«Zapad-2017» is a joint strategic military exercise of Russia and Belarus scheduled for September 14-20, 2017. NATO, the United Nations, the OSCE and other countries have been invited to send their observers. In compliance with provisions of the Vienna Document, Russia presented detailed information about the exercise on July, 13. A special briefing is planned for the OSCE. Before the exercise starts there will be an extended briefing held in Moscow. NATO officials want Russia to abide by the Vienna Document. That is exactly what Moscow and Minsk are doing. But…the alliance believes that problems remain.
Despite the policy of transparency adopted by the organizers of the exercise, NATO officials express concern and make hostile statements to instigate tensions. Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite views the upcoming event as «demonstrative preparations for the war with the West». Russia’s ambassador to Lithuania, Aleksandr Udaltsov, said that the hullaballoo raised about the upcoming drills was nothing else but fearmongering. According to him, «The hysteria which is being whipped up in Lithuania is meant to score political points and justify the militaristic psychosis».
Concocted stories are going round to say that Russia wants to grab a part of Polish and Lithuanian territories in the Suwalki gap region. Baltic officials have warned that Russia may leave troops in Belarus after the exercise. Estonian Defense Minister Margus Tsahkna strongly believes that’s what will happen. According to him, Estonia and other NATO countries possess intelligence to confirm this statement. The Russian ambassador in Minsk, Aleksandr Surikov, called the stories «unhealthy speculation».
According to official data, around 13,000 personnel will take part in the exercise at most. About 10,200 troops will be involved on the territory of Belarus, including 7,200 Belarusian military and about 3,000 Russia’s servicemen. 680 pieces of military hardware, including armored vehicles, would take part in the exercise at six different training grounds scattered across the two countries. Evidently, these forces pose no threat to the North Atlantic alliance, but NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is skeptical, saying, «From previous experiences related to previous exercises, we have every reason to believe that it may be substantially more troops participating than the official reported numbers».
The Center for European Policy Analysis states that «Russian military exercises have become a dangerous tool, politically and militarily. The «train as you fights» approach—especially when nuclear attacks are an option—poses a serious threat to the West». According to it, «We must also be able to send clear unambiguous messages of unity, cohesion and readiness». That’s the rub. The messages are really sent. The exercise is used to justify war preparations by the NATO alliance.
The recent steps taken to militarize North Europe are just another example. There are many more.
It’s no coincidence that Estonia, a small Baltic country with the government expressing special concern over the upcoming exercise, has become a special destination for US Vice President Mike Pence on his European trip (July 30-August 2, 2017). He said that plans to boost military presence are underway in addition to some 4,000 troops and military hardware in the three Baltic states and Poland to counter Russia's presence in the Baltic Sea region. According to the vice president, the US is considering deploying Patriot surface-to-air missiles to Estonia. The issue was discussed with Estonian Prime Minister Juri Ratas on July 30.
Lithuania and Poland have also said that they want American air defense systems deployed on their soil. Patriot is not Aegis; it has rather limited capability against ballistic missiles. The system is not a threat to Russian strategic systems. But it will be evolved. Patriot modifications may acquire ballistic missile capability. What matters is that infrastructure will be in place. Other systems, like ballistic missile capable Aegis, could be deployed there, too.
Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said on July 31 that the United States will increase its military presence on the territory of Lithuania at the time of Zapad-2017 will be held. US Air Force aircraft will arrive at the Siauliai base to carry out an air policing mission in the Baltic region. «During the West-2017 exercises, the US will double the usual number of fighter aircraft stationed in Lithuania», she said, noting that also «there will be more military, hardware and ships». A rotating contingent of Lithuania’s NATO allies involving 100 personnel and four fighter jets is stationed at the Lithuanian Zokniai air base. Four more fighter jets are stationed at Estonia’s Amari facility. In June, a 1,000-member NATO force of troops from Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Norway came to be stationed in Lithuania as a «rotational» force. Battle groups from the UK and Canada moved to Poland, Latvia, and Estonia. Estonia hosts troops from Britain, France and the United States.
The more US forces and weapon systems are stationed in the Baltic states, the more politically dependent on Washington they become. For instance, a Lithuanian state-owned gas trading company will receive the first delivery of US imported LNG in August. The LNG costs more than pipeline-supplied gas but that’s what military and political dependence does, making one pay for it. Military exercises come and go but increased US military presence remains to bolster political influence.
In June, NATO held a large-scale exercise in the region called Saber Strike. Three US strategic bombers supported BALTOPS and Saber Strike large-scale training events. So, large-scale military exercises conducted by NATO are routine events not to worry about but a Russian-Belorussian training event is something extraordinary to raise hue and cry and use it as a pretext for military expansion. That’s how Zapad-2017 serves as a spook used for propaganda purposes.