Starting Thursday, a fictional state, Veishnoriya, a distillation of the Kremlin’s darkest fears about the West, has become the target of the combined military might of Russia and its ally Belarus.
The nation was invented to provide an enemy to confront during a six-day joint military exercise that is expected to be the biggest display of Russian military power since the end of the Cold War.
The exercise, known as Zapad-2017, is the latest iteration of a series of training maneuvers that began under the Soviet Union in the 1970s. After a long break following the collapse of communism, Zapad was revived in 1999 and then was expanded after Vladimir Putin became president at the end of that year.
Zapad, “west” in Russian, used to include military forces from countries under the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet-led military alliance whose non-Soviet members have now all joined Nato. Today, the military exercise has shrunk to just two participants — Russia and Belarus — but it is still viewed warily by military planners in the West.
In this video, Defense Updates looks at 5 aspects, which make ZAPAD-2017 scary.
Lets get started.
The West has been bracing for the Russian exercises for months. Then, late last month, a scenario outlined by the military leadership in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, described the main task for this year’s Zapad program: to repel aggression by Veishnoriya, a fictional country that is backed by the West and intent on driving a wedge between Russia and Belarus. The scenario also includes two other fake countries, Lubeniya and Vesbasriya, which form a coalition with Veishnoriya to menace Russian security.
It comes at a time of deteriorating relations between Russia and the West, with Washington and Moscow trading diplomatic penalties seemingly weekly. From bitter experience over Russian election meddling and military adventurism in recent years, Western officials have developed a deep distrust of the Kremlin’s motives and its proclamations of good intentions.
Moscow and Minsk insist that this week’s Zapad exercise will involve just 12,700 troops. This means that, like all previous Russian military exercises since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, it weighs in just under the 13,000-troop threshold and is therefore is free of observers from the West.
But Estonia’s defense minister, Margus Tsahkna, has pointed to a tender issued this year by Russia’s Ministry of Defense for more than 4,000 railway wagons to transport military equipment and soldiers to Belarus. The figure suggests that far bigger military contingents would be on the move than declared, the minister said, a sign that Moscow may intend to leave some behind.
The three fake countries at the center of the Zapad-2017 drills have taken on a virtual life of their own online. While it is not clear who is behind it, a clearly pro-Western satirical Twitter account issues regular announcements in the name of the Veishnoriya Ministry of Foreign Affairs and displays pictures of the fake country’s passport, flag, national currency and other national symbols, all of them invented.
“We are deeply concerned about the concentration of Belarusian military equipment at the borders of Veishnoriya,” reads one message posted by the nonexistent nation’s Foreign Ministry. Others include a call for volunteers from “brotherly countries” to repel an invasion from the east and warnings that Veishnoriyans are “warlike beasts” who will not surrender.
A declassified CIA report on Soviet military exercises prepared in the 1980s said that deception was always a central feature of Moscow’s training program, with Soviet forces deploying elaborate ruses to camouflage the real number of troops and purpose of their major exercises. It noted that a Soviet naval exercise designed to practice landing troops on islands off Denmark, a member of Nato, had been disguised as training devoted to the defense of Soviet shores.
Measures taken to deceive Nato, the CIA report said, included leaking fake information on Soviet radio frequencies monitored by the West and planting disinformation through human agents. In some cases, the Soviet military deployed special “camouflage forces” that operated “in totally different regions” from those taking part in a real exercise “so as to mislead Nato intelligence.” It also generated phony radio traffic “in a manner intended to deceive foreign intelligence to the type of the exercise, its aim, conduct etc.”