Understanding Russia’s “Zapad” Military Exercises

Recent Russian war games in Belarus have raised fears in Washington that the “real” aim of the exercises is staging for a military incursion into Poland or the Baltic States. To reach such a conclusion, one must be ignorant of, or blatantly ignore, 20th century Russian and Soviet history, as well as willingly distort any sensible understanding of geography.

The exercises’ name — “Zapad” in Russian — means “West.” Although any time “West” and “Russia” are mentioned in the same sentence, it is enough to frighten Western governments and media into doomsday rhetoric, but a rational look at Russian history and geography may elicit a less hysterical reaction to Russia’s actions. Unfortunately, rather than relying on facts, the US corporate media too often use stereotypes and fear-mongering to shape public opinion. Consequently, the perception that Russia’s intentions are always aggressive and must be met with force or the threat of force rests on a Cold War-era stereotype originated by George F. Kennan in 1946. In his “Long Telegram,” Kennan claimed that the Soviet was irrational but “highly sensitive to the logic of force.”

From the Cold War through Trump’s election, this dangerous trope has shaped US foreign policy and public opinion regarding any perceived enemy threat. To a limited extent, Trump’s administration has challenged this groupthink on Russia but embraced it concerning North Korea. Yet where some understanding of US enemies prevails, so does the belief that it might be possible to work diplomatically with US adversaries rather than confront them militarily. For example, The New York Times reported that in a July 2017 survey of 1,746 US citizens, only 36 percent could place North Korea on a map. Interestingly, the Times noted that the majority of those who could find North Korea were more likely to support diplomacy rather than aggression.

The Times survey gives hope to those who believe with late US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara that the US must empathize with its enemies. McNamara stated, “We must try to put ourselves inside their skin and look at us through their eyes just to understand the thoughts that lie behind their decisions and their actions.” A cursory reading of current US government pronouncements and mainstream media reports focused on Russia would lead one to believe that there is little empathizing going on. In fact, the government and media appear to be engaging in rhetorical gymnastics that would make the “doublethink” masters of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth proud.

In a classic “double think” confrontation in 2014 about perceived Russian expansion that remains immensely instructive, Matt Lee of The Associated Press asked State Department Spokesman John Kirby, “Is it not logical to look at this and say the reason that the Russian army is at NATO’s doorstep is because NATO has expanded rather than the Russian’s expanding? In other words, NATO has moved closer to Russia rather than Russia moving closer to NATO.” Kirby defended the US view that Russia had moved closer to NATO by claiming, “NATO is not an anti-Russia alliance.” Lee countered with the fact that “for 50 years it was an anti-Soviet alliance. … Do you not understand how, or can you not even see how, the Russians would perceive it as a threat?”

Kirby defended his lack of understanding by admitting, “I barely got a history degree at the University of South Florida.” More disturbing than the other State Department officials in the briefing room laughing at this lack of historical understanding is the tragedy that Kirby’s proud ignorance is more the rule than the exception among US officials and corporate media.

Unfortunately for Kirby and other US officials who make light of misunderstanding the past, history is vital to comprehending Russian policy. Russian historical memory and worldview is shaped by invasions by hostile powers dating back to the 13th century Mongol destruction of Kievan Rus. More recent memories of the Allied Polar Bear Expedition in support of Tsar Nicholas II during the Russian Civil War (1918-1920) or the two 20th century German invasions that devastated Russia and the Soviet Union color Putin’s and the average Russian’s perception of NATO’s intentions.

Russian leaders, weary of this history, do not always take NATO’s stated intentions in Eastern Europe at face value. Intentions change quickly, as Russian Tsar Alexander I learned in 1812 when Napoleon invaded Russia with 600,000 troops — at that time, the largest military force ever assembled in human history. Neither the Tsar’s 1807 alliance with Napoleon nor Napoleon’s stated goal of spreading the ideals of the French Revolution saved Moscow from conflagration. In 1941, Hitler assembled a 4 million strong force that dwarfed Napoleon’s and stormed across the USSR’s western boundaries, breaking the famed Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. The most devastating conflict in world history raged in the lands where Russia now conducts military exercises to protect its autonomy. That conflict extinguished 27 million Soviet lives.

To ignore this historical reality in analyzing Russia’s current “Zapad” military exercises is to leave out a vital component essential in understanding Russia’s intentions in neighboring states. Furthermore, this collective ignorance makes it very easy for the US public to swallow uncritically the belligerent words of the head of the US Army in Europe that Russia might use the exercises as a “Trojan Horse” to facilitate attacks on Poland and Russian speaking regions of the Baltic.

That said, historical understanding does not mean that Putin’s administration does not have designs on forcing its Western neighbors into the Russian fold. However, it might provide some rational insight into why that might be the case. For now, US corporate media and government seem content to portray Putin’s plans as irrational and aimed solely at forcing former Soviet states into the Russian sphere of influence. The possible result of this fixed mindset could be conflict.

Given the nuclear capacity of the US and Russia, a more nuanced approach to understanding Russia’s intentions is needed to avert catastrophe.