That is not an unwarranted concern. Twice over the past decade — Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014 — the Kremlin has used the cover of an exercise as preliminary to an invasion. The “Zapad” maneuvers, held about every four years, are particularly threatening in that they frequently simulate the use of nuclear weapons.
This year’s exercises are also taking place in an area of heightened uncertainty. “Zapad 2017” will be centered in Belarus, which immediately borders Poland and two of the Baltic States. Increasingly, the aging dictator in Minsk, Alexander Lukashenko, has gotten himself crosswise with Vladimir Putin for his attempts to position Belarus as an interlocutor between Russia and Europe. Indeed, a significant concern for NATO is that Russian troops will arrive in western Belarus under the Zapad flag but never fully leave. Or, if they do leave, they leave behind military equipment that gives them a potential leg up in a future crisis with NATO.
From the Baltic to the Black Sea, Russia poses a proximate and growing threat not just to NATO-member states but also to the unfortunate few — like Georgia and Ukraine — caught in the no-man’s-land. And while the Kremlin-led army today is not the 4 million horde of the Cold War, it is not the rust-bucket military of the 1990s either. Flush with increased oil and gas revenues for much of the past decade, Russian forces have significantly improved, mixing modern means such as unmanned aerial vehicles and cyberattacks with traditional “Red Army” strengths such as political and electronic warfare, armor and massed firepower.
But the biggest advantage Putin’s forces have is that they’re there — as the Zapad exercise will demonstrate — and we’re not. Russia can concentrate a lot of power pretty much anywhere along that Baltic-to-Black-Sea line when they perceive weakness or opportunity. Judo-practicing Putin can yank NATO’s chain at will, putting pressure on West-leaning allies. as in the Baltics, or tilting domestic political scales that appear wobbly, as in Hungary and Bulgaria.