October 1, 2017
By Eric Schmitt

A recent major exercise by the Russian military revealed significant strides in its ability to conduct the sort of complex, large-scale operations, using drones and other new technology, that would be part of any all-out war with the United States in Europe, according to American and allied officials.

Preliminary Pentagon and NATO assessments of the exercise, one of the largest of its kind since the end of the Cold War, are classified and will take months to complete. But Western officials said the military maneuvers, known as Zapad, Russian for “west,” far exceeded in scope and scale what Moscow had said it would conduct, and tracked more closely to what American intelligence officials suspected would unfold, based on Russian troop buildups in August.

Before the exercise, Russia said the drills would involve fewer than 13,000 troops engaged in a counterterrorism scenario in Belarus, the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, the Baltic Sea region and around St. Petersburg. Instead, tens of thousands of Russian troops in the Arctic and Far East, the Black Sea, close to Ukraine’s borders and in the Abkhazia region of Georgia also joined in, Western military officials said.

“In effect, these activities together constituted a single strategic exercise, involving the full spectrum of Russian and Belarusian military,” said Oana Lungescu, the NATO spokeswoman. That array included warships, submarines, fighter jets, helicopters, tanks and artillery, air defenses, anti-ship missiles, special forces, and short-range and nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The military exercise, planned for many months, was part of a larger effort by President Vladimir V. Putin to showcase Russia’s military prowess as it tries to reassert itself as a world power. Beyond Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election in support of the Trump campaign, its military has in recent years dispatched troops to Syria, captured Crimea and intervened in eastern Ukraine, rattled the Baltic States with snap exercises and buzzed NATO planes and ships.

Allied military and independent analysts said that over the course of the nearly weeklong Zapad exercise, held from Sept. 14 to 20, Russian armed forces assimilated new technology and integrated information better than in the past to improve the military’s lethality. And the Russian Army demonstrated improved logistics to support war fighters, as well as new technology to conceal and protect those vital supply lines, analysts said.

From the foxhole to brigade command posts, Russian soldiers are now using increasingly sophisticated electronic communications gear, and Russian drones have proliferated to the point that they are now a part of almost every exercise.

“These are key things to practice for the initial period of war, where time and distance are crucial, and whoever gets there first has a big advantage,” said Michael Kofman, a senior research scientist at the Center for Naval Analyses’ Russia program who chronicled the exercise on his blog. “The exercise did a good job showing how Russia continues to improve combined arms operations, coordinating between different services.”

In a Senate hearing last week, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declined to offer a detailed assessment in the unclassified setting, but told senators, “We watched very carefully what the Russians have done during the Operation Zapad to make sure that we understand where they are in terms of capability development and what the implications are for NATO security and for U.S. security.”

Gen. Lori J. Robinson, head of the Pentagon’s Northern Command, which is charged with defending American territory, said at a conference in Washington last week that one emerging conclusion involved Russia’s “ability to hold targets at risk at ranges that we’re not used to,” apparently referring to Moscow’s arsenal of medium- and long-range missiles. She did not elaborate, adding only that her command would conduct a “deep-dive” review of the exercise this week.

Part of the exercise took place at the Luzhsky Training Range, a large open space cut from an undulating wooded area, mostly pines, about 100 miles southwest of St. Petersburg. On a rainy Monday afternoon, Mr. Putin arrived by helicopter, and from an enclosed viewing stand watched the proceedings through binoculars.

The enemy of the day was a mock foe attacking Russian territory. Ground forces advanced from the left and right. Spectators could hear aircraft overhead, but low clouds obscured them. A seemingly unending stream of bullets, shells and rockets was launched. Large bombs plummeted into the range, sending huge clouds of smoke into the sky, along with giant clods of