Getting Déjà Vu From Russia’s Military Exercises, Poland Readies to Resist Putin

Moscow rattles its saber on NATO’s doorstep

Right now, the Kremlin is preparing to mount major military exercises on its border with NATO. Termed Zapad — meaning West in Russian – and slated to take place in mid-September, these exercises have unnerved the Atlantic Alliance and caused concern in Western capitals about what the Russians are really up to.

Moscow has not shared much information about Zapad, which will include troops from Russia and Belarus, and estimates of its size range from a low figure of 12,000 personnel, based on official statements, to as high as 100,000 – which would make Zapad the biggest Kremlin military exercise since the Cold War.

There’s bad history here. Moscow has termed major western-focused exercises Zapad for decades, and the 1981 war games under that name, the biggest ever held by the Soviet military, seriously rattled NATO. Zapad-81, aside from its military mission, had the clear intent of showing the Kremlin’s Polish neighbor – which was then a Soviet client under domestic siege by the Solidarity movement – that Moscow could not be trifled with.

Today Poland is a free country and a bulwark of NATO, having shaken off the Kremlin’s shackles at the Cold War’s end, but Warsaw remains concerned by this latest iteration of Zapad. The exercises are slated to take place in Belarus and in Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave, right on the Polish frontier.

Then there’s the tricky matter of what Zapad’s actual intent might be. Is it to intimidate Belarus, whose ramshackle regime no longer wants to be Vladimir Putin’s pawn? Might Moscow leave several thousand troops in Belarus after Zapad’s end to keep Minsk on-side? Could the exercises actually be a cover for aggression? The Kremlin has repeatedly used war-games to obscure build-up for an invasion, most infamously of Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1968. More recently, Putin’s invasion of Georgia in August 2008 was preceded by military exercises, a dry run, only weeks before, right on Russia’s border with Georgia.

Most analysts doubt Putin plans to invade a NATO country this September, which would mean war with the Atlantic Alliance, but Warsaw is preternaturally cautious, knowing the Russians as well as they do. The strategic Suwałki gap in northeastern Poland, a narrow sliver of land between Belarus and Kaliningrad, remains tempting for Moscow. In the event of war, there can be little doubt that Russian forces would charge through that gap – where they would meet the Polish military.

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