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Thomas Donnelly and Gary Schmitt: Russian military exercise known as "Zapad" is scheduled to begin this month in Belarus

There is concern among NATO allies that Zapad could be a cover for the preliminary to a Russian invasion

Editor’s Note: Thomas Donnelly and Gary Schmitt co-direct the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies, American Enterprise Institute. The opinions expressed in this commentary are theirs.

CNN  — 

Over the past several months, Western defense ministries and militaries have expressed anxiety over the large-scale Russian military exercise known as “Zapad,” or “West,” slated to begin in mid-September and to engage virtually every element of Russian forces. In late July, Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, commander of US Army Europe, warned that NATO allies fear “Zapad 17” could be a Russian “Trojan horse.”

That is not an unwarranted concern. Twice over the past decade — Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014 — the Kremlin has used the cover of an exercise as preliminary to an invasion. The “Zapad” maneuvers, held about every four years, are particularly threatening in that they frequently simulate the use of nuclear weapons.

Thomas Donnelly
Gary Schmitt

This year’s exercises are also taking place in an area of heightened uncertainty. “Zapad 2017” will be centered in Belarus, which immediately borders Poland and two of the Baltic States. Increasingly, the aging dictator in Minsk, Alexander Lukashenko, has gotten himself crosswise with Vladimir Putin for his attempts to position Belarus as an interlocutor between Russia and Europe. Indeed, a significant concern for NATO is that Russian troops will arrive in western Belarus under the Zapad flag but never fully leave. Or, if they do leave, they leave behind military equipment that gives them a potential leg up in a future crisis with NATO.

From the Baltic to the Black Sea, Russia poses a proximate and growing threat not just to NATO-member states but also to the unfortunate few — like Georgia and Ukraine — caught in the no-man’s-land. And while the Kremlin-led army today is not the 4 million horde of the Cold War, it is not the rust-bucket military of the 1990s either. Flush with increased oil and gas revenues for much of the past decade, Russian forces have significantly improved, mixing modern means such as unmanned aerial vehicles and cyberattacks with traditional “Red Army” strengths such as political and electronic warfare, armor and massed firepower.

But the biggest advantage Putin’s forces have is that they’re there — as the Zapad exercise will demonstrate — and we’re not. Russia can concentrate a lot of power pretty much anywhere along that Baltic-to-Black-Sea line when they perceive weakness or opportunity. Judo-practicing Putin can yank NATO’s chain at will, putting pressure on West-leaning allies. as in the Baltics, or tilting domestic political scales that appear wobbly, as in Hungary and Bulgaria.

Thus, the real problem with NATO is not just that member states have not invested enough in military capacity or capability but that the alliance hasn’t sufficiently realigned its forces to address the Russian threat. When the alliance expanded, its pledge not to posture troops in the new member states was conditional on the post-Cold War peace holding firmly. Those conditions no longer apply.

In 2014, the Obama administration took some halting steps to address this new reality. This created a “reassurance initiative” to gradually increase prepositioned stocks of munitions and allow for “heel-to-toe” rotations of an additional armor brigade from the United States to Europe at nine-month intervals. Congress approved $3.4 billion for this last year and also permitted the Army to increase its personnel strength slightly to fulfill these commitments.

Other NATO nations have taken similarly positive but halting steps. The British, Germans, French, and Canadians, among others, have promised to support rotations of “battlegroups,” small battalion-sized task forces of about 1,000 soldiers, through the Baltic States.

But these are as much gestures of political solidarity to our Baltic allies as reflections of serious military purpose. The troops involved are too few and too lightly armed. This summer’s heavily publicized NATO exercises are, in fact, a conglomeration of small and separate maneuvers — the “Summer Shield” exercise in Latvia, for example, counted around 1,100 troops from a dozen or so countries. Estimates are that “Zapad 2017” will involve 70,000 or more Russians. Stalin’s maxim— “Quantity has a quality all its own” — applies to strategic psychology as well as material conflict.

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    The United States and NATO have tremendous advantages in any competition with Russia but need to regain the initiative. This summer President Trump signed into law a package of sanctions, which, if fully implemented, will reduce the resources Putin can throw the Russian military’s way. Important for sure.

    But sanctions are not nearly as likely to impress Putin as an improved, more permanent NATO posture in Eastern Europe would. Such a step would increase doubts within the Kremlin about the likely success of an incursion and, in turn, reassure the border states along the Baltic-to-Black Sea line and deny Putin his larger goal of undermining confidence in the transatlantic security architecture. Being there, in numbers, would be an insurance policy worth the cost.