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Zapad 2017 and the Initial Period of War

Western media and analytical commentary on Zapad 2017 has focused on the numbers of Russian military personnel participating in the joint Belarus-Russia strategic exercise, speculating about whether Moscow was using the event as cover to launch a real attack against neighboring states, or promoting the notion that Moscow will leave some of the deployed forces in Belarus after its conclusion. However, there has been little attention to how the early phase of the exercise reveals key features in Russian military thinking. Compared with Zapad 2013, the exercise featured wider participation by Russian security agencies, but differed little in substance. In short, the scenarios and execution of Zapad 2017 are quite consistent with the central themes of past Zapad exercises. And this year’s Zapad war game has concluded peacefully (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, September 15).

Zapad 2017 commenced on September 14, and its two active phases brought the exercise to its conclusion on September 20. Other than some media interest in an accidental helicopter strike on civilian vehicles situated close to observers, none of the Western hype appears to have been justified. Predictably, Zapad 2017 passed without Moscow initiating a military assault upon its neighbors. The exercise was certainly impressive in terms of its geographical coverage, logistics, and the sheer scale of activity among Russian forces; this extended well beyond the Western Military District (MD) to cover activities and tactical rehearsals of combat or related operations in all the other MDs. A number of parallel exercises were no doubt built into the exercise in order to offer the General Staff greater insight into Russia’s defense capabilities. While, the Russian Ground Forces and special forces units played a central role in the exercise, Zapad encapsulated the various branches and arms of service, providing opportunity to test a variety of improvements and lessons drawn from Russia’s recent experience of conflict. This involved six training ranges in Belarus and three ranges in Russia, with much of the activity centered on Luga (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, September 19).

Despite the claims by Russia’s defense ministry that Zapad 2017 focused on a scenario featuring terrorist incursions into Belarus, much of the Russian military media identified that in the first active, defense-linked phase, the rehearsal involved countering a conventional force. It has long been known that the Zapad series of exercises rehearses the defense of the Belarus-Russia Union State against an intervention by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Zapad 2017, according to the reporting of the first phase, was no different. Russian military theorists and senior General Staff officers have studied the evolution of military interventions by the United States as well as NATO and concluded that high value is placed on the initial period of war; at that point, Western forces use mainly air power to attempt to shape the battlespace. This conclusion—which also plays into the long-standing Soviet/Russian fear of a surprise attack, drawing on the events of June 1941, with reference to the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999—drives the investment into and military planning based on air-defense and conventional precision-strike systems. Beyond the observations that Zapad 2017 was a rehearsal for large-scale war, there are deeper lessons to be identified: from how Russian forces conducted the early stages of Zapad 2017, to how some of those themes carried through the entire exercise (Mil.by, accessed September 20).

Reported use of strategic down to tactical air defense, combined with the employment of additional assets, in the very early stage of Zapad 2017 confirms that the Russian military rehearsed a conventional response to a massive aerial attack. During the first phase, joint military forces worked on raising combat readiness among the deployed force groupings, moving troops, deploying command-and-control assets, as well as organizing interactions among these forces and affording force protection. Reportedly, aviation and air-defense units from the 6th Army Air Force and Air Defense in the Western MD conducted various tactical episodes aimed at repelling “massive air strikes” by a conventional opponent. Pilots also worked on striking ground targets and providing escorts for bombers. Operational-tactical and other tactical missiles were used during this process. The Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno Kosmicheskikh Sil—VKS) conducted sorties mainly using Su-27, Su-35, Su-30SM and MiG-31 fighters to destroy enemy aircraft, while Su-34 bombers struck infrastructure, columns of armored vehicles, and enemy command-and-control nodes; an Su-24MR jet was used for reconnaissance to transmit the coordinates of ground targets (Krasnaya Zvezda, September 17).

Anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) methods were quickly put into place to construct a multilayer air-defense bubble, similar to the Russian A2/AD assets used in Syria. Russian air-defense systems were forward deployed from their bases in the Western MD, including S-300s, S-400s and Pantsir-S1s. The simulation that ensued targeted enemy cruise missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and aircraft (TASS, September 16). In Kaliningrad, TASSreported similar activity among Russian naval assets. Corvettes in the Baltic Fleet were used to strike aerial, naval and coastal targets, implying an A2/AD mission. In this case, the air attack was simulated by Su-24 attack aircraft alongside Ka-27 anti-submarine-warfare helicopters (TASS, September 17).

In this phase of the exercise, a number of other Russian A2/AD components featured in addition to identifiable air-defense systems. Notable among these was the Iskander-M, a dual-capable (nuclear/conventional) tactical ballistic missile. Successful Iskander strikes were reported at training ranges, including a 480-kilometer strike against a target at a training range in Kazakhstan from units in the Central MD, as well as a variety of cruise missiles fired from air, land and sea. The Missile and Artillery Troops (Raketnyye Voyska i Artilleriya—RV&A), a Branch of Arms in the Ground Forces, serving as the primary means of destroying enemy forces by conventional and nuclear fires, were in action throughout Zapad 2017, rather than solely at the end. The RV&A also used the older Tochka-U system, which is in the process of being fully replaced by the Iskander-M (TASS, RBC, September 18). Traditionally, the Iskander’s appearance in Russian exercises is assumed to indicate the rehearsal for a tactical nuclear weapons strike. In Zapad 2017, the Iskander was mainly conventional in its support of A2/AD. Moreover, the Russian missile forces appear to have rehearsed the use of the cruise missile that can be mounted on the Iskander platform, greatly extending the system’s strike range well beyond 500 km (Livejournal, September 20).

The emphasis on A2/AD during Zapad 2017 and the use of Russia’s conventional precision-strike systems throughout the exercise suggest more than simply preparation for larger-scale war. It seems rooted in rehearsing conflict-escalation dominance and deploying forces and assets during a crisis to ensure the avoidance of a regional conflict intensifying to a global war