Russia's large-scale military exercise Zapad, held in September together with Belarus, was neither an "anti-terror exercise" nor "purely defensive," but rather a dry run for a full-scale conventional war against NATO in Europe, German daily Bild reported, citing two analysts.
According to Bild's sources, the drill rehearsed the capture of the Baltic states and Belarus as well as a "shock campaign" against Western European NATO member states such as Germany and the Netherlands, but also against Poland, Norway and the non-aligned states of Sweden and Finland.
According to the two sources, Kremlin forces rehearsed capturing NATO's "region of vulnerability, according to the Russian view," namely the three Baltic states. "To realize this, you would have to quickly do the Suwalki gap operation" in order to cut off Poland and NATO reinforcements from Lithuania, they said. This is exactly what Russia did, creating the artificial state of "Veyshnoria" at the exact location of the 40-kilometer land bridge between Poland and Lithuania, but carried out on Belarusian territory.
At the same time, Russia rehearsed "neutralizing or taking under control air fields and harbors [in the Baltic states], so there are no reinforcements arriving from other NATO states there," Bild reported.
The sources emphasized that, in the case of an emergency, this would, in the first few days, be a purely military operation: "This does not mean that you have to occupy the countries and declare 'Peoples' Republics' or something like that, but that you have to occupy the harbors, airports and so on."
The sources revealed that the "Russian Air Force's strategic aviation, long-range aviation, took part in the exercise on two days, and conducted simulation flights over the Baltic Sea and the North Sea. They exercised bombings of Western European targets, and approaching the German and Dutch coast from the North Sea as well as the Swedish, Finnish and Polish mainland from the Baltic Sea. The drill included waves of Tu-95 strategic bombers as well as support aircraft such as fighter jets and refueling planes."
These bombers rehearsed launching missiles and cruise missiles, and returned to their bases before reaching NATO shores. In a real-life situation, their targets would include "critical infrastructure — that is, air fields, harbors, energy supplies and so on — in order to shock the countries and make the populations demand from their governments that 'we shouldn't be involved here, we should go for peace instead,'" the sources said.
In war, another aim of these Russian activities would be "to prevent [NATO armies] from taking military action, deploying troops and reversing Russian Army gains in the Baltics." Hence, German naval bases at the Baltic Sea and the North Sea would be prime targets for such aerial attacks. Although the sources did not know which German, and possibly Dutch, targets exactly the Tu-95 bombers were directed at, they stressed that this was part of their exercise in September.
"Of course, in wartime, Russian bombers would have approached from the East as well," the sources continued, "But in 'peacetime,' this attack direction [toward Germany] along the Norwegian coast would make sense." Russia could not practice strategic air attacks from the East due to the Belarusian and Ukrainian airspace between Russia and its potential targets. Moreover, the sources made it clear that strategic air raids would have been flanked by large-scale missile attacks on NATO targets, using Iskander tactical missiles in the Kaliningrad region for targeting NATO strategic assets in the Baltic Sea countries. It was "not clear, but likely" that such attacks were also rehearsed in the Zapad 2017 drills.
According to the sources, these risky maneuvers over the North Sea could demonstrate that Russia has planned "show of force attacks" that deeply penetrate Western-dominated air space and a "surprise element," as NATO missile defenses are better prepared in Eastern Europe than in NATO states like Norway, Denmark, the U.K., and Germany.
In order to cripple NATO's capacities in the event of a large-scale ground offensive against Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the exercise involved "anti-submarine warfare and air defense drills throughout the Baltic Sea," with a focus on the eastern Gotland Basin.
According to the Western intelligence sources interviewed, Sweden and Finland would come under attack in the case of a real war against NATO, and these attacks were rehearsed in September as well. "We know that, in case of war with NATO, Russia would not expect Sweden and Finland to remain neutral, although they are not part of NATO," the sources said. "Stockholm and Helsinki would allow NATO aircraft to use their airfields and so on." The source alleged that most Swedish and Southern Finnish air fields would thus come under attack by Iskander missiles as well.
Editor: Aili Vahtla