Zapad Wargames and Living in Uncertainty
Valdai Papers
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Andrei A. Sushentsov

PhD in Political Science
MGIMO University, Moscow, Russia
School of International Relations
Valdai Discussion Club
Program Director


ORCID: 0000-0003-2076-7332


E-mail: [email protected]
Address: Room 3036, 76 Vernadsky Prospect, Moscow 119454, Russia

Valdai Discussion Club

The Russian-Belarusian Zapad (West) military exercises, which were held in the latter half of September, have disappointed many people. Comments made in the Western media before the exercises filled the readers with so much concern and apprehension that they thought it would be a second Baltic Offensive. [1] It’s a pity that we have disappointed them.

There are two reasons the West is concerned about these regularly held Russian-Belarusian exercises. The first is the paranoid fear, which the internal Ukrainian crisis has engendered in the West, that Russia has “hybrid” plans to seize the territory of all its neighbors between the Narva and the Oder. This stereotype is extremely tenacious, even though it fails any common sense test. It is based on the distorted understanding of the causes and consequences of the Ukrainian crisis and defies the analysis of Russia’s real interests as well as goals in the region.

It has become traditional in the West to believe that Russia is so powerful and omnipresent that the conquest of its Western neighbors is a decided and trivial matter. It is not surprising that the leading Western analytical centers publish forecasts on how long it would take the Russian army to occupy the Baltics. It is unclear why Russia should use military force if it allegedly can influence the outcome of presidential elections. This unhealthy belief has been reaffirmed the other day by US Oscar winner actor Morgan Freeman, who appeared in a video saying that the United States was at war with Russia and accusing the Kremlin of attacking America’s democracy.

The second reason for the lively interest in the Zapad exercises was the decision of the NATO summit in Wales to establish cyber range capabilities in Estonia and Latvia in 2015 in order to address Russia’s hybrid warfare threats. Judging by the results of these centers’ activity, they are manned predominantly by local personnel and operate autonomously from NATO headquarters in Brussels. This looks like the only credible explanation for their flight of imagination. Over the short period of time since their establishment, they only held a campaign to glorify the so-called Forest Brothers, many of which were Nazi accomplices who waged a terror campaign against the authorities and civilians in Lithuania during as well as after WWII. In this and other similar cases, the above centers, speaking on behalf of NATO, provided an extremely nationalist interpretation of East European history, which is proof of their phobias and fears. US Lieutenant-General Ben Hodges, Commander of US Army Europe, had to allay the paranoiac reaction to the Russian-Belarusian exercises by saying the following: “There’s nothing evil about Zapad. It’s certainly Russia’s right to conduct exercises.”

It’s difficult not to be sarcastic over the Western reaction to Zapad 2017. However, I will determine the root cause for the Western neighbors’ fear of Russia and see whether it can be laid to rest.

In my opinion, this fear is based on the East European elites’ feeling of insecurity of the future and anticipation of an impending disaster. This is nothing new for Russia. We have grown used to this situation. NATO’s expansion and its aggression  in Yugoslavia, Iraq and Libya, as well as its support for so-called color revolutions have taught the Kremlin to be wary of the West. The situation on Russia’s southern borders is uncertain as well, what with Afghan drug trafficking, unstable Central Asian regimes, acute crises in the Caucasus plus civil disorder in the Middle East, which have created a vacuum of power and the breeding ground for radicals, including thousands of extremists from Russia and the CIS who have swarmed there. Russia is probably better prepared for dealing with uncertainty as a new international standard than any other country on this continent.

However, this is a completely new situation for Europe, which faced it only at the turn of 2013-2014 in the form of massive migration from the Middle East, numerous terrorist attacks and the Ukrainian crisis. In 2016, these headaches were complemented with disturbing centrifugal trends in EU countries, the growth of rightwing populism as well as unpredictable US policies. Europe is again busy trying to find its identity, and the current situation is a viability test for NATO. 

This situation has affected the EU and NATO countries that border on Russia especially strongly. The so-called frontier states, primarily the Baltics and Poland, are the main recipients of NATO security and base their policies on the security guarantees of the militarily competent West European countries and the United States. At the same time, these countries are not sure that the security providers will honor their commitments. To use a Biblical metaphor, they fear that Joseph’s brothers will again sell him into slavery in Egypt. An additional concern is that Russia only discusses European affairs with the security providers – the United States, Germany and France, which have so far provided the smallest possible military response to the Ukrainian crisis. [2] The involvement of Poland and the Baltics can be described as symbolic, which explains rampant paranoia and hidden fears in Warsaw, Vilnius, Tallinn and Riga. The largest wars in the past were waged on the East European frontier, resulting in major changes in the region’s political geography. The frontier countries are united by a strong feeling of danger. They are not confident of their future, even the immediate future. It is ironic that Russia believes in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty Charter on collective defense more than many other eastern members of the bloc.

The Ukrainian crisis has affected even the Belarusian elites, some of whom see Russia’s actions as unpredictable as well as dangerous. This feeling has been compounded with old economic complaints and a subjective suspicion that Russia wants to have satellites rather than allies. The Belarusian part of the matter has an additional layer: national identity. Not just Russia and Ukraine, but also Belarusian society asks: Who are we to each other? Indolent brothers or prodigal children? Is Ukraine the elder brother who has sold his birthright for a mess of Western pottage? This debate is far from over.  

Anyway, Western Europe does not have the oppressive feeling of military threat. Coming to grips with new realities is not easy for them either. For many years in the past, Western Europe swapped the right to strategic thinking for US military guarantees, and when the Soviet Union collapsed, it thought that its security problems were solved once and for all. However, both Russia and Western Europe understand that a new war in Europe would be a global disaster and hence must be prevented at any cost. Everyone thinks that time is the best medicine, that the current crisis will cede its place to other problems or will settle down by itself when the opponent crumbles due to the erosion of its inner strength.

The Ukrainian crisis, although very acute, has shown that strategic deterrence is still an effective mechanism, because both sides have so far practised restraint. It is indicative that expectations of escalation were connected with the Baltics, but the continent was closest to a war during the Russian-Turkish crisis in 2015. Russia believed that Turkey shared the US culture of strategic restraint, but it turned out that Ankara is an independent geopolitical player with its own strategic experience, for example, the use of force against a NATO ally (Greece). The threat of a Russian-Turkish war in the Black Sea appeared overnight and was a classical black swan. However, it was also a consequence of international uncertainty.

In conclusion, I would like to say that there are structural and rather solid conditions for peace in Europe. This does not mean that the continent’s security problems can be settled, but the current structure is stable and balanced. Some people may find life in conditions of uncertainty intolerable, but the example of Russia has shown that it is possible. You just have to stop worrying and accept these conditions as they are.   

Valdai Discussion Club


[1] The Baltic Offensive was a Red Army operation in 1944 to liberate the Baltics from Nazi forces during WWII.

[2] Just imagine how different the US policy would have been had it opted for the military deterrence and subsequent destruction of Russia. This policy was applied in the military sphere during the Cold War. The current military activities are negligible compared to that period.