Zapad 2017: An Initial Assessment with Michael Kofman

Following an event at Georgetown University with the Center for Professionals in Russian, Eastern European, and Eurasian Affairs, Five Minutes with an Expert sat down with CNA Research Scientist Michael Kofman to discuss the recent Zapad military exercises held in the Russian Federation.

Why was the U.S. media skeptical about the Zapad Exercises, and was the hype that they created justified?

The hype they created was not justified, but there were all sorts of numbers floating around and the media settled on the number of 100,000. To be frank, there wasn’t a lot of factual basis for these figures. Previous Russian exercises had been large; for example, Zapad in 2013 was estimated to be 70-75,000 troops in total involvement, plus a number of administrative interior troops throughout Russian cities. The media figured that the number might be somewhere close to 90,000 and rounded up, but there were a lot of misleading figures released in advance of the exercise that had little bearing in reality. The truth is that Russian strategic operational exercises do tend to be pretty big; they involve forces across all of Russia and Russia’s four main military districts plus the joint arc of command. However, the idea that Zapad  would involve 100,000 troops on the borders would never be true, because although this exercise focused on the Baltic region, it involved Russian forces throughout the entire country. Second, the suggestion that there would be up to 100,000 troops is also not true, because there’s no official source that suggested an upper ceiling for the exercise. This exercise turned out to be smaller than people expected, and I think a lot of experts were right in saying that it would be far less than 100,000. The numbers were grossly exaggerated and hyped, both by media and also by certain politicians in the region.

Could you give us a quick summary of how the exercise went?

The exercise was both an exercise that lasted a week, from September 14 to 20, and a very large series of simultaneous exercises and drills that took place across Russia leading up to Zapad itself, which is the capstone of events for various trainings and certifications for Russian troops. The exercise itself was two phases. In Phase One, Russian and Belarusian forces were defending against a conventional adversary - a coalition of NATO members led by the United States. Phase Two was a bit more offensive, whereby Russian forces would engage a pretty sophisticated technological adversary attacking across all of Russia, and would eventually force the conflict to a close - that is, impose high costs on the enemy such that there would be a secession of hostilities. The exercise began with the Russian force simulating a large aerospace attack on Russia, mobilizing and moving units to the Baltic region and deploying forces to the firing positions where they would need to be to engage in the exercise. Then they practiced missions integrating combined arms and different service branches, with a lot of logistics units involved and a lot of conventional military firepower Russia could bring to bear. It ended with a series of offensive and conventional escalations using long-range strike munitions, like Iskander-M and the R-500 cruise missile variant of it, along with a lot of fire by Russian air force, Russian aerospace forces and the Russian navy, which practiced sinking American surface action groups. Even though the exercise ended, a lot of these drills continue today. For example, on the last day there was a nuclear ICBM launch, and the strategic nuclear exercise took off just a few days afterwards. There were a lot of ballistic missile launches and several strategic bomber force sorties after the fact.

What did the exercise intend to signal to the United States?

The exercises were by and large an attempt to establish credibility, proving that Russia had both capability and resolve in the event of crisis and conflict breaking out in Belarus. Should the United States believe that it had the option to intervene in Russia’s near abroad, Russia wanted to prove it not only had the military capability to defend its interests, but that it had the resolve – that it would, indeed, deploy forces to the region and impose high costs to the United States or its allies and that it would follow through with an escalatory cycle and potentially impose costs on NATO members throughout Europe. In this regard, the exercise was very much a signalling piece. Even though it was simulating what might be considered an erroneous or low-probability scenario, the exercises belayed Russian fears about Western intentions towards Belarus and other states that it de facto uses as buffer states in its near abroad.

What can this exercise tell us about Russia’s military?

It’s hard to give a short shrift assessment, but by and large it tells us that Russia’s military prowess is improving. Russia is increasingly capable in commanding different types of units, integrating fire with recon assets and drones to coordinate artillery. In terms of logistics and communications, they’re getting more sophisticated, and the Russian aerospace force continues to get new capabilities and new platforms. On the whole, the exercises continue to show the gradual evolution and modernization of Russian armed forces. Beyond that, there’s not a great deal that’s new in this strategic operations exercise as compared to any other one that they’ve held in previous years.

How did NATO look after this exercise?

The results from NATO were a bit mixed. On the one hand, NATO did prudent and cautious things in conducting some simultaneous exercises to keep forces on alert, and so did NATO partners like Sweden, which had its largest exercises in 23 years. The United States held over brigade rotations such that we had two brigades deployed in the area in Europe, so when it comes to prudent vigilance and making the right moves, NATO and NATO partners did fine. In terms of rhetoric and how they reacted to the exercises, however, the response was rather poor, because it really aggrandized the Russian threat and gave the Russians a lot more credibility than they were even trying to establish. Some accounts were panicky, and rumors were spread which had no factual basis and frankly did not make a lot of sense to begin with. Finally, there was definitely a larger concern that bled over into alarmism, and some countries cried wolf about this potentially being a prelude for some nefarious chicanery on the part of Russia. There are real consequences to that because if you cry wolf too many times and nothing happens, when the day comes that something does happen, your allies won’t believe you. They’re going to drag their feet with political response, and valuable time will be lost because you squandered your credibility. In that regard, some members of NATO did rather poorly.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.


Mr. Michael Kofman is a Research Scientist at CNA Corporation and a Fellow at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, D.C. His research focuses on security issues in Russia and the former Soviet Union, specializing in defense and military analysis.  Previously he served at National Defense University as a Program Manager and subject matter expert, advising senior military and government officials on issues in Russia/Eurasia and Pakistan. He has represented the Department of Defense in track one and track two efforts, through military engagement programs and strategic exchanges with Russian officials, the Chinese and Pakistani military, along with trilateral dialogues. At NDU he oversaw military-to-military engagements, training programs, and interoperability exercises for senior officers from the US and other countries.