When thousands of Russian troops wheeled and maneuvered through the steppes of southern Siberia two years ago, as part of massive military exercises known as Tsentr, Western experts spotted something unusual.
Amid Defense Ministry orders for tank brigades, paratrooper battalions, motorized rifle divisions, and railroad cars carrying howitzers, there were orders for the federal fisheries agency.
"And I wondered, 'What the hell is the fisheries ministry doing?'" recalls Johan Norberg, senior military analyst at the Swedish Defense Research Agency. The eventual conclusion, he says, was that the Russian fisheries fleet was seen by military planners as an intelligence asset, playing a small role in national defense.
Tsentr-2015 strategic headquarters military exercises. Photo from Russian Kremlin.
It's an example offering a small window into not only how Russian commanders approach large-scale military games. It's also the kind of insight that Western analysts hope to gain beginning next week when one of the largest exercises Moscow has conducted on its western borders since the Cold War get under way: a real-world, real-time glimpse at what Russia's military is truly capable of, after years of institutional reforms.
The Zapad drills, taking place in Belarus and the regions east of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are formally kicking off on Sept. 14. They're the first to be held in close proximity to NATO member countries since Russia seized Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
For that and many other reasons, they are giving heartburn to NATO allies from the Baltic to the Black Sea, with some observers predicting that the number of participating personnel could exceed 100,000, along with tanks, artillery units, aircraft, and other equipment.
Though few, if any, Western planners anticipate any outbreak of hostilities with Russia, NATO states have taken steps to reassure their populaces and to show they are taking the Russians seriously. US Air Force fighter jets are now patrolling Baltic airspace; Poland is closing its airspace near Russia's Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad; and four NATO battle groups, featuring 4,500 troops, are on alert in the Baltics and Poland.
USMC Photo by Cpl. Janessa K. Pon.
That said, as much as anything, the Zapad exercises serve as a midterm exam for Russian armed forces and military planners, a measure of reforms made over the past decade.
"The exercise is actually a very good opportunity for us to... get a better sense of what the Russian military is actually capable of: how it can handle logistics, move different units, or, in an operation, exercise command and control over combined armed formations in the Baltic theater, which is the one we're principally concerned with, right?" says Michael Kofman, a senior research scientist at CNA Corporation and a fellow at the Kennan Institute in Washington.
"This one is a lot more interesting to us because we don't plan on fighting Russia in Central Asia," Kofman says.
Preparations have been ongoing for weeks, with large numbers of railroad cars shipping heavy weaponry and vehicles into Belarus and civilians mobilized at some large state-owned enterprises in Kaliningrad and elsewhere.
Zapad 13 military exercise. Photo from Russian Kremlin.
"As we've seen before, Russians train exactly as they intend to fight," Kristjan Prikk, undersecretary for policy at the Estonian Defense Ministry, said during a July event at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank. "Thus, Zapad will give ample information on their military development and certainly on their political thinking, as it is right now."
In 2008, when Russia invaded its former Soviet neighbor Georgia, its armed forces easily overcame Georgia's defenses and some of its US-trained personnel, but the five-day war showcased significant weaknesses. For example, some Russian officers were reportedly unable to communicate with others over existing radio frequencies and were forced to use regular mobile phones. Russian surveillance drones performed poorly.
Other reforms already under way at the time included a shift from the Soviet military structure, organized around divisions, to a smaller brigade structure and the increased use of contract, rather than conscripted, soldiers.
Zapad 13 military exercise. Photo from Russian Kremlin.
Reforms also included a substantial increase in defense budgets, something made possible by high world oil prices that stuffed Russia's coffers. A 10-year plan to upgrade weaponry and other equipment originally called for Russia to spend $650 billion between 2011 and 2020, according to NATO figures, though Western sanctions, plummeting oil prices, and the economic downturn in 2015-16 are believed to have slowed some purchases.
"They've had now, say, eight or nine years with plenty of money and the willingness to train, and they have a new organization that they want to test," Norberg says.
While the Defense Ministry conducts a cycle of exercises roughly every year, alternating among four of the country's primary military districts, Western analysts got a surprise lesson in early 2014 when Russian special forces helped lead a stealth invasion of Crimea and paved the way for the Black Sea region's illegal annexation by Moscow in March.
That, plus the outbreak of fighting in eastern Ukraine in the following months, offered a real-world laboratory for testing new tactics and equipment for Russian forces, including new drones, some manufactured with help from Israeli firms.
Pro-Russian rebels shoot in the air at funeral of a fellow fighter killed in a battle for Marinka near Donetsk. Eastern Ukraine, 6 June, 2015. Photo by Mstyslav Chernov
The Crimea invasion was preceded by the months of civil unrest in Ukraine's capital, Kyiv, which culminated in deadly violence and the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych.
For many Kremlin and defense thinkers, that was just the latest in a series of popular uprisings, fomented by Western governments, that toppled regimes and governments stretching back to Georgia in 2003 and lasting through the Arab Spring beginning in 2010.
The scenario that Russian and Belarusian commanders have announced ahead of Zapad 2017 hints at that thinking: The theoretical adversary is one seeking to undermine the government in Minsk and set up a separatist government in western Belarus.
Russia celebrating National Guards' Day. Photo from Moscow Kremlin.
Inside Russia, the thinking that NATO and Western governments used the popular uprisings as a strategy led to the reorganization of internal security forces, such as riot police and Interior Ministry special troops into a specialized National Guard under the command of President Vladimir Putin's former bodyguard. Some parts of that force, whose overall numbers are estimated at 180,000, are expected to participate in the Zapad exercises.
That, Kofman says, should yield insight into "how Russia will mobilize and deploy internal security forces to suppress protest and instability...basically how the regime will protect itself and defend itself against popular unrest."