Russia’s military doctrine continues to adhere to the “first strike” principle. Namely, Moscow will not shy away from using its nuclear weapons, if it judges it to be in its interest and it has a chance to annihilate its target with impunity. It is mischievous, however, to claim that this is imminent. The Kremlin’s first strike would have to be most certainly within the context of a major war to justify the horror. For now, at least, and save a major war, Putin’s nuclear saber remains useful mainly for rattling. And rattle it he does. During the previous Zapad-9 and Zapad-13 exercises, the Russians dry-practiced a nuclear attack on Poland. Unsurprisingly, this time around, the Ukrainians have charged that the Red Army drilled with nukes aimed at Kiyv.
By Marek Jan Chodakiewicz l October 16, 2017
Russia’s Zapad-17 joint strategic military exercises in Belarus, Kaliningrad region, and north-western areas are over (September 14-20). The report is out: Western concerns, loudly and persistently voiced, backed up with a modicum of military muscle, were heard by Vladimir Putin. Our worst fears mercifully did not materialize. The maneuvers failed to metastasize into an invasion of the neighboring nations. The war of nerves is over for now, until next time.
Moscow plays the game of keeping us jittery very well. It pokes and prods.
When Moscow encounters either virtually no resistance or just feeble remonstration, the Kremlin shoves its way in. This applies to all fields of statecraft, including the military. Pushing forward when unopposed was Vladimir Putin’s modus operandi in his armed aggression against both Georgia and Ukraine. The West was caught unprepared for either. The invasion of Ukraine, in particular, created a shock wave among the U.S. and its allies. Thus, when the Russian Federation announced plans to repeat its infamous military training in Belarus, the Western nations paid close attention this time. During Zapad-17, he backed away because Putin was confronted with resolve. We should keep that in mind for the future.
First, we remember that the Zapad games are staged every four years so we can brace ourselves and even anticipate, rather than improvise, for the next time. Second, the military exercise is our chance to assess the prowess, equipment, and skill of the Muscovite adversary. The games have demonstrated amply Russia’s sophistication in electronic and cyber warfare as well as missile defense. We need to catch up.
Third, we know now that Zapad is a creature of multiple applications. It is not merely a military exercise, but rather a tool of integrated statecraft, where the armed forces contribute just a single factor in the arsenal of weapons of Russia’s political warfare. The war games are, accordingly, a propaganda tool to intimidate the neighbors through the Red Army’s swaggering. In the Muscovite tradition, psychological warfare customarily precedes, and accompanies, a kinetic assault: whether conventional or asymmetric.
Fourth, Zapad teaches us we should expect anything from the Kremlin, including naked aggression against our NATO allies, in particular in the Baltics. Imperialism is a crime of opportunity; expansion occurs where the target is soft, destabilized, and lacking in resolve to defend its freedom. Thus, any Russian military exercises can morph into an invasion, if the conditions are favorable.
Fifth, Moscow is flexible. Its strategic goal is to restore its empire. However, the optimal aim is not to attack us in an all-out conventional assault. Most of the time, however, the Kremlin just likes to toy with us. It tests our resolve. It gauges our skills; for example, America’s response time to come to the rescue of the eastern flank of NATO. It is obvious that the U.S. and the Western part of the alliance would fail to reach Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius in time to prevent their fall to the Red Army. Thus, we should already be in place there as a warning to the Kremlin. To invade means to have to kill U.S. troops in the Baltics. To put it crudely, shooting Baltic soldiers lacks the power to anger the American people enough for us to go to war. Hence, to prevent war, we need permanent bases in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuanian, and, of course, Poland.
Sixth, it is obvious that the Kremlin prefers infiltration and subversion from open struggle. Thus, Putin’s active measures capitalize on the post-Soviet zone’s dissatisfaction of the Russian-speaking and other minorities, including the Poles in Lithuania. At the political level, minority grievances are stoked against the majority population. At the military level, the aggrieved are used as nests and vehicles for Moscow’s strategic moves. Prior to Zapad, there were rumors of the GRU “tin cans” (sleeper officers) and their “little green men” positioned in Latvia, for example. There are plenty of post-Soviet denizens to harbor them or at least to hide among. Because of their proximity to Russia and because of their Russian-speaking minorities, the Baltics will continue to be targeted by the Kremlin as front-line states until they either surrender or collapse. To prevent this, we should prepare accordingly. The Muscovite menace will not go away in the foreseeable future.
