Russia has begun its biggest war game in years on land, in the air, and on the sea bordering NATO's smallest and weakest member states. No fewer than 12,000 troops, 70 warplanes, 250 tanks, and 10 warships are officially scheduled to wage mock warfare from Sept. 14 to Sept. 20 in Belarus and Russia and on the Baltic and Barents Seas.
The "Zapad 2017" training exercise, a joint effort between the Russian and Belarusian militaries, involves some of the latest Russian-made weaponry. But the war game is equally notable for the weapons that aren't involved.
Despite a resurgence under President Vladimir Putin, Moscow's armed forces still can't deploy stealth fighters or the latest tank models. And Russia's sole aircraft carrier, the aged Admiral Kuznetsov, is also unavailable for training.
The equipment shortfalls help to explain why Jussi Niinistö, Finland's defense minister, described Zapad 2017 as a propaganda exercise. “Western countries have taken the bait completely," Niinistö said. "They’ve plugged the exercises so much.”
Zapad 2017 is the latest edition of a long-running war game meant to "train troops for combat in isolated areas against the actions of illegal armed formations," according to the Belarusian defense ministry. Putin was scheduled to personally observe the training on Russian soil.
"The exercise is purely defensive, and does not target any country or group of states," the Russian defense ministry stated.
But those assurances did little to calm NATO and neutral countries near the exercise zone. "I believe it is clear that we are witnessing yet another Russian demonstration of power and capabilities," German defense minister Ursula von der Leyen said.
Von der Leyen accused Russia of undercounting the number of troops involved in Zapad 2017 by an order of magnitude. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, an international body that monitors the military balance of power on the continent, requires that countries either limit their war games to no more than 13,000 troops—or invite foreign officials to observe the training.
Moscow invited NATO observers, but limited them to viewing only a small part of the exercise. In the end, the Western alliance sent just two officials.
Wary of Moscow's intentions, Ukraine mobilized troops along its border with Russia. Sweden hosted its own major war game to coincide with Zapad 2017. The United States sent 600 paratroopers to the NATO Baltic states—Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia—in advance of the Russian-Belarusian war game.
The exercise kicked off weeks before its official start date. Army logisticians began staging equipment and supplies on training ranges in Russia and Belarus. The Belarusian air force practiced operating MiG-29, Yak-130, and Su-25 warplanes from a highway.
The Russian navy sortied 50 warships from ports on Russia's northern coast toward Russia's maritime border with Norway. The flotilla included the nuclear-powered battlecruiser Pyotr Velikiy—one of the world's largest warships at 827 feet long—plus several submarines.
Officially, these initial training events weren't part of the main Zapad war game, thus helping Moscow to keep the main exercise below the 13,000-troop threshold. As the main war game began on Sept. 14, Russian paratroops practiced launching Orlan-10 drones. Russian S-300 air-defense missile launchers maneuvered to simulated launch positions.
Russian air force and navy Su-27, Su-30 and Su-35 fighters flew mock air patrols. "The enemy has no chance," quipped Sputnik, a Russian propaganda website.
At least six of Russia's Tu-22 bombers flew a simulated attack on naval vessels on the Baltic Sea. One of the bombers crashed back at its base, although it appears the crew safely ejected.
Notably missing from Zapad 2017 and its associated events were Russia's most advanced and potentially most powerful weapon systems. The army's new T-14 tank is still in testing. And a Russian official recently admitted the country would only build 100 of the tanks by 2020—thousands fewer than Moscow previously claimed.
The air force's new Su-57 stealth fighter likewise is still undergoing testing. The plane's builder announced it would deliver just a dozen of the twin-engine jets to the military by 2019. By comparison, the U.S. Air Force declared its own F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters combat-ready in 2005 and 2016, respectively.
As for Admiral Kuznetsov, Russia's sole aircraft carrier—the vessel is in a shipyard for repairs following its disastrous first-ever deployment, to Syria, in the summer of 2017. During the brief deployment, two of the carrier's 15 fighter planes crashed while trying to land.
The United States and its NATO allies together possess no fewer than 14 aircraft carriers operating hundreds of planes.
So while the scale and proximity of the Zapad 2017 war game startles nearby countries, the major absences from the exercise undercut the threat the Russian mobilization seems to pose. Moscow can still send thousands of troops, hundreds of vehicles, scores of warplanes and tens of major warships to a neighboring country and near waters... and inspire alarming headlines all over the world.
But these forces are relatively few in number and lacking in sophistication. Zapad 2017 is pretend war whose propaganda value is all too real.