What strategy is Moscow pursuing with Zapad?

Russia and Belarus started a six-day joint military manoeuvre known as Zapad (West) on Thursday. Just under 13,000 soldiers from the two countries are to take part in the seven-day exercise in Belarus, according to official reports. Commentators fear that Russian troops will remain in Belarus after the manoeuvre and call on Nato to show both strength and willingness to engage in dialogue.

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Jutarnji list (HR) / 15 September 2017

A clear plan behind the military manoeuvre

Russia is pursuing clear objectives with Zapad 17, Jutarnji list concludes:

“One of them is to make clear to Nato, the EU and Minsk that Belarus is of strategic interest for Moscow, and that all of the military resources on display in the manoeuvre will be used to keep the country in Russia's sphere of interest. ... The exercise is taking place in the most sensitive geostrategic point of contact between Nato and the Russian satellites: near the 104-km wide Suwałki Corridor with which Russia can separate the Baltic states from the rest of Nato and link the exclave Kaliningrad with Belarusian territory. Everyone knows that the Zapad 17 exercise is intended to demonstrate the Russian army's ability to carry out such an operation with great speed.”

Le Monde (FR) / 14 September 2017

Moscow doesn't trust Minsk

The joint exercises are also a cause for concern for Belarus, Belarusian opposition figure Aleś Łahviniec points out in Le Monde:

“The 'little green men', who have unfortunately become famous since the annexation of Crimea, and who belong neither to the Ministry of the Interior nor to the [Russian intelligence agency] FSB, nor to the national guard, are taking part, according to the Russian deputy minister of defence, in a 'series of tactical counter-terrorism exercises'. That gives rise to fears that Russian soldiers will remain on Belarusian soil once the exercise has ended. People in the Kremlin are very clear about the fact that an independent Belarus (even if that independence is only formal) on the borders of a timid and inward-looking EU risks becoming Europeanised in the medium term and could even emancipate itself from the former empire.”

Hospodářské noviny (CZ) / 15 September 2017

Putin's muscle flexing not for its own sake

Hospodářské noviny doesn't like the idea of Russia's military manoeuvre on the Nato and EU border at all:

“Zapad 2017 is of a 'purely defensive character' and is 'not aimed against any foreign state', we keep hearing. In spring 2014 Russia used a major military exercise to steal Crimea from Ukraine and stir up a war in Donbas. … Putin's muscle flexing is never done purely for its own sake. Nato should make sure that all contingents are withdrawn after the exercise. Everyone knows that appetite comes with eating. Putin has always relied on the military, first in Chechnya, then in Georgia and now in Ukraine and Syria. And tomorrow? Or the day after? We shouldn't believe that it won't be anyone else's turn soon.”

Handelsblatt (DE) / 15 September 2017

Deterrence and dialogue needed

For Handelsblatt two clear signals are now needed:

“First of all the West must focus on defence - also in the Baltic. No one should be convinced by the purported peace lovers' claims that the four Nato units in the East - the Enhanced Forward Presence - constitute an aggression against Russia. What they are is a clear signal that the West is not showing weakness. That was the basis for the success of Nato's double-track decision and Willy Brandt's 'Ostpolitik': a clear desire for defence coupled with an offer of dialogue. And that is the second component that will also be needed here: a willingness to engage in talks with Moscow about a joint security architecture for the continent that Gorbachev once called the 'Common European Home', as well as a first attempt at arms control and disarmament.”

Keskisuomalainen (FI) / 14 September 2017

All they want to do is practice

There's no point making such a big fuss about the military exercises currently taking place in the Baltic region, Keskisuomalainen stresses:

“A fearsome debate about the manoeuvres is already underway. They've been interpreted as sabre-rattling and a first step towards a war. Such interpretations are misguided, irresponsible, and propagandist exaggerations. The Russian manoeuvre is a normal troop exercise. It only stands to reason that a big state wants regular training for its troops. In the same way Sweden, the US and Finland are carrying out exercises and practicing military cooperation in Sweden. Military manoeuvres are normal activities for armies. The only thing that can be concluded from the size and frequency of the manoeuvres is the importance given by politicians to the respective armies.”

