By Peter Korzun
Zapad-2017, a strategic Russian-Belarusian military exercise, held on September 14-20, was an event to hit headlines this month. Some Western officials, experts and media outlets whipped up hysteria, inventing stories about Russia using the training event as a cover for aggression.
The propaganda campaign started long before the exercise when the Russian Ministry of Defense disclosed logistical data of railway traffic to other countries for 2017. It revealed that Moscow was planning to significantly increase the amount of military cargo headed for Belarus. The Russian military planned to send 4,162 railway carriages to that country in 2017 – 20 times more than during previous Zapad drills in 2013. It gave rise to speculations that Russia planned to transform Belarus into an outpost for military confrontation with NATO, generating security threats to Poland and the Baltic states. Rumors had it that the Russian troops would stay in Belarus after the exercise.
The Western media evidently overhyped it, while experts “forgot” to explain that the traffic was destined not for Zapad-2017 only. The figure applied to the entire annual traffic flow between the two countries. Zapad-2017 is not the only bilateral exercise planned for the year. Omitting facts is a way to wage propaganda campaigns.
There were “crying wolf” statements from some politicians and officials. Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite warned that “We are worried about the upcoming Zapad-2017 exercise, which will deploy a very large and aggressive force (on our borders) that will very demonstrably be preparing for a war with the West.” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said that Russia was preparing its forces for war in Eastern Europe. Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, the commander of US Army forces in Europe, said: “People are worried this is a Trojan horse.”
The ballyhoo raised over the exercise was another chance for Ukraine and the Baltic states to attract the attention of the West’s leading nations. The US military seized the opportunity to justify the need to raise military expenditure. September is the time when Congress reaches the final decision on the defense package. Western media seized the opportunity to attract readers with snazzy headlines and demonize Russia once again.
Besides the invented threat, it was said that the number of Russian troops taking part in Zapad-2017 could reach over 100,000. The Vienna Document commits Russia and Western nations to report all exercises with more than 13,000 troops or 300 tanks and to allow foreign observers to monitor those that do. Russia claimed that the exercise included about 5,500 Russian personnel and another 7,200 from its ally Belarus, as well as roughly 70 aircraft, 250 tanks, 200 artillery systems and 10 naval ships. Despite the fact that the number of troops participating in the event was below 13,000, Russia and Belarus did allow observers from the NATO alliance to monitor the exercise. On their part, it was a good will gesture to build trust.
By comparison, the drills that NATO held in Eastern Europe in July involved about 25,000 soldiers. The ongoing Sweden-hosted exercise held on September 11- 29 includes 20, 000 servicemen.
It’s important to note that in addition to the military, other agencies also took part in the exercise. There were snap exercises in various regions of Russia about the time Zapad took place. There were also preparations for other international training events, such as Combat Commonwealth and Naval Interaction. With all the military activities on Russian territory counted, the number could be 100, 000 but it had no relation either to the exercise in question or to the Vienna Document.
It is often said that Russia’s large military exercises dwarf those of NATO. This affirmation misses the fact that Russia’s military activities take place across the entire national territory, including Siberia, the Far East etc., while NATO’s training events are limited to Europe. With the territory of about 17 million sq km, Russia faces many challenges, including those that have no immediate relation to the alliance.
The estimates do not take into account the training events taking place in the United States and Asia-Pacific, as well as the drills conducted in non-NATO states. Here is a good example. Aurora 2017 is hosted by Sweden, formally a non-NATO country. Seven out of nine participating states are NATO members.
Sweden also hosted a total of 16 countries for NATO exercise Northern Coasts 2017. It was held between September 8 and 21 off the island of Gotland and in the southern part of the Baltic Sea.
Zapad-2017 is over. Hopefully, the fears will dissipate. No aggression has taken place. The exercise was open enough. Belarus welcomed many observers, including those from NATO countries, and there were no problems with transparency. “Almost anyone who wanted to attend” was invited, according to Belarus President Aleksander Lukashenko. The Belarusian-Russian joint strategic exercise Zapad 2017 is an example of transparency, Robin Mossinkoff, an OSCE observer from Austria, told media. 80 observers from Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, Estonia, Sweden and Norway could watch the event with their own eyes.
The anti-Russian propaganda efforts have gone down the drain. Scary tales have proven to be fantasy fiction. From now on many people will probably read the horror stories about Moscow’s nefarious plans with a grain of salt. Hopefully, the fact that the exercise was open and transparent will enhance trust and ease tensions between Russia and NATO.