Seventh, Russia’s military doctrine continues to adhere to the “first strike” principle. Namely, Moscow will not shy away from using its nuclear weapons, if it judges it to be in its interest and it has a chance to annihilate its target with impunity. It is mischievous, however, to claim that this is imminent. The Kremlin’s first strike would have to be most certainly within the context of a major war to justify the horror. A small nuke to smash Warsaw could be conceivable, but only if Berlin could be somehow reassured regarding the fall out. Never mind the diplomatic repercussions, we mean the – nuclear fallout, which is mostly airborne and would certainly impact Germany. Paradoxically, the concern that Germany may be somehow exposed to the aftermath of a nuclear strike on Poland serves as a deterrent, albeit a feeble one, against Putin’s strike on the Poles. Only the presence of America’s missile defense shield on the eastern flank of NATO can create a balance in the area.
For now, at least, and save a major war, however, Putin’s nuclear saber remains useful mainly for rattling. And rattle it he does. During the previous Zapad-9 and Zapad-13 exercises the Russians dry-practiced a nuclear attack on Poland. Unsurprisingly, this time around, the Ukrainians have charged that the Red Army drilled with nukes aimed at Kiyv.
Eighth, Zapad demonstrates, as many other Muscovite actions previously, that we should not take the Kremlin at its word. “Trust but verify,” as President Ronald Reagan used to say. Moscow swore that it only dispatched 12,700 troops to Belarus. Anything over the magic number of 13,000 would be in violation of the so-called Vienna Document of the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe. And it would mandate outside observers around the clock. Russia did not want that. So it stuck to a low figure of armed participants.
Yet, U.S. Army General Ben Hodges has estimated that Putin deployed about 40,000 of his soldiers at the war games. Altogether over 100,000 personnel took part in Zapad, including perhaps over half from Belarus. To circumvent the international law, the Kremlin partitioned its contingent into smaller groups involved in separate exercises. This way it needed not to comply with the law requiring the presence of foreign observers. NATO did dispatch liaison officers but they were able to watch the Russians exercise only on so-called “visitor’s days.” And, consequently, they did not see much. Afterwards, according to the government of Ukraine, some Russian troops were left behind in Belarus, a charge the Kremlin flatly denies of course.
With the next Zapad or a similar war game, our response must be firm. This time around, while the Russian exercises were on, we reacted rather delicately. The U.S. sent our units to Sweden for a multinational maneuvers codenamed Aurora-17 in September. Another non-NATO member, Ukraine, carried out staff exercises at the same time. Lithuania showcased its sniper training. Poland and the U.S. kicked off joint drills dubbed Dragon-17 on the day that Zapad ended. But for the most part those were low profile and low intensity games. For now, they have served their purpose. We have breathed a sigh of relief. Perhaps that was enough, but maybe not.
Meanwhile, Russia never skipped a beat. It continued a string of exercises, including with China in the Far East and Pakistan in the Caucasus. It is a never-ending game. Moscow will not rest until it achieves its strategic objective of re-integrating the post-Soviet zone. This will succeed if the U.S. let it happen. Perhaps next time, then, we could try synchronizing the timing of our NATO games with the Russian military exercises on the other side of the border.
Throughout, we must stand firmly by our allies on the NATO eastern flank, but we must tread lightly. The new era of brinkmanship is here to stay. By permitting North Korea to develop its nuclear weapons and by failing to thwart Pyongyang’s shenanigans in the Far East during the national security siesta in the globalist 1990s, we allowed those terrible weapons to come into play, at many levels. In particular, they are rampant on the field of psychological warfare everywhere: not only in the Middle East, but also in Central-Eastern Europe. Perhaps the best solution would be to provide Poland a nuclear deterrent!
Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is a Professor of History at the Institute of World Politics, A Graduate School of National Security and International Affairs in Washington, DC, where he holds the Kościuszko Chair in Polish Studies. Professor Chodakiewicz is author of Intermarium: The Land between the Black and Baltic Seas and teaches a seminar on the history of the Muslim world at Patrick Henry College. He is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis of the Online-Conservative-Journalism Center at the Washington-based Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.