Zapad: What can we learn from Russia’s latest military exercise? – BBC News

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Russian President Vladimir Putin (L), accompanied by Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, watches the joint Belarus-Russian Zapad-2017 military exercisesImage copyright
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What did the joint Belarus-Russian Zapad exercises reveal about President Putin’s military strategy?

For all the Western concern about Russia’s Zapad military exercises, they nonetheless offer a rare insight into developments in the Russian military at a time of significant change.

As one of the leading Western analysts of Russian military developments, Roger McDermott, says “while Russia’s armed forces’ leadership remain very interested in military theory, they test and rehearse new approaches to warfare in strategic exercises”.

Thus, he adds, “exercises like Zapad offer glimpses into the real level of capability and demand careful and sober assessment for outsiders”.

Russia claims this exercise falls below a treaty threshold of 13,000 soldiers that would require invitations to be issued to observer teams from other European nations. Western analysts place the numbers involved much higher.

But even without full-scale observer teams, Zapad is being monitored closely by Nato countries using satellites and aircraft with radars that can reach into western Russia to get a clear sense of how Russian and Belarussian forces perform.

These exercises come at an interesting moment.

The Russian military is transitioning from the old Cold-War-style Red Army into a more modern and flexible force, capable of conducting combined operations across land, sea and air, tailored to a variety of potential scenarios – just like the more sophisticated of Nato armies.

Lessons learned?

Igor Sutyagin, the senior research fellow for Russian studies at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI) think tank in London, describes this as an attempt to create “a lean, fully manned, combat-ready force, fully – or to the best possible extent – equipped with the up-to-date equipment [and] supported by agile rear infrastructure”.

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Russia insists that the Zapad exercise involves fewer than 13,000 soldiers, the threshold for triggering the need for international observers

Despite Russia’s victory in the brief Georgia war of 2008, the conflict showed up many shortcomings. And Western analysts will be watching the Zapad manoeuvres closely to see how the Russian General Staff is applying the lessons learned from more recent operations in Syria and eastern Ukraine.

Dr Sutyagin told me: “Both campaigns showed the general direction in which the Russian military is moving.”

But how far has Russia’s military transition really gone? And, crucially, will the Russian government continue to have sufficient funds to maintain its military modernisation plans?

Technological gap?

Dr Sutyagin says the transition has passed the middle of its long path, with organisational changes nearing their completion.

However, there have been some indications of backsliding, with a return to the establishment of large army divisions which, he says, are “hard to man, thus being to a large extent ’empty shells'”.

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The Armata is a highly automated tank replacing much of Russia’s Soviet-era armour

Rearmament with modern weaponry, necessary to close – or at the minimum, narrow – the technological gap between the Russian and the best Western military forces is also gaining momentum.

But Dr Sutyagin says much of the new equipment budget may now be in question, “as completion of the rearmament programme depends on both availability of finances and access to Western technologies, which is becoming harder”.

Spectacular fire power

In terms of the Zapad exercises themselves, there is much to look for.

In theory these are defensive exercises, organising the defence of Russia and Belarus against an external attack.

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Russia used the Zapad exercises to showcase its Iskander-M missile

This of course has not prevented some spectacular firepower demonstrations, not least the firing of an Iskander-M missile from a range in south-west Russia against a mock target in Kazakhstan – a flight of some 480km (300 miles).

But in terms of the exercises themselves, what will Nato watchers be looking for?

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