What happens during this year’s Zapad exercise is important. The United States, NATO and especially the front-line states bordering Russia will be watching closely to learn what they can about the latest Russian capabilities and military procedures.
But unlike those exercises, Zapad is not a purely Russian undertaking. It is run in cooperation with Belarus.
Belarus finds itself in the difficult position of being officially an ally of Russia’s but not sharing Moscow’s antagonism toward the West and wanting instead to remain neutral in the confrontation between Russia and NATO.
But at the same time, the country shares NATO’s concern about the danger of inadvertent conflict in the region, and is looking for ways to avoid inflaming the situation.
Belarus is pushing for openness to the West during the exercises — which will also help ensure that Russia does not take the opportunity to deviate from the exercise scenario to launch some kind of unfriendly action.
That may not have pleased Moscow, which is keeping quiet about the much bigger Zapad-related activities on its side of the border. But all these Russian activities will be far less visible to the West than the high-profile “main event” in Belarus.
There has been little public discussion on what the “staying behind” option might actually look like. While major Russian units remaining on Belarusian territory seems a remote prospect, another possibility that has been put forward is Russian military equipment being left there without troops, as part of pre-positioning for possible future Russian military action launched against neighbors such as Lithuania or Poland, or the so-called Suwałki gap, from Belarus itself.
But this too would require cooperation and agreement from Minsk, which does not fit with Belarus’ track record of resisting attempts at increasing the amount of Russian military infrastructure in the country.
At the same time, Russia has good reason at the moment to play down conflict instead of launching new military adventures. With a strong interest in rolling back sanctions imposed by the United States and Europe, Moscow could choose to act calmly to defuse anti-Russian rhetoric and undermine those who warn of the Kremlin’s aggressive intent.
As a result, Russia is currently mixing threatening language designed to intimidate the West with another, contradictory message: that those who fear a Russian military threat are “hysterical,” “living in the last century,” and hankering for the Cold War. By keeping quiet about Zapad, Russia allows speculation and hype in Western media — and even from government officials — do this job for them.
With the current level of Western alarm at possible developments of the upcoming exercise, if Zapad comes to an end with no incident, then Moscow can quite readily say, “We told you so.”
This article was originally published in August and has been updated.