Since 2009, the Russian Federation’s General has been conducting the “Zapad” (“West”) exercise every four years (one was previously conducted in 1999). Its aim is to train the “defensive capacities” of the Russian Federation’s army in the Western Military Sector. Last September, the Russian army announced: “The Zapad 2017 anti-terror exercise is a purely defensive one.”
By – Julian Ropcke
Zapad 2017 – War against NATO
However, BILD recently spoke to two leading analysts from a western intelligence service who revealed that Zapad 2017 was neither an “anti-terror exercise” nor “purely defensive”, but a “dry run” for a “full-scale conventional war against NATO in Europe”. According to these sources, the drill rehearsed the capture of the Baltic states (and Belarus) as well as a “shock campaign” against Western European NATO nations such as Germany and the Netherlands, but also against Poland, Norway and the non-aligned states of Sweden and Finland.
Capturing the Baltic states within a week
According to the two sources, Kremlin forces rehearsed capturing NATO’s “region of vulnerability, according to the Russian view”, namely the three Baltic states. “To realize this, you would have to quickly do the Suwalki gap operation” in order to cut off Poland and NATO reinforcements from Lithuania. This is exactly what Russia did, creating the artificial state of “Veyshnoria” at the exact location of the 40-kilometre land bridge between Poland and Lithuania (carried out on Belarussian territory, however).
At the same time, Russia rehearsed “neutralizing or taking under control air fields and harbours (in the Baltic states), so there are no reinforcements arriving from other NATO states there”. The sources emphasized that, in the case of an emergency, this would, in the first few days, be a purely military operation. “This does not mean that you have to occupy the countries and declare ‘Peoples’ Republics’ or something like that, but that you have to occupy the harbours, airports and so on”.
Rehearsing the bombing of Western Europe, particularly Germany
The sources revealed that “Russian air force strategic aviation, long-range aviation, took part in the exercise on two days and conducted simulation flights over the Baltic Sea and the North Sea. They exercised bombings of Western European targets, approaching the German and Dutch coast from the North Sea as well as Swedish, Finish and Polish mainland from the Baltic Sea. The drill included waves of Tu-95 strategic bombers as well as support aircraft like fighter jets and refuelling planes.”
These bombers rehearsed launching missiles and cruise missiles. They returned to their bases before reaching NATO shores. In a real-life situation, their targets would include “critical infrastructure, that is, air fields, harbours, energy supplies and so on, in order to shock the countries and make the populations demand from their governments that ‘we shouldn’t be involved here, we should go for peace instead”.
In war, another aim of these Russian activities would be “to prevent them (NATO armies) from taking military action, deploying troops and reversing Russian army gains in the Baltics”. Hence, German naval bases at the Baltic Sea and the North Sea would be prime targets for such aerial attacks. Although the sources did not know which German, and possibly Dutch, targets exactly the Tu-95 bombers were directed at, they stressed: “This was part of their exercise in September!”
The sources added that, “of course, in war time, Russian bombers would have approached from the East as well, but in ‘peace times’, this attack direction (towards Germany) along the Norwegian coast would make sense”. Russia could not practice strategic air attacks from the East due to the Belarussian and Ukrainian airspace between Russia and its potential targets. Moreover, the sources made it clear that strategic air raids would have been flanked by large-scale missile attacks on NATO targets, using Iskander tactical missiles in the Kaliningrad region for targeting NATO strategic assets in the Baltic Sea countries. It is “not clear, but likely” that such attacks were also rehearsed in the Zapad 2017 drills.
According to the sources, these risky manoeuvres (over the North Sea) could show that Russia has planned “show of force attacks” that deeply penetrate Western-dominated air space and a “surprise element”, as NATO missile defences are better prepared in the East of Europe than in NATO states like Norway, Denmark, the UK, and Germany.
Baltic Sea drills against NATO submarines, ships, and airplanes
In order to cripple NATO’s capacities in the event of a large-scale ground offensive against Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the exercise involved “anti-submarine warfare and air-defence drills throughout the Baltic Sea”. The focus area was the eastern Gotland Basin.
Russian naval forces also rehearsed anti-aircraft and anti-ship operations in the area, as well as anti-combat-diver operations. The obvious aim of such exercises was the destruction of NATO forces in the Baltic Sea that might try to reach Baltic waters and ports in order to help NATO allies under attack there.
Attack rehearsals against Finland, Sweden, and Norway
According to the interviewed Western intelligence sources, Sweden and Finland would come under attack in the case of a real war against NATO. These attacks were also rehearsed in September. “We know that, in case of a war with NATO, Russia would not expect Sweden and Finland to remain neutral, although they are not part of NATO. Stockholm and Helsinki would allow NATO aircraft to use their airfields and so on”. The source alleged that most Swedish and southern Finish air fields would therefore come under Iskander missile attacks.
