Amid the swirling tensions and subdued game of brinkmanship being played between NATO and Russia in Eastern Europe, the Baltic Republics are urging the United States and NATO to put more security measures into effect ahead of Zapad 17, a major Russian military exercise scheduled to take place in the region this coming September. The exercise will place a large number of Russian combat units in close proximity to the borders of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Although the exercise is seven months away the Baltic defense ministers and general officers are growing increasingly leery over the prospect of Zapad 17 worsening an already tense, and unpredictable situation. Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite has called the exercise a “demonstrative preparation for war with the West,” highlighting a growing level of concern in the region over the exercise.
Exercises like the Zapad series are large scale strategic exercises carried out periodically to test the ability of the Russian military to operate jointly under realistic conditions in a simulated wartime environment. They generally take place every two years or so and serve as a litmus test to gauge the proficiency of Russia’s armed services. Zapad and other strategic exercises like it are not a recent trend for NATO to contend with. They’ve been held since the days of the Cold War and Soviet Union and even back in the 70s and 80s caused headaches and anxiety for NATO. There was always a concern in those days about Soviet strategic exercise taking place in East Germany and Eastern Europe. Namely, the possibility that one could potentially serve as cover for the build-up of forces needed to launch an invasion of West Germany.
The concern was plausible during the Cold War and still is today. The conduct of forces involved in preparing for a Zapad-like exercise mirrors that of forces preparing to launch offensive operations. A tank regiment moves towards its simulated objectives placed in relative close proximity to the Belarussian-Lithuanian border ostensibly as part of an exercise. Only instead of turning north off of the M7 highway, the formation continues northeast towards the nearby Lithuanian border and Vilnus. Highly unlikely, but still within the realm of possibility.
To the average European or American citizen, the Baltics are not quite a powder keg and thus Zapad-17 is hardly an errant spark. The average Lithuanian or Estonian politician may see things differently, however, and at the moment it is their opinions and views which are driving the situation for the moment.