Why is everyone afraid of large-scale Russian military exercises “Zapad”

Military exercises of Russia are rooted in the era of the Soviet Union, at the moment exacerbate tensions in Moscow’s relations with NATO members, especially the Baltic States. Four years ago there were held military exercises “West-2013”, which demonstrated to the world not only the strategic objectives of Russia, but also how she plans to wage war in the future. Large-scale military exercises “Zapad” held every two years, this year forced the Baltic States to turn to the United States and NATO for additional military support.

Military exercises “West-81” became the most large-scale operational-strategic exercises ever held in the Soviet Union. They were held for eight days, and they involved a 100-150 thousand soldiers from the USSR and countries of Warsaw Treaty. During those exercises, the military tested a few new fighting systems, including mobile ground missile complex SS-10 (which was later banned in accordance with the Treaty on the reduction of medium-range missiles). According to legend, the exercise, the NATO countries were preparing for the invasion of the Warsaw Pact, but Moscow learned about the plans of Brussels and successfully rebuffed. In the course of the exercise also simulated counterattack on Germany and a preemptive nuclear strike against the “Western forces” which was to destroy a quarter of a million NATO military.

Exercises “West-81” has had a major impact because they were developed a few new concepts and schemes, which served as the impetus for positive change within NATO, in particular for the emergence of technological innovations such as tanks “Abrams” and “Leopard II”. One of these concepts became operational maneuver group, which was to penetrate armored forces far beyond the front line of the enemy, cutting off power and destroying NATO’s tactical nuclear weapons.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and those who had experienced the former Soviet republics, led to the fact that large-scale military exercises were held very rarely. From 1981 to 2013 military exercises “Zapad” held only a few times, and in 2013 held the largest military exercise in decades. As in the case of exercise “Zapad-81” exercises “West-2013” were tested new weapons and new concepts, and Russia has proved that its army has finally recovered from the doldrums of the 1990s and beginning of 2000-ies.

Exercises “West-2013” was supposed to be quite limited in scope, and officially stated the part about 12 thousand military. They took place on the territory of Russia and Belarus. These exercises, which were held in Western military district of the Russian Federation from 20 to 26 September, was partly focused on the Baltic States, and some maneuvers were held in the Kaliningrad region and the Baltic sea. Russian and Belarusian troops practiced joint operations of various types of troops, checked the effectiveness of the new concept of army brigades as independent units, and verified the ability of the air force and air defense forces to protect its airspace.

Organization Jamestown Foundation described the scenario of the exercise “West-2013”: it was a pretty unusual scenario, in which “Baltic terrorists” on boats amphibious, combat helicopters, su-25 and su-30 was attacked by Belarus, and then launched an attack on the city, forcing the defenders to wage war in urban environments. By “Baltic terrorists”, of course, meant the NATO military.

But, according to many observers, the exercise was attended by seven times more than the military, that is about 90 thousand. Also was involved in the 530 armored vehicles, 50 artillery pieces and 90 aircraft. In them have taken part about 20 thousand soldiers of the interior Ministry, specializing in operations of internal security.

Those teachings have caused a very serious alarm among Russia’s neighbors. The fact that the exercises for heading the Russian and Belarusian Marines were used by the transport ship “Zurb” really scared Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which joined NATO in spite of strong objections of Moscow, which occasionally have been targets of threats of military invasion from Russia. “Zubr” is able to take on Board a whole Russian tank company — that is 10 tanks or to 366 troops and landing them on the coast 500 kilometers.

Although exercises “West-2013” was focused primarily on defense, for various tactical points were later used in the campaign for the annexation of Crimea and operations in Syria. It was during those exercises Western observers drew attention to the fact that Russia has used drones to target artillery strikes and to calculate the results of the bombing — one year later it will be used in the war in Ukraine. During those exercises tactical missiles were used to attack targets in depth of enemy’s defense — later, we saw this in Syria and practiced counterinsurgency actions in communities.

Some units of the Russian army, took part in the exercises “West-2013”, then went to the Crimea and the Donbass, including the 76th guards air assault division and the 31st guards rifle division. It is likely that Russian special forces participating in the exercises, also went to fight in the East of Ukraine and in Syria.

In September 2017 must pass regular trainings of the “West”. While the exercises “West-2017” is little known, although it is already possible to tell with confidence that in the course of them Russia will demonstrate its new weapons and tactical concepts, and show what lessons she learned as a result of participation in the Syrian conflict. These exercises will cause a new wave of anxiety in the Baltic States and Scandinavia, once again reminding them that Russia considers this region as its sphere of influence.

Kyle Mizokami is a specialist in the field of defense and national security.