It is being hailed as the largest and most significant war games since the Cold War era. The 2017 Zapad games began on September 14 and ran until the September 20. Zapad, Russian for “West,” is a military exercise designed to simulate a fictitious attack from the West.
The games, which were held in the Soviet Union since the 1970’s until its collapse, were revived by President Vladimir Putin in 1999. This year, Zapad 2017 has reached new heights, with a vast increase in the number of troops participating. While the Russians have only formally declared the participation of 12,700 troops, many—including German Defence Minister Ursula von Der Leyen—believe the number is closer to 100,000.
Foreign leaders, especially those in Eastern Europe, have criticized the war games as a direct violation of international protocol and as a blatant display of fear mongering. Critics also note that the games are often a prelude to eventual acts of Russian aggression, as was the case prior to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, and invasion of Georgia in 2008.
The games formerly included all the member nations of the Cold War-era Warsaw Pact alliance. However, participation has recently been reduced over the years to only Russia and Belarus. It is believed that historically, the games were meant not only to increase pressure on former Eastern Bloc nations to comply with Soviet leadership, but also as a way for the Soviet Union to formalize their connection with Belarus.
However, this is problematic for Belarus. The reasoning for such has been thoughtfully articulated by analyst Valery Karbalevich, who states that “Belarus has been trying to distance itself from Russia and establish neutrality in tensions between Russia and the West, and these exercises ruin this.” Essentially, Belarus’ participation in the 2017 Zapad games is counter-intuitive to its aim of becoming a state outside of Russia’s sphere of influence.
As previously mentioned, the nature of the Zapad games were to simulate a fictitious attack from the West and use Eastern NATO nations in the war effort. Despite this blatant connotation of the games, Russia claims the worries of the West, Eastern European NATO states, and the international community in general, are baseless. “We reject complaints of these exercises not being transparent,” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. However, Russia made no effort to qualm these fears, as President Putin approvingly observed a bombing run drill only 70 miles from the Estonian border.
This display of aggressive posturing is not a new phenomenon in conventional Russian relations with the West and the rest of Europe. In response to these increasing tensions as a result of the Zapad games, NATO has mobilized 4,000 troops to be a first line of defense for Eastern Europe, and the U.S. has further sent 600 paratroopers.
While this increased tension may just potentially be a new show of Russian power, it can also be construed as a Putin-led resurgence of Soviet and Cold War-era Russia. This is particularly worrisome to other countries in the region.
While the 2017 Zapad games have proven effective in diverting the Russian population’s attention away from various domestic issues plaguing the country, in particular, economic hardships, it has certainly captured the attention and concern of the international community. Hopefully, for the sake of peace and stability in the region, these escalating tensions remain only headline grabbers, and will not formulate into another Crimea-like situation.