“Fear not, my lord, we will not stand to prate; Talkers are no good doers: be assured, we come to use our hands and not our tongues.”
Richard III, William Shakespeare
Alphen, Netherlands. August 22. On this day in 1485 King Richard III was defeated by Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth Field and lost his crown and his life. It seems somewhat fitting to write this as President Trump announces a re-commitment to Afghanistan (more on that later in the week) and in London soon-to-emerge Cabinet Office “review of capability” report will confirm a hole in the UK defence budget of anything between £10 billion and £30 billion. The British government will then demand the hole is filled from within the existing defence budget, which will in turn mean the abandonment of Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015, more cuts to an already lamentably small British force for a top five or six world economic power), and no doubt back to the ‘more with less’ nonsense which came close to breaking the British military. Things are a little different at the other end of Europe. Contrast Britain’s retreat from sound defence with Russia’s forthcoming Zapad (West) 2017 exercise in Belarus.
The official theme of Zapad 2017 is the “use of forces in the interests of ensuring the military security of the Union State”. Between 14 and 20 September, 2017 Russia, and its junior partner Belarus, (the so-called ‘Union State’) will conduct the largest military exercise in Europe since the Cold War. The exercise will take place close to the Belarussian border with Poland at Brest, as well as some 60 kilometres across NATO territory in Kaliningrad, the small Russian enclave and former German Konigsberg and Old Prussia. For Russians the location of the exercise is, indeed, dripping with historical significance. The heroic June 1941 defence of Brest fortress by Soviet forces against Hitler’s Wehrmacht has become a symbol of Russian resistance against ‘fascist’ Western aggression.
Russia and Belarus have formally said that Zapad 2017 will only involve the exercising of some 19,000 troops in the Western Military District, one of the Russian Federation’s four strategic operational commands. This is below the force level that requires formal notification of the exercise under the so-called Vienna Document to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). However, NATO and other analysts believe that Zapad 2017 will instead incorporate a massive series of wargames involving between 60,000 and 100,000 military and civilian personnel. Crucially, the exercise will also test Russian military and civilian readiness and effectiveness across a conflict spectrum that stretches from hybrid warfare to hyper warfare via cyber warfare, backed up by the threat of nuclear force and strengthening anti-air, area defence (A2/AD) capabilities – the new linear/non-linear order of twenty-first century strategic battle pioneered by the Russian Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces, General Valery Vasileyvich Gerasimov.
To be fair Minsk, and belatedly Moscow, are showing signs of some willingness to be transparent. Interestingly, it is Belarus that took the lead in this effort, suggesting the Union State is not quite the union Moscow would like to portray. In July, Minsk unilaterally invited arms inspectors and the defence attachés of NATO and non-NATO countries to attend as observers. Last week, on August 15, Moscow issued its own separate set of invitations.
Evidence would also suggest that all is not well with Russia’s military reforms, and in particular the state of morale amongst Russia’s elite formations in the Oblast. Several strike formations which were designed to be twenty-first century ‘shock armies’ manned by professional soldiers have been forced to undertake a form of muscular insurgency role in Ukraine. Pay has not been what was promised, and conditions for the troops are reported to be worse in some instances to those traditionally suffered by Russian conscripts. The training of key formations, such as the 1st Guards Tank Army, has also been stalled by the Ukraine imbroglio.
Still, Russia continues to play a now familiar game of strategic maskirovka (deception) over Zapad 2017. Moscow suggests that any criticism from the West of such a gargantuan exercise is in fact an attempt to return Europe back to the Cold War. Simply holding Zapad 2017 so close to the borders of EU members and NATO allies is an intemperate and irresponsible act of intimidation. NATO holds no exercises on anything like such a scale, and with nothing like the potential for offensive action. Sadly, Zapad 2017 fits into a well-established Russian penchant for sudden ‘snap’ exercises, big exercises, and snap, big exercises all of which are designed the keep the European democracies strategically, politically, and militarily off-balance.
NATO is worried by Zapad 2017. The problem for NATO and the West is that in the past Russia has used large-scale exercises as a prelude to war. Now, I am not suggesting for a moment that Russia is about to start another war in Europe, beyond the war it has already started in Ukraine. However, it is the nature of defence planning, or at least it should be (clearly not in London), that the worst-case must be assumed if there is no dialogue to the contrary, and that such scenarios must form the basis for sound defence planning.
Therefore, if Russia really wants to avoid creating the impression of a Europe sliding back towards a new cold war then all Russia has to do is desist with very large, expensive and dangerous exercises such as Zapad 2017. Oh, and stop no-notice snap exercises and other forms of intimidation, such as buzzing Allied ships in international waters, violating the well-established borders of Allied states, and seeking to destabilise said states with fake news and cyber-attacks. As the Russian meerkats say in a well-known British TV commercial for insurance products, “Simples!”
Still, I am not going to hold my breath any longer in the hope that the Putin regime does the common sense thing and seeks mutually-enriching friendship with its fellow Europeans. At the end of Shakespeare’s Richard III the defeated king cries out, “Slave, I have set my life upon a cast, And I will stand the hazard of the die: I think there will be six Richmonds in the field, Five I have slain to-day instead of him. A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse”.
As Russia postures and intimidates I wonder how many ‘horses’ Britain is about to cut? Not so ‘simples’.