On Thursday, Russia begins one of its largest military exercises — Zapad (West) 2017 — in its western military district Kaliningrad and across neighboring Belarus.
The drills of Russia, Belarus, and smaller allies are scheduled to last about a week, but could be longer. They are part of a cycle of maneuvers every four years on the “West”, “Eastern”, “Central”, or “Caucasus” fronts. Western observers say up to 100,000 personnel may be involved; Moscow says “only” 13,000, but Russia is known to give just the number for one of several exercises.
With Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and intervention in eastern Ukraine, just to the south of Belarus, this year’s exercises take on added significance. Do they pose a threat to the Baltic States, north of Belarus? How do they fit into President Vladimir Putin’s signalling in a foreign policy which also includes a range of economic, psychological, cyber-, and disinformation operations? And do they also serve the purpose of trying to hold Belarus in line, given frictions in relations between Moscow and Minsk?
I covered all this ground and more in a chat with Dublin NewsTalk’s Pat Kenny Show on Wednesday.