Russia is set to hold the Zapad 2017 military exercises at the end of next week, and it’s believed to be the largest of its kind since the end of the Cold War.
Although officially only 13,000 troops are taking part – a number low enough that it doesn’t merit international observers under OSCE rules – some analysts believe up to 100,000 military, civilian and police personnel are involved.
Those numbers have set alarm bells ringing in Europe, especially the Baltic states. Other information about Zapad gives security policy aficionados – from amateur analysts to seasoned Russia watchers – cause for concern. Like moving missile systems to Russia’s Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad; or building landing strips and refueling depots in Belarus – far beyond what might be needed by a modest number of troops there; moving soldiers up to the Arctic; holding naval war games in the Baltic and deploying thousands of tanks, troops, aircraft, vehicles and field artillery pieces from their home bases to new locations.
Could this be the prelude to an invasion of Estonia or Gotland? Should Finland be worried about military manouevers on its borders? Will Russia be leaving behind assets that could be a strategic threat long after Zapad is over?
The answer, according to three experts in Finland is no. And yes. And something in between.
“It is the first time since the Crimea war in 1853 that the global focus is on the Baltic Sea” says Juha Pyykönen, a retired Finnish military officer who now runs his own security analysis company.
“But having this global focus restrains Russia’s activities and people are keeping their eye on what’s happening here” he adds.
“It’s overblown in a way” says Ryhor Nizhnikau, a Senior Research Fellow in the Russia Research Programme at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs FIIA. “This coverage that something bad is going to happen with Russia, there will be an occupation of Belarus or something, it’s definitely misguided hype. It definitely will not happen”
Charly Salonius-Pasternak, also a Senior Research Fellow at FIIA, on the Global Security Research Programme, agrees.
“It seems like it’s become a fixed idea that something is going to happen now because a lot of troops are together. That kind of ignores that there’s a ready response, that Aurora is happening to ensure there’s enough troops. It’s not just done by accident”
Operation Aurora, hosted by the Swedish military, is the most obvious response from western allies to Russia’s Zapad. More than 19,000 personnel from the Swedish Armed Forces, plus participants from Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Lithuania, Norway and the USA are taking part. The focus of the mock defence drills is on Stockholm, Gothenburg, and crucially Gotland – considered the key to controlling shipping in and out of the Baltic Sea.
“Does it make any sense for Russia, after all this, to do something here? No” says Salonius-Pasternak, who notes the ‘happy coincidence’ that the two exercises are taking place in the same time frame. Finland and the countries in the region, he argues, are ‘woke’ to Russia’s Zapad-related build-up in a way that Ukraine wasn’t, before the annexation of Crimea.
The Origin Story
So where did all the extra scare-mongering around Zapad – a regularly scheduled four-yearly event – come from? According to Ryhor Nizhnikau, it partially stems from ‘palace politics’ between rival state factions in Belarus, each vying for the attention of President Lukashenko.
“We have to take into account where all these kind of ideas first game from. It never started in military circles” explains Nizhnikau.
“When it originally started, it started for domestic purposes in Belarus, part of a power struggle between different agencies, it’s how it works in these political regimes, when your power is based not only on your access and closeness to the ruler of the country, but also on your ability to partially discredit your opponents within the system” he says.
But how would that work? One side might claim Russia’s build-up was a prelude to invading Belarus, and then say a rival agency wasn’t doing their job properly if they didn’t know about it, and hope to discredit them in the eyes of the President.
And now that hype about the dangers of Zapad has spiraled out of control online. Or has it?
Zapad’s Hybrid Threat
While Zapad’s overt military war games go on as advertised, there is some concern that other, more stealthy new operations might get underway. The so-called ‘hybrid war’ that blends components of cyber attacks with disinformation campaigns.
“My expectation is they have something new I’m not aware of. Something hybrid” says military analyst Juha Pyykönen. “And afterwards, it might be difficult for us, including the media, to recognise what has happened” he adds.
“This is what any good magician or illusionist would do” says FIIA’s Salonius-Pasternak.
“Look at this shiny object while I do other stuff”.
“I would be spectacularly surprised if we don’t see something like that. Because of course Russia will have a mixture of genuine military training, testing stuff, and flashing to everyone listening and watching, ‘this is what we can do, maybe we can do more'”, he says.
So what are examples of ‘hybrid war’? One recent case was when Russian authorities caught the Finns off guard by encouraging third country nationals who overstayed their visas to swarm to Finland’s east and northern border crossings.
Or it could be a news story that Russian state apparatus whips into a frenzy and uses to rail against the West. Germany found itself at the centre of one such controversy in early 2016.
“When we talk about Russia’s hybrid warfare and Zapad military exercises, the point is to ask who really coordinates and launches these attacks?” says Russia expert Ryhor Nizhnikau.
“We may assume that some of these actions, as well as cyber attacks, will be initiated by the Russian military […] but there are other agencies as well, who have developed capabilities to do that.
Finland’s Political Response
Call it another ‘happy coincidence’ but the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats opened in Helsinki this week.
The centre’s aim is to raise awareness of the hybrid threat, and vulnerabilities in society that are related to the internet and social media.
At the centre’s opening, Finland’s Foreign Minister Timo Soini said he hopes the centre will help the EU and NATO cooperate better to identify hybrid threats in the Baltic Sea region.
Earlier on Wednesday, in a meeting with his Swedish counterpart Margot Wallström in Espoo, Soini took time to address fears over Zapad, directly.
“I do not see any great risks, it’s just a normal activity to practice [military exercises]” said Soini.
“Fortunately, military exercises have rules and reporting obligations. But it is clear that in some Baltic and Western countries, there is more worry and concern”.
“For the layman, should you start worrying?” asks Charly Salonius-Pasternak. No, he states categorically.
“But are there reasons why I imagine some Swedes, Finns, and others are not going to be taking vacation this month? Yes. For some people whose job it is, it matters”.