. What is clear is that troops from every far-flung region of the Russian Federation were involved as well as every branch and specialization ranging from Special Forces to ICBMs.
The games began when the “nation” of Veshnoriya attacked Russia. Three days of defense, especially against air attacks and three days of counterattack. Veshnoriya was originally billed as an attack by western militias but quickly transformed into a NATO-like force using the full complement of modern warfare. Russia practiced conventional, unconventional and cyberwarfare, ultimately crushing the Veshnoriyans.
The best analysis of their effectiveness was when one DIA official concisely argued that Russia is more mobile, balanced and capable.
The impact of the Zapad exercises is unfolding. Russia surprised American military strategists with longer ranges than expected. It demonstrated their ability to operate more effectively in Kaliningrad and against the Baltic. The reactivation of the 1st Guard Tank Army is both symbolic and practical, as Russia wishes to contest not only NATO air and sea superiority but armor as well. Tactically it gave Russia the chance to show off military hardware like the Iskander-M missile, the RS-24 YARS ICBM and T-14 Amrata tank. It appears that the effective ranges of Russia’s missiles came as a surprise to American military analysts, one of whom stated they displayed the “ability to hold targets at risk at ranges that we’re not used to.” The missile range issue should be of particular concern moving forward.
More importantly, Russia achieved three strategic objectives at a minimum: First, it illustrated a greater ability to operate in the modern battle space. Russia is attempting to modernize its military at every level and wishes to eventually break out from the constraints imposed when the USSR fell. This has been too long dismissed by western “experts” who have consistently been wrong about Russian objectives. Russian objectives are realistic and aggressive, dictated by their geopolitical position and national interests. Second, it reminded Belarus who was the boss in the region. Some would argue that the exercise was a giant sword of Damocles over the head of Belarussian President Lukashenko and his perceived attempt to distance himself from Russian foreign and defense policy goals. Third, it illustrated it could quickly drive a military wedge between NATO forces between Kaliningrad and the Baltic at a time when the Baltic States, Poland and Scandinavia are increasingly worried about Russian aggression, military capability, the use of energy as a weapon and U.S. commitment. Finally, it bolstered President Putin’s ultra-nationalist tough-guy image at home. It illustrated that his bellicose stance against our Eastern European partners, his invasion of Ukraine and adventurism in Syria is now amplified by a better armed and led conventional force that was for so long dismissed by many western planners.
The great powers never cease to teach us lessons about their ultimate goals; the question remains, are we listening?