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The last 24 hours have seen the start of this year’s Zapad manoeuvres: the joint exercises between the Russian forces and the army of Belarus, which also involves Russian forces stationed in the Kaliningrad Oblast. In recent months, the build-up has created considerable concern from Western powers and observers. Despite the fact that foreign observers have been invited, NATO and in particular the Baltic States are watching the exercises closely. There have been further protests in Ukraine and there is wider concern about fly-overs by Russian aircraft into Latvian, Lithuanian or Ukrainian airspace. In recent weeks, there has been a considerable increase of such incursions into the airspace of the Baltic states, perhaps justifying the gradual increase in NATO’s Baltic air policing programme.
Concerns have also been voiced that Russian troops might remain in situ in Belarus after the exercises end, increasing Russian potential for operations against the Baltic states. Despite such concerns, the numbers involved, at least officially, are rather low. The exercises will involve less than 13,000 troops, 10 ships, 140 tanks and other heavy weapons elements. Keeping the troop numbers at this level avoids the requirement to invite a large observer force, which would have been triggered under the terms of Article 47.4 of the OSCE’s Vienna Document, of which Russia is a signatory. Compared to the Lake Baikal exercises of 2013, which involved over 160,000 troops and 5,000 tanks, this year’s Zapad exercises could be seen as a rather modest affair.
However, estimates of the actual troops involved vary widely. Some intelligence sources have stated that the actual Russian forces involved could number around 100,000. Ukraine has claimed that up to 250,000 troops are involved. The best intelligence estimate, based on train movements and other LOGS activity, would suggest somewhere between 60,000-70,000. Mandatory reporting under the terms of the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty also gives indications of the number of troops deployed and also provides some details of actual formations. Inconsistencies remain, especially with respect to the troops stationed on the border but in Russian territory and hence not subject to mandatory reporting. In any event, it would seem certain that the forces used in this exercise are indeed greater than the stated 13,000 and veer closer to 70,000 at least.
The scenario that will be played out during Zapad envisages an attack on Belarus by three fictional rogue states. Ironically, considering Russian activity in Ukraine, this attack will involve incursions by unidentified troops and the involvement of unattributed militias. The Russian air and naval elements will control air and sea corridors while also isolating the belligerent states and interdicting their air and land operations. Russian sources have continuously emphasised the “purely defensive” nature of the exercise.
The last few years have seen the Russian military remerge from a phase of reorganisation and reinvestment under the Putin administration. Its operations in Syria and Ukraine have improved Russian operational potential while also serving to greatly improve morale among Russian forces. Western observers have viewed this re-emergence of Russian potential with some concern. The most recent study to emerge from the Royal United Services Institute (Igor Sutyagin and Justin Bronk, Russia’s new ground forces: capabilities, limitations and implications for international security, 2017) has identified an increasing Russian tendency to prepare for high-tempo operations against NATO.
In light of such activity, NATO and Western states have comforted themselves with the argument that their forces and equipment is qualitatively superior. This may be true but the disparity in numbers is disheartening. To take just one example, a recent report suggests that the Russians have 27 combat air squadrons deployed in their “Western Military District”, compared to 19 squadrons available to NATO countries in the same theatre (Richard Sokolsky, “The new NATO-Russia military imbalance: implications for European security”, Task force White Paper, March 2017). One can only hope that better equipment, training and command & control can deliver an advantage for NATO and Baltic forces in any actual confrontation but, to paraphrase the Stalin quote, quantity has a quality of its own.
Another concern is Russia’s concept of hybrid operations. For Western powers, the focus for hybrid operations is largely on the battlefield. But, as we have seen in recent years, the Russian concept (Gibridnaya Voyna) is much broader, encompassing everything from cyber-attacks, political compromise operations, attacks on energy and other resources, financial interference and the use of unattributed forces on the ground. In a cultural sense, the West needs to re-evaluate its understanding of Russian hybrid operations. The current practice to “mirror image” our own conceptions to match Russian concepts could lead to a possible mismatch in operational capabilities.
In the small wars context, how might Russian SF operators be deployed in any escalating situation? In the late 19th century, the Russians began developing the concept of the “forward detachment” (peredevoy otryad); a force that would penetrate into the enemy’s depth to seize specific objectives, carry out reconnaissance or engage in raiding and disruption. This concept was well-developed during WW2, with the Russians deploying paratroopers and activating partisans in German rear areas as part of larger offensives. During the Cold War, the possible deployment of airborne and Spetsnaz troops within larger offensive operations remained a concern for NATO forces. In recent years, we have seen Russia’s willingness to deploy un-badged, unattributed, troops as part of their operations in Ukraine. Ironically, Zapad 2017 incorporates the possibility of an enemy using such troops and tactics in large-scale incursions into Belarus. It will be interesting to see if Western observers have an opportunity to assess Russian countermeasures for such activity. It is known that at least one reconnaissance battalion (136th Detached Guards Reconnaissance Battalion) is involved in the exercises and the involvement of airborne units has been predicted. In the context of Zapad, such units could be tasked with role-playing the forces of incursion and/or the Russian reaction to same.
What seems certain is that, for NATO SF operators trained in “small wars” type operations, the interdiction and disruption of potential attacks of this type of incursion or deep deployment must be factored into wider preparations to counter any larger Russian operation. Alongside preparing for large-scale Russian ground and air incursions, with possible naval activity, NATO needs to deploy more SF units that have been specifically trained to counter the deployment of Russian airborne, Spetsnaz and “little green men” as part of its potential countermeasures.