The sources pointed towards the Murmansk region on the Kola peninsula, bordering on Finland and Norway. “There were very interesting activities here, which makes us think that they were practicing something for northern Finland, but unfortunately I cannot tell you more, as we are not the source of this information”. Pushed about the issue, the sources revealed that, during the Zapad 2017 exercise, “Russian army forces from other parts of the country were moved to Kola that do not belong there. This makes us think that they did not just play out the scenario on the map, but also in real life. The point of this operational direction is to defend against NATO air attacks. So we think that they planned to neutralize assets in the region as well”.
In October, a Norwegian magazine reported, referring to six Norwegian defence establishment sources, that Russia had practiced bombing and invading Svalbard, the Norwegian archipelago in the Barents Sea, during Zapad 2017. According to the report, two waves of Tu-95 and Tu-22m3 bombers rehearsed bombing runs on the strategic islands between Russia and the resource-rich Arctic Ocean. 50 vessels participated in the drill in the Barents Sea. This confirms with what BILD learnt from its two Western intelligence sources. From Russia’s strategic perspective, it would be necessary to carry out parallel attacks on Finish and Norwegian mainland targets.
What would trigger such war between NATO and Russia?
One of the sources explained to BILD what a trigger for such events could be. “I am always asked, is this an offensive or a defensive operation? The answer is, it is an escalation operation”. So-called “coloured revolutions”, for example in Belarus or other post-Soviet states, could lead to the war that was trained in Zapad 2017. “Such a revolution, which would of course be ‘a plot by the CIA’, according to them, could get Russia involved. If the US or another NATO country then gets involved, this could be the starting point for the scenario they trained for in September”.
In general, a military operation against the Baltic states would be a “responsive operation”, meaning that “Putin would feel a real threat” to his interests. In other words, a military confrontation in Russia’s defined “sphere of national interest” would trigger the trained scenario. Examples would be Belarus, Ukraine, or Georgia. “We know that, in 2008, they had the contingency plan that if the US gets involved in guarding Georgia from their invasion, the Baltic states would have become a target”.
The source also mentioned events that would NOT trigger a war, such as the NATO accession of Sweden or Finland. “They threaten to take military actions if these two countries join NATO, but we don’t think this would be their red line”. Not even a direct military confrontation between the US and Russia in Syria would trigger a war against NATO, the source believes. “They would rather withdraw in the worst case, but this would not lead to a war in Europe”.
The threat of a nuclear war
The sources pointed out that the scenario Russia trained for would be the last step before a nuclear war with the West and – ironically – Russia’s attempt at preventing such a war by simultaneously achieving a “quick victory” in the Baltics and conducting a successful “shock campaign” in Western Europe. “Of course, if all of this does not help, Russia would signal the West that, if it tries to reverse its military gains in the Baltic space”, the next step would be the use of tactical nuclear weapons, in all likelihood followed by the use of ICBM. However, the Kremlin would “try to avoid such a scenario”.
Russian manpower used in the exercise
However, another 12.000 Russian ground troops ((soldiers??))) took part in the Leningrad and Pskov regions “near the Estonian borders” and almost 10.000 were involved on the Kola peninsula. Taken together with a high number of naval personnel, air force staff, and support forces, more than 100.000 Russian troops ((soldiers??))) participated in Zapad 2017, the sources said. Additionally, 20.000 Russian National Guard troops (soldiers) and further FSB units and Ministry of Emergency Situation personnel also participated, which makes the overall number even higher.
The sources pointed out that the sheer number of involved ground forces was “a violation of the Vienna document”. An exercise number of 13.000 or more participants requires observers. “And make no mistake. There was not a single observer, although this is what the Russians want to tell the public. There were ‘invited guests’ from NATO countries which were allowed to watch some bombings. Observers would have been allowed to go wherever they wanted and to talk to all involved units. This did not happen.”
Extent of the exercise area
While Russia announced several training grounds in Belarus, the Kaliningrad region, and Pskov as well as the Leningrad oblast, the real extent of the exercise was much larger. There were more training grounds within the announced areas. Moreover, and more importantly, the Murmansk oblast on the Kola peninsula also took part in the exercise. Naval force manoeuvres took place over a wide area in the Baltic Sea and Barents Sea. Aerial drills were carried out over the Baltic Sea, Barents Sea, and North Sea. There were also other military exercises happening simultaneously in the Black Sea region and on occupied Crimea, aimed at a potential NATO response from Bulgaria and Romania.