Ka-52 attack helicopters
© RIA / Scanpix

The Russian-Belarussian exercise Zapad is defensive and poses no threat to neighbouring countries and the hysteria being incited by the Baltic States that it is an aggressive exercise aimed against NATO states is simply Russophobe seizures. So the Kremlin trumpeted in autumn. However German news media performed an investigation and indirectly admitted: Lithuania was right about Zapad.

The Kremlin and its supporters have been using various information channels for years now to send the message that the Baltic States' supposedly incited hysteria over aggressive Russian schemes against NATO are baseless, reek of Russophobia and the military activities the Kremlin is performing are peaceful, transparent and pose no threat to anyone.

However the German publication Bild, which has a readership in the millions, demolished such Kremlin statements based on several highly ranked Western intelligence service sources. This was not an "anti-terrorist, defensive exercise."

German readers of Bild must have been shocked by the famous journalist Julian Röpcke's article Putin's Zapad 2017 rehearsed large scale conventional warfare against NATO, where he states that Zapad 2017 was simply the rehearsal of a war with Alliance countries. And this was apparently not just the imitation of invasion of the Baltic States, but also strikes against NATO objects in Germany, the Netherlands and Norway, as well as the Alliance unaffiliated Sweden and Finland.

According to the sources, the Russian exercise was training at organised a shock campaign: to take the most important objects in "the most vulnerable NATO region – the Baltic States" within a week, ones such as ports, airports, to cut off the so-called Suvalkai Corridor between Lithuania and Poland.

"In order to accomplish these goals – cut off Lithuania from Poland and NATO reinforcements, it is necessary to rapidly occupy the Suvalkai Corridor. This was exactly what Russia did, creating the artificial state of Weisnoria in the 40km strip between Poland and Lithuania, this territory was imitated by Belarus.

Meanwhile Russia trained to occupy Baltic States' airports and seaports or to neutralise them, this way NATO reinforcements could not reach the states," one of the Bild's intelligence sources said. According to him, during the first days of war it would be a classical military operation, during which it wouldn't even be necessary to take over states or declare "People's republics" – it would be enough to occupy strategic objects.

Attack against German ports

However Germans must have been shocked even more not by the concealed scale of the exercise, but by intelligence statements of what could be Russian military targets other than the Baltic States during the exercise scenario.

"Russian military air force strategic aviation imitated attacks over the Baltic and North Sea for two days. They trained to bomb targets in Western Europe, closing in on German and Dutch shores from the North Sea and also close to Swedish, Finnish and Polish ports in the Baltic Sea.

Several waves of strategic Tu-95 bombers, accompanied by strike aircraft, fighters and refuelling aircraft trained in launching winged rockets at airports, seaports and enemy energy infrastructure. This aims to cause shock in countries whose citizens could demand to not be involved in the conflict and seek peace," the source stated.

According to Vilnius University Institute of International Relations and Political Science lecturer Nerijus Maliukevičius, such statements are big news. If just in summer it could have appeared that it was just the Baltics and Poland who were alarmed over Zapad, now the German media published Western intelligence evaluations that in the exercise Russia imitated the attack of Western European states such as German and the Netherlands, which is telling.

"The revelation of such a scenario is truly surprising. Such evaluations were not made thus far and this time there is talk of not just the elimination of the Baltic States which was observed in the exercise scenario, but also cutting off other NATO states from help.

As such it is now important to listen to not only unofficial source evaluations, but also those from official NATO state politicians, other officials because such talks fundamentally change the security environment. It is also an opportunity for our region to continue the discussion regarding the Zapad scenario, react based on the context," N. Maliukevičius said.

Germany and the Netherlands were not chosen as targets by coincidence. It is exactly here that a number of important communications and other headquarters are established, such as the NATO joint forces headquarters in Brunssum, meanwhile US reinforcements could be transported to these countries' ports, for example Bremerhaven. The blockade or direct attack on several ports could cause temporary confusion which Russia could use.

According to Bild, such strategic raids would be supported by large scale rocket attacks using the Iskander ballistic rockets from Kaliningrad Oblast against NATO targets in the Baltics. It is not fully clear, but likely that such attacks were rehearsed during Zapad 2017.

Furthermore risky Russian aviation manoeuvres over the North Sea may show that Russia planned to demonstrate its power, how Russian aviation is capable of penetrating Western airspace unexpectedly.

For example it was announced already before that Norway was concerned over Russian naval and aviation exercises, during which a bombing and occupation campaign of Svalbard, which belongs to Norway, was imitated.

Finally the Russian navy and air forces were particularly active in exercises intended to combat NATO submarines, particularly in the shallow Baltic Sea where Russian aviation also diligently exercised in anti-air, anti-sea combat and drilled skills to repel "NATO diversionary" attacks.

According to intelligence sources, Sweden and Finland would not be spared of attacks. Despite not being NATO members they cooperate with the Alliance and in the case of war would likely allow NATO to make use of their territory. "Most of Sweden and Southern Finland's ports would become targets for Iskander missiles," the sources stated.

Furthermore during the Zapad exercise, surprises were prepared for Northern Finland, however the Bild sources were unwilling to provide details, only emphasising that Russia gathered forces from other regions in the Kola Peninsula and this apparently shows that the Kremlin was aiming to drill its troops under the most realistic conditions possible in the regions where they would have to defend from NATO or Finnish aviation counter attacks.

That said, the sources did not detail how exactly Russian strategic aviation would be able to unexpectedly strike Western European objects protected by both their national and US troops. For example American fighters are deployed in both Germany and the UK and Russia simply does not have the capacities to neutralise radars present in those countries, anti-air defence systems and also strike targets in the Scandinavian countries.

Waiting for an official reaction

Nevertheless N. Maliukevičius pointed out that it was Bild that was chosen for disseminating information. While it may be a tabloid, it is also large, influential and has a vast audience, while the article was written by a reliable author who presented detailed information.

"Furthermore, speaking of citing anonymous intelligence sources, one could muse that this was an attempt by the institutions to unofficially release the information, thus the ball is now in the court of the officials," N. Maliukevičius said, highlighting that the intelligence community's evaluations chose also chose the most influential European state – Germany – for the disclosure, a country whose troops are deployed in Lithuania.

"It is a very important question over consequences. It is clear that the confirmation of such a scenario would also confirm our concerns, the strengthening of capacities, while in Germany, where pandering to Russia moods still exist, the reaction of the elite to such a scenario is important. We will see how Berlin reacts," the analyst did not venture to predict reactions from Germany.

After the Zapad exercises garnered massive attention, talks appeared in Lithuania that Lithuania had been reacting too sensitively, having rung alarm bells too loud. However now the intelligence evaluations published in Bild can, according to some analysts, help change the overall information background in Germany as well.

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