On Thursday, September 14th, Belarus will see an influx of Russian troops participating in joint exercises with the Belarusian army in the largest Russian military exercises since the end of cold war. These exercises will cover a vast amount of land, from Western Russia, to throughout Belarus, to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic sea.
While Russia routinely holds military exercises, rotating the parts of the country they wish to defend–the last Zapad took place in 2013–the upcoming ones have drawn international concern for their size, location, and timing. The Kremlin has insisted that the number of troops taking part in the exercises will not exceed 13,000, but the US, their European NATO counterparts, and military experts are expecting between 80,000 and 100,000 Russian and Belarusian forces, including civilian defense contractors and representatives from Russia’s intelligence and defense agencies.
These multi-disciplinary drills will involve multiple naval, infantry, artillery, and air force units mobilizing in Eastern Europe. These exercises have caused concern in the international community, especially given how active Russia has been in the region, annexing Crimea, fighting a quasi-war in Ukraine, and intimidating its smaller NATO neighbors with the threat of electoral meddling and troop movements. It is also important to note that the 2008 Russian war against Georgia was initiated by similar military exercises.
Russia has not tried too hard to calm international nerves. The US and NATO are furious that they are not allowed more access to the exercises. By claiming that fewer than 13,000 troops will be involved, Russia avoids being obligated to allow NATO observers to be present at their exercises. The exercises will also show off the reinstituted 1st Guards Tank Army, which holds historical significance and its existence sheds light on the strained relationship between Russia and the West. This tank group’s purpose during the Cold War was to be the lead unit in case of European war, and it played a large role in the occupation of Berlin. The tank army was retired in 1998, only to be recommissioned in 2014. They should be on full display during the exercises.
On the Russian side, it appears that these exercises are meant to show off a revamped Russian military, the pet project of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia has greatly modernized its forces and increased their conventional capabilities to become less reliant on nuclear weapons in the past 10 years. NATO and the US are also anticipating the demonstration of Russia’s new electronic warfare forces.
The exercises are creating a headache for the United States and their European allies. Belarus, Kaliningrad, and the rest of Western Russia border four NATO countries: Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia. Russia is clearly relishing the chance to unsettle the surrounding countries and make a move on NATO borders. Four multinational NATO battalions have been sent to the region to counter the Russian threat. Additional American forces will be in the four NATO countries as well. Russian military action in the Baltics is especially concerning due to those states’ particular vulnerability to Russian actions in the region. Because of Belarus and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad’s position on the border of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, cutting them off from the rest of Europe would be a matter of closing some 91 miles of border.
As alarming as the exercises may be, now is not the time to panic. The US must be wary, and maintain high readiness, but it is highly unlikely that these exercises will develop into a power grab with NATO and US troops standing watch. They will also give the United States a chance to see the capabilities of Russian army and better understand how they would react in times of trouble on their western front. But the US must realize that Russia is not afraid to take action in Eastern Europe and has set itself against NATO and the US in the region. The exercises may not be not be more than menacing, but they are a reminder to the US that European security is of vast import.