The joint Belarusian-Russian strategic military exercise Zapad 2017 may have generated more international interest than any previous Russian exercise since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The context included the marked deterioration of Russian relations with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) caused by Moscow’s actions in Ukraine since February 2014, nervousness on both sides concerning planning and intentions, as well as continued disagreements across a broad swathe of issues. Post-exercise reporting in Russia has been relatively sober in assessing its outcome and possible lessons, while Western speculation has continued concerning whether Moscow left any troops behind in Belarus (Mil.ru, October 6). Indeed, the Russian perspectives on Zapad 2017 are in stark contrast to many of the themes that emerged in NATO countries, reflecting the chasm of difference in how the exercise is interpreted.
One of the distinctions in coverage observed in post-exercise Russian military media commentaries concerns the frenzy of speculation in NATO capitals about the possible scale of Russian military personnel deployed during Zapad 2017. Claims from Kyiv that the exercise numbers could even reach 200,000 or 300,000 were easily dismissed as hyperbole. Still, Western analysts and governments eagerly watched for signs of a covert Russian military presence in the aftermath of the exercise concluding. Some commentaries in Moscow noted the figures touted by the German government, and attacked such misinterpretations. The levels of concern and anxiety in European countries over the exercise were also highlighted by Moscow releasing figures on the spike in foreign reconnaissance flights near Russia’s borders during the exercise period (Izvestia, October 6; Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, September 22).
Prior to the exercise, Germany’s Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen publicly asserted that Russia would send up to 100,000 personnel to Zapad 2017. Although this also seems massively exaggerated, the official Russian defense ministry claim that it was meeting the standards set out by the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Vienna document by remaining below the 13,000 threshold are certainly false. Russian sources, however, stress that the German defense minister’s comments exemplified the West’s propensity to inflate the exercise numbers, fitting a pattern in NATO assertions about Zapad 2017 and castigating some of the claims made by Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, Commander US Army Europe. Leyen’s adherence to the 100,000 figure most likely seized on the number mentioned in her briefings as a possible uppermost scale of Russian involvement, and she chose to use this without regard to more conservative estimates. But in the Russian media coverage since Zapad 2017 ended on September 20, these instances provide grist to the mill for a narrative that there should have been no fuss from NATO over a standard and long-planned strategic exercise—with none of the scaremongering borne out by events (RIA Novosti, October 7).
Whatever concerns NATO and its member governments held about the exercise, it is clear that the Russian General Staff had entirely different priorities in conducting the drills. These covered a broad range of themes, ranging from utilizing a wide array of precision-strike systems to testing command and control, strategic mobility, interoperability with Belarus’ forces, air defense, and anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities. While some would argue the September maneuvers looked like “big war,” from a Russian perspective it was more about rehearsing conflict escalation control—that is, preventing a conflict on its periphery from escalating to a global war (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, September 27; Bmpd.livejournal.com, September 20; Krasnaya Zvezda, September 17).
One area that the General Staff paid close attention to was enhanced strategic mobility—which has in fact featured as an integral part of strategic-level exercises since the Armed Forces reforms were initiated in late 2008. General Staff interest in this area has further surged following Moscow’s intervention in Syria, which necessitated the construction of air and sea lines of supply to support Russian forces during ongoing combat operations. It has also grown in importance due to the downturn in relations with the North Atlantic Alliance; senior Russian officers appreciate that if conflict breaks out with NATO on Russia’s periphery, speed of action, moving combat units, and denying the arrival of enemy follow-on forces will shape the outcome. This interest is also organic in nature, stemming from the reform of the military logistics system in 2010 into the Materialno-Tekhnicheskogo Obespechenie (Material-Technical Support—MTO), with all its inherent complexities and its evolution into a more efficient combat support service. The system, using improvements drawing on experience from Syria, was tested last year, in the Kavkaz 2016 war game. Reportedly, the MTO was again tested during Zapad 2017, partly explaining the ordering of more than 4,000 train cars for the exercise (see EDM, September 13).
Zapad 2017 tried and tested the improvements to the MTO based on the experience of supporting operations in Syria and addressed some of the weaknesses identified during Kavkaz 2016. Reportedly, since Kavkaz 2016, a number of significant improvements have been introduced to facilitate faster and more efficient use of the MTO. These include, speeding up delivery of spare parts, improving interaction with the defense industry, and greatly aiding the speed of repair and maintenance for deployed units. This also involved linking the MTO to automated systems, using improved diagnostic tools to identify problems, and integrating the work of the MTO across strategic, operational and tactical levels (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, October 4).
Zapad 2017 failed to deliver the near-doomsday scenario offered by some NATO governments. However, beyond the mythology surrounding the exercise, it yielded an opportunity for Moscow to try out a whole variety of systems, test automated command and control, and rehearse the conduct of operations in an electromagnetically challenging operational environment. Many of these features will prove to be of lasting concern to NATO planners, but the testing and improvements in the capability of the MTO may also cause anxiety. Russia’s Armed Forces are becoming more professional and adroit in moving, supplying and maintaining forces in the field. And since any potential conflict with NATO would most likely occur on Russia’s periphery, the enhancement of speed of movement and supply should be a source of real concern for the transatlantic Alliance.
Orthodox Fundamentalists Backed by Russian Siloviki, Scholar Says
Many have wondered why the Russian government has not come down harder on what some are calling “the Orthodox Jihad,” radical groups within the Russian Orthodox Church that, despite opposition from the Moscow Patriarchate, have engaged in various illegal actions—including attacks on movie theaters that plan to show the controversial film Matilda. Some have suggested that the regime does not want to inflame the situation by creating martyrs. But the real reason, local political expert Yekaterina Schulmann says, is that the Orthodox radicals are allies of groups within the Russian force structures (siloviki). And because the behavior of these Orthodox radical groups actually supports the interests of their siloviki allies (notwithstanding the latter’s public pronouncements to the contrary), the “Orthodox Jihad” enjoys a certain level of protection from actions by other officials (Dozhd, October 6).
At the end of the Russian Imperial period, the tsarist secret police actively and notoriously backed the Black Hundreds and other radical Orthodox and nationalist groups in the hopes that such factions could defeat the enemies of the regime. Similarly, at the end of the Soviet period, the KGB created or sponsored various organizations, from the virulently nationalist Pamyat to the Liberal Democratic Party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, in the expectation that such groups could help that regime survive.
Now, Vladimir Putin’s government appears to be pursuing the same tactics again, selecting from the various radical groups on offer, supporting some while suppressing others, and using the former in the expectation that, whatever officials say in public, these groups will help defend Putin’s rule. It may well be, Schulmann suggests, that in contrast to the past, the authorities are choosing among groups that have arisen on their own rather than creating them out of whole cloth; but the consequences are similar in that they open the way for groups nominally independent of the state to act illegally against those the state opposes or fears. Moreover, the use of such groups is especially attractive to the authorities because they can always be disowned if domestic opposition to them grows too strong (Dozhd, October 6).
As Schulmann points out, there are many Russian Orthodox parishioners, priests and even bishops who are “more radical” than Patriarch Kirill wants and who are fighting against him and his policies “by various means.” The Moscow political scientist further argues that they are able to do so because they enjoy the protection of the Kremlin’s force structures, including but not limited to the Federal Security Service (FSB). Many in the Orthodox Church hierarchy have long been connected with the security organs. These links are not only the result of the Soviet pattern of controlling the selection of all bishops and above; they are also due to existing Church institutions, such as the Synod’s department for work with the siloviki and police, which in the last decade has itself generated many radical leaders such as Archpriest Smirnov (Dozhd, October 6; Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, March 16, 2013; September 29, 2017).
All this, of course, is a flagrant violation of the provisions of the Russian Constitution, but it is also an indication of something even worse, according to Schulmann. She argues that “the level of indoctrination among elites of this same Orthodox fundamentalism is much higher than it is in society.” A “radical” difference in the religiosity between Russian elites and the Russian people has always existed—at least as public performance. But today, it has become an abyss, as highlighted by popular opposition to the government’s attempts to return to the Russian Orthodox Church properties seized by the Soviets—including most prominently St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg.
The upper elite of the government bureaucracy “thinks that all the public is just like it is” and will welcome what it proposes on such things. And thus, the Russian elite is delighted when people from within the Orthodox Church are prepared to confirm its prejudices, even when this turns out to be incorrect. In St. Petersburg, for example, the authorities have backed down somewhat precisely because they tried to take these steps openly in the expectation that they would receive public support (Dozhd, October 6).
Now, however, Schulmann’s analysis suggests, at least some among Putin’s siloviki are prepared to use the “Orthodox Jihad” to achieve what has turned out to be more difficult to do above board. That opens the way not only for more outrageously hyperbolic moves, such as the proposals to canonize Duma deputy Natalya Poklonskaya, who leads the anti-Matilda forces (Newizv.ru, October 8), but also for more violence against those who oppose the common program of the “Orthodox Jihad” and the siloviki.
One hopeful sign is visible in all this. Schulmann is a leading expert at the Presidential Russian Academy of Economics and State Service, an institution that often provides early warning indicators about coming changes in Kremlin policy. It thus may be the case that her comments, so disturbing on their face, reflect the fears of others in the presidential administration that the “Orthodox Jihad”–siloviki alliance risks spinning out of control, and they are now prepared to take action to dissolve it.