Despite its conclusion just over a month ago, Russia’s military exercise Zapad 2017 has left western observers with many unanswered questions.
The exercise, which officially ran from September 14-20 highlighted Russia’s capabilities across the Western Military District – in conjunction with the armed forces of the Republic of Belarus. However, an evaluation of publicly available sources reveals Russian military activity in and around the Baltic sea which extended throughout the entirety of the summer and well after the conclusion of Zapad on September 20th. These exercises offer critical insights into both mainstream and oft-neglected security challenges facing the Baltic Sea region.
The summer of 2017 was a busy season for the Russian navy. On July 5th, simultaneous military exercises involving some 20 vessels in the Baltic Sea, and Airborne Forces (VDV) involving around 2,500 soldiers in the Pskov region (adjacent to Estonia and Latvia) took place. According to TASS reporting, the exercises also included amphibious operations on the Khmelevka range in Kaliningrad.
Following the official debut of Russia’s most recent strategic Naval document on July 20th Chinese and Russian vessels for the first time conducted joint exercises in the Baltic Sea. To top off the month, an estimated 40 vessels and submarines from the Baltic and Northern fleets, including the flagship of the Northern Fleet, Peter the Great (Pyotr Veliky) and Russia’s largest remaining nuclear missile submarine, Dimitry Donskoy, participated in Russia’s Naval Day Parade on July 30th. The event also showcased a host of new systems, including the Ivan-Gren, the first of its class of amphibious landing ships, as well as the Admiral Makarov, the third of Russia’s latest class of Admiral Grigorovich frigates.
August 1st witnessed several significant Russian military activities in the Baltic Sea region. Russian MoD statements indicated that the 18 Baltic Fleet ships which participated in the St. Petersburg Naval Day Parade event began their return to Baltiysk while also conducting a number of exercises with ships belonging to the Northern Fleet, including Peter the Great, Dimitry Donskoy, and likely the Marshal Ustinov a Slava-class cruiser, and the Vice-Admiral Kulakov a Udaloy-Class destroyer. The following day, on August 2nd, Russian Naval and Marine forces conducted amphibious exercises on Russian islands in the Gulf of Finland - Bolshoi Tyuters, Gogland, and Moshchny - using Raptor-Class fast patrol boats that had entered into service in 2013.
These amphibious activities are no doubt significant, when considered alongside later amphibious exercises that occurred throughout Zapad, including alleged simulated invasion of Norway’s Svalbard Archipelago sends clear signals that Russia retains a credible littoral capability. Despite acquisition challenges – amphibious platforms appear to remain a priority area of procurement for the Russian navy. Earlier in July, one of two Russian Zubr-class hovercraft made an appearance in St. Petersburg for the International Maritime Defence Show (IMDS). The appearance also coincided with the announcement that the Russian Ministry of Defense is considering renewed production of the amphibious assault vehicle.
In the weeks leading up to Zapad 2017, both the Baltic Sea and Northern fleets underwent a number of training exercises highlighting conventional surface warfare and amphibious capabilities. Several noteworthy activities included ‘anti-terrorists’ or anti-special forces exercises as Center for Naval Analyses’ Michael Kofman writes.
On a familiar front, Anti-Access/Aerial Denial (A2/AD) systems also made several appearances outside of the official Zapad 2017 timeline. In line with the uptick of activities on July 5th, the Russian Ministry of Defense also indicated that it had conducted electronic launches of Iskander-M (SS-26 Stone) and Tochka-U (SS-21 Scarab) systems in the Leningrad oblast. In subsequent weeks – S-300 and S-400 systems were used on the 7th and 15th of September in live fire and electronic launch exercises. There was at least one reported live launch of an Iskander-M missile on September 18th.
The sum of recent exercises indicates that the Russian Navy, in particular, is a growing power in the Baltic Sea region and is well on track to recover from its years of neglect following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Aside from the importance of Russia’s strategic signaling, its activities in the Baltic Sea and elsewhere are worth watching, particularly as Russia is showing greater technical ability and assertiveness.
It is important to underscore that the aforementioned Naval activities coincided with a significant number of military exercises of other Russian armed services outside of the official Zapad 2017 timeline. This suggests that perhaps Russian military’s activities throughout July, August and September should be considered in temporal evaluations of Zapad’s true timeline. At a regional level, examinations of events September 14-20 only tell part of the story.