Zapad 2017: how it is seen from regional countriesRussia held a quadrennial military exercise called ‘Zapad’ in mid-September on the territory of Western Russia, Russian exclave Kaliningrad and Belarus. Current tensions with the West add up to the salience of the upcoming drills, which according to NATO allies, will be one of the largest since the Cold War. Although the risk of open confrontation is low, “Zapad-2017” can become the next milestone of deteriorating Russia-NATO relations, introducing new security threats and uncertainty to the region. In order to learn how “Zapad 2017” was seen and perceived by regional countries, The Politicon interviewed Maksym Khylko (Chairman of the Board at the East European Security Research Initiative Foundation, Ukraine), Adam Reichardt (Editor-in-Chief of New Eastern Europe, Poland), Nora Vanaga (National Defence Academy, Latvia) and Roman Yakovlevsky (journalist and political expert, Belarus).


Interviewer: Rusif Huseynov



Huseynov: How do Zapad-2017 exercises look from Ukrainian perspective? 

Khylko: “Zapad-2017” drills caused reasonable concerns in Kyiv, given that Russia wages war on Ukraine’s East. Kyiv remembers well that Russian military exercises in 2008 turned into invasion of Georgia, and military manoeuvres of 2013-2014 turned into aggression against Ukraine, including occupation of Crimea and certain areas of Donbas region. 

So, appearance of Russian troops and military equipment not far from Ukraine’s northern border was a strong reason to be concerned about – especially given the lack of transparency that caused serious doubts about the real number of involved Russian troops.

Abduction of the Ukrainian citizen Pavlo Hryb on Belarusian territory by Russian special services on the eve of “Zapad-2017” proved that Moscow did not take seriously the sovereignty of Belarus and considered its territory as a part of Russian military and security space. Thus, Kyiv had no choice but to properly consider all the risks related to “Zapad-2017” drills – starting from the possible provocations (e.g. the violation of Ukraine’s airspace by Russian military aircrafts) and up to the act of open aggression under some cooked-up excuse.

It was important to attract attention of the international community to the possible risks and threats and to prevent provocations. Thus, the anxious statements by Ukrainian officials were reasonable, as well as the measures to strengthen the state border protection. Significant world’s attention to the exercises was also needed to guarantee that Russian troops would not be able to insensibly remain in Belarus after the end of the exercises.

“Zapad-2017” became another step in Russia’s military build up along the NATO’s eastern flank and the Kremlin’s policy of intimidating the Baltic countries. Besides, given that drills’ legend included the alleged Western’s attempt of hybrid destabilisation in Belarus, Russian troops got the opportunity to work out taking control over the Belarusian territory under the guise of protecting it from the sham ‘pro-Western’ uprising. Some Belarusian and Ukrainian experts express concerns about possible Moscow’s plans to implement such a scenario if Lukashenka’s loyalty becomes questionable.

Anyway, “Zapad-2017” drills confirmed once again that so far Russia is not going to change its aggressive foreign policy, and that Belarus could be considered neither neutral, nor sovereign in military and security dimensions – this should be taken into account when evaluating Lukashenka’s security assurances to the neighbour countries.


Huseynov: How does the Polish government and population react to the military drills conducted near their borders? 

Reichardt: Clearly, like most Western neighbors of Russia and Belarus, there is a lot of concern regarding the “Zapad-2017” military exercises taking place. It is not a very pleasant situation to have such a large military presence across the border, especially since it involves an aggressive adversary like the Russian Federation. Obviously, the official reaction of the Polish government has been to express this concern and note that it is keeping a close eye on the manoeuvres. At the same time, it is important to remember that this “Zapad” exercise is the first one since the NATO forces have maintained a presence in this region including in Poland. What is more, as the “Zapad” drills will be ending, Poland will be hosting the Dragon-17 Allied Exercises which will involve 17,000 soldiers from 9 different NATO countries including the United States. This certainly gives the Polish government some confidence that Zapad-2017 will end without provocation.


Huseynov: Do you think that “Zapad-2017” will further deteriorate the relations between Russia and the West? 

Reichardt: It is hard to imagine that relations between Russia and the West could deteriorate any further. But there is no doubt that the manoeuvres will do little to improve relations. Most officials in the West are clear that until Russia becomes a positive player in ensuring the Minsk ceasefire agreement is actually implemented in eastern Ukraine we should not expect any improvement. And Moscow has not shown much willingness to do so in that regard, beyond proposing a possible UN peacekeeping force to the contact line between Ukraine-controlled territory and the Russian-backed separatist-controlled territory which does not promise to be a workable solution. Needless to say, the status quo in eastern Ukraine will most likely continue for the foreseeable future, which also means relations will remain poor. This leads us to ask the question as to which side has more endurance to bear the status quo. Only time will tell. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see how Russia manages 2018, with the likely re-election of Vladimir Putin as president and at the same time a worsening economic situation – with the sanctions continuing to sting the Kremlin’s budget.


Huseynov: “Zapad-2017” maneuvers aim at fictional Baltic countries. The real Baltic states, prone to possible Russian aggression, have long been requesting NATO umbrella. Will the joint exercises influence the situation in the region, especially the Baltic-Russia relations?

Vanaga: Since Ukrainian events, the Baltic-Russia relations have been worse than ever. I would argue with a great sense of confidence that in the minds of the policy makers, the Baltics are in war with Russia, at least when it comes to the hybrid warfare elements - information warfare, cyber attacks, etc. The “Zapad” exercises seriously concerns the Lithuanians as they have the Kaliningrad issue. The Latvians and Estonians have more pragmatic stance. But for all three the main purpose of ringing alarm about “Zapad” is to keep the international attention to the region and once more emphasize Russia as an aggressor. By international attention, I mean - more NATO in the region and the most important - American presence and assistance.


Huseynov: Belarus, as Russia`s military ally, is participating and hosting Zapad-2017 exercises. What is the official position of Belarusian authorities regarding the necessity of these drills? How does the general public opinion assess the drills? 

Yakovlesky: Joint exercises like “Zapad” are held regularly, but the present drills are drawing more attention since they are organized after the annexation of Crimea and during the ongoing war in the east of Ukraine, both of which have caused an atmosphere of distrust, even by Minsk, towards Moscow. As for public opinion, it does not exist in Belarus. The majority of the population is poisoned by Russian propaganda and does not reject the Crimean blitzkrieg and the Kremlin's actions in the Donbas. In my opinion, a sober assessment of the “Zapad-2017” exercises is possible only after their completion. At the same time, many were surprised and puzzled by the unexpected absence of Putin and Shoigu in these exercises on the territory of Belarus. Their absence (for the first time in such an event) may indicate that not all is well in the union kingdom. And Putin's unpredictability looks to all once again intriguing with unpredictable consequences.