Putin flexes his muscles in Cold War Two

Brian M Downing 

Russia has begun a long anticipated military exercise with the code name “Zapad”, which means “West”. The size of the exercise is substantial, though estimates vary. Moscow officials say that about 14,000 Russian and Belarusian troops will be involved. Western counterparts, however, estimate that the two states will pull together some 100,000 troops.

Zapad is the largest exercise since 2013. This is causing concern in Eastern European countries that were occupied by Moscow from World War Two until the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. Cold War Two has been underway for several years now. What are the intentions of Zapad and what risks are there?


The exercises are designed to underscore Russia’s return as a military power, though this was already established by operations in the Ukraine and Syria in the last five years. Zapad will also convey discontent with NATO’s movement to the east after 1991.

An international agreement requires Russia to give formal notice of sizable military exercises and to permit western observers to accompany troop movements. By giving improbably low troop numbers for Zapad, Russia is showing disregard for international agreements – a recurring theme with its Chinese and Iranian allies.

Demonstrations of military might, whether in exercises such as Zapad or actual warfare in the Middle East, enhance Putin’s domestic popularity. Many if not most Russians see him showing resolve in defending the nation after years of weakness.

Zapad may be more than an exercise. Its 2013 predecessor was soon followed by the invasion and annexation of the Crimea. Not long thereafter, Russian troops moved into the eastern Ukraine, beginning a separatist effort that continues today with varying levels of intensity.

Russian-Belarusian troops movements will cause concern that they are precursors to a decisive incursion into the Ukraine. A thrust toward Kiev, which lies only a hundred miles south of Belarus, could force the Ukraine to cede the east to Russia.

Indian summer

Putin and many of his supporters are proud that their country is a great power once again. However, there’s a Potemkin aspect to the Russian military. Elite units are well-equipped and spirited. In many other units, though, professionalism is superseded by alcoholism.

The American intelligence community will scrutinize Zapad for military effectiveness, but those outfits, especially CIA, overstated the power of the Soviet Union’s army and economy for decades.

US intelligence might also fail to appreciate two long-term problems that will limit Russian ambition. Its economy is not as dependent on oil revenue as those of, say, Saudi Arabia or Venezuela, but it’s nonetheless crucial to the country’s prosperity and ability to influence world affairs. With oil prices expected to remain soft, and gas from American, Israeli, and Egyptian fields soon to vie for European markets, Russia may face serious budgetary restraints in coming decades.

While world attention on Islamist militancy is focused on the Middle East, Moscow sees dangers closer to home, especially as ISIL and al Qaeda lose territory in Syria and Iraq. The Russian Caucasus has simmering Islamist movements. Hundreds if not thousands of its people serve in Middle Eastern wars and will be soon returning home, or trying to.

Islamist militancy is growing along Russia’s southern periphery. Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan have hundreds or thousands of their young people serving with ISIL, al Qaeda, and the Taliban. ISIL groups in Afghanistan are growing as fighters withdraw from the Middle East. Many seethe with anger over Russia’s intervention in Syria.

Russia may be enjoying an Indian summer – a welcome but misleading resurgence of power after the fall of communism. Longer-term, however, the country will be weakened by economic stagnation. Its southern periphery will be wracked by Islamist insurgencies that detach regions from the control of inept rulers. Putin’s Near Abroad may in coming years resemble Libya, Syria, and Iraq. And shows of might in the West will be of little help.

Copyright 2017 Brian M Downing

Brian M Downing is a national security analyst who has written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs. Thanks to Susan Ganosellis.