Zapad Ends But Beware of The Russian Bear

Beware of the Russian Bear

Now that Russia’s massive 100,000-man Zapad or “West” wargame with Belarus have come to an end, and other exercises across Russia are winding down, there are two events worth noting in the nuclear weapons realm that relate to Mr. Putin’s overall military strategy.

In the first noteworthy event, during the Zapad exercises geared to simulate war with NATO, Russia test-fired its road-mobile, nuclear-capable, SS-26 Iskander-M Short Range Ballistic Missile (SRBM) system in a successful launch. The Iskander SRBM flew 480 kilometers before hitting its target at the Makat range in Kazakhstan. The Iskander SRBM and its cruise missile variant are just under the threshold for theater-level nuclear weapons in Europe restricted by the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) of 1987. The INF Treaty excluded or prohibited weapons with ranges of between 500-5500 kilometers. Many observers believe that the Russians are hiding the true range of the Iskander series missiles, and that they are cheating on their INF Treaty commitments. The Iskander launch vehicle has similarities with a ‘legal’ conventional system allowed under the treaty and Russia has moved the Iskander system into its militarized Kaliningrad Oblast on the Baltic Sea sandwiched between Poland to the south and Lithuania to the north and east.

In the second event, Russia’s Strategic Rocket Forces conducted two successful launches of its new solid fuel, nuclear tipped RS-24M Yars Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) just ten days a part. The first test-firing came from a siloed RS-24 ICBM, while the second was from a road mobile unit, and both featured what the Russians have called a new experimental re-entry vehicle for the nuclear warheads. Observers believe that the new re-entry vehicles are not Hypersonic Glide Vehicles (HGV), but Maneuverable Re-entry Vehicles (MARVs), designed to penetrate missile defenses. Again, the US has accused the Russians of cheating on the recent Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) of 2010, saying that the new missile is a variant of the Topol M ICBM banned under treaty. As well, Russia continues to increase its strategic warhead stockpile also in violation of START 2010, with 259 more strategic nuclear warheads than it is allowed by agreement.

In terms of Russian military strategy, the launches come at a time of heighten concern about North Korean actions and potential conflict with the US and go to demonstrate the capabilities of Russians strategic and theater level nuclear deterrent related forces in both the West and East of the country. It is important to note that the Iskander system has recently been deployed opposite China in sizeable numbers. The deployment of Iskander missiles to the Kaliningrad Oblast also suggest that Russia is serious about taking on the West in Poland and the Baltic States and prepared to cheat on fundamental arms treaties to do so. The Iskander system would be very useful in a fight to cut off the Baltic States life-line to NATO through the vulnerable stretch of land called the Suwalki Gap that serves as a border between Poland and Lithuania, and that could be seized by Russian military units moving in a pincer south-east from Kaliningrad and north-west from Belarus.

As well, Russia has in the past used military exercises as a cover to invade both Georgia (2008) and Ukraine to seize the Crimea (2014). Russia has long had a significant military presence in Belarus and enjoys a strategic alliance with the former Soviet state. Only time will tell if Zapad was used to deploy further Russian troops to Belarus on a permanent basis, turning it into a Russian military hedge against the Western Alliance, much like Crimea now anchors down the Russian Southern flank opposite NATO. On a final note, while true that both the US and Russia are in the process of modernizing their strategic nuclear deterrent, it is important to note that Vladimir Putin continues to do it in violation of arms control treaties and that some of the technologies employed are geared to defeat the US missile defense system suggesting Russia continues to maintain nuclear war-fighting strategies viewed as anathema in Western Democracies.

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