Expressen (SE) / 14 September 2017

Peace activists helping the Kremlin

The peace movement is harshly criticising the military exercise Aurora, which is taking place at the same time as Zapad. This plays right into Putin's hands, Expressen complains:

“It certainly is strange that the Greens in Gotland are lying and portraying a Swedish defence manoeuvre as an offensive Nato manoeuvre, which is an image that Russia too is fond spreading. Putin's Russia is investing a lot to influence opinion in the West. And just like during the Soviet era, the Kremlin is receiving help from the peace movement. A peace movement that attracts parliamentarians and members of government. This can definitely be described as a security problem.”

Tvnet (LV) / 12 September 2017

Will Russia become another North Korea?

Russia is becoming increasingly isolated internationally, former Latvian defence minister Artis Pabriks notes on Tvnet:

“Of course Russia can insist that the purpose of the military exercises is not to attack or occupy neighbouring countries. ... Nevertheless the aggressive nature of the manoeuvre raises concerns that this rhetoric doesn't reflect Russia's true intentions. ... Russian propaganda portraying the West as an arch-enemy is growing ever louder. The idea is to keep the relations with the West on a hostile footing. However in this way the Kremlin is increasingly isolating itself, and limiting its possibilities to change its position. With this course Russia threatens to follow in the footsteps of North Korea, which is also isolated and also blackmails its neighbours militarily.”

Lietuvos žinios (LT) / 12 September 2017

Zapad - a highly symbolic name

The choice of the name Zapad alone shows how much hatred of the opponent exists in Russia, writes Vytautas Landsbergis, the first Lithuanian head of state after the country gained independence in 1990, commenting in Lietuvos žinios:

“This major, fearsome manoeuvre is called "West". That is the name of the global enemy and we, too, are on this list (Ukraine isn't quite yet because the goal is to destroy it before it turns to the West). ... Since our rival thinks globally and ideologically (a legacy of communism), it hopes to unite all the forces in the East on its side. This is also how Brics [the association of five emerging economies] was conceived, as a counterweight to the democratic Atlantic alliance. For its own citizens, who have long since been brainwashed, the Kremlin is stressing the target of this offensive: the evil West, which must be destroyed.”

Savon Sanomat (FI) / 12 September 2017

Finland should not provoke Russia

Finnish Defence Minister Jussi Niinistö has proposed that a joint military exercise could also take place in non-Nato member state Finland. Savon Sanomat is sceptical about the idea:

“This is a double-edged sword. On the one hand a major military manoeuvre would send the message to Russia that Finland is part of the West, well prepared and enjoys the support of the Nato partners, even if a joint military exercise on Finnish soil would also no doubt help to improve Finland's military readiness. On the other hand the message would remain unclear for us, because the manoeuvre would not be followed up by the security guarantees that Nato membership offers. In its information war Russia could interpret the measures to suit its own interests and use them as a pretext for unpleasant countermeasures.”

15min (LT) / 11 September 2017

No need to fear Moscow

15min explains why the Baltic states needn't fear Russian aggression after the manoeuvre:

“The Baltic region has dropped at least to sixth place on Russia's list of priorities. First place is now held by the Middle East (and not just Syria). Second place is taken by the Arctic, while the Balkans and the Black Sea Region are joggling third and fourth place. And the war in Ukraine is also not yet a thing of the past. For that reason we occupy sixth place at most on the Kremlin's agenda. So we shouldn't expect anything dramatic on this front. And we also shouldn't forget that even if Russia has a strong army, it's not a superpower and it wouldn't waste its resources. And what's more, Nato has now shifted its attention to our region.”

Svenska Dagbladet (SE) / 12 September 2017

Military exercises a prerogative for all countries

The Swedish military also began its Aurora 17 exercise on Monday. Critics say the exercise is an unnecessary provocation for Moscow but Svenska Dagbladet rejects this argument:

“If a country practices its defence manoeuvres this is not dubious behaviour - or at least it shouldn't be. Nonetheless the criticism and the protests of the peace movement have been harsh ever since Aurora was first announced. By contrast there have been hardly any protests against the Russian Zapad 17 exercise, which is almost five times as large as the Swedish one. The 'Stop Aurora' website repeats the Kremlin's version that Russia is only reacting defensively to an external provocation - even though the Zapad exercise has been carried out repeatedly since the 1970s. The argument that the Russian manoeuvre is simply a reaction to Swedish 'aggression' is absolutely unrealistic.”

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