Every four years Russia stages a large multi-day national military preparedness exercise in different strategic regions of the vast country. The strategic regions are East, Central, Caucasus and West. Russia will hold these exercises this year in its West or Baltic Region. Zapad means West in Russian. Hence the maneuvers have come to be called the Zapad maneuvers.
The Baltic is home to several NATO members and NATO, led by the US, is conducting parallel military exercises in the area because there are some concerns that Russia could use the military exercises as a means to quickly execute a sizeable military build-up and threaten a NATO nation. A more pressing concern is that an accident or mistake could escalate into an international crisis, and being on alert will help to more accurately assess all occurrences.
The whole affair is conducted against the backdrop of strained relations between the US and Russia. Russia has been subjected to economic sanctions since its annexation of Crimea in March 2014. Russia has also been accused of “meddling” in the recent US election. On August 31, 2017, the US State Department ordered Russia to close consulate offices in San Francisco, Washington D.C. and New York City. This order came after the US had announced compliance with a parallel order from Russia dictating the removal of over 750 US diplomatic personnel from Russia.
A more profound cause of strain is that Russia’s successful intervention in Syria represents a return to the world stage as a global superpower and competitor to the US with respect to arms sales, military protection and international political influence. On August 30, 2017, the New York Times reported that Russian leaders are candidly hopeful that the new weapons it tested in Syria will lead to a spike in its international arms sales.
Russian arms sales in 2016 totaled $15 billion, second in international sales only to the US, which had approximately $45 billion. Russian weaponry in demand includes relatively new Su-30 and Su-35 fighter jets, helicopter gunships and electronic warfare systems. Russia projects that sales this year will give it a slightly higher percentage of the global military aircraft market than that of the US.
Arms sales and military protection are hot button issues in places like Libya, a country considered ‘in play’ between the two spheres of influence. Russia estimates that it lost about $4 billion in sales in Libya since NATO orchestrated the fall of el-Qaddafi in 2011 and is anxious to return to a position of influence in Libya and in other parts of Africa, recovering a role as power broker that it lost after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Due to the strained relations between the US and Russia, Russia’s Zapad maneuvers are receiving some news coverage that is sensationally fearful. One of the goals of the exercise is, in fact, to impress upon the West the dire consequences of a military incursion into Russia (or Russia’s close ally Belarus) and in that regard, Zapad is already a success and a not unwelcome reminder about the consequences that war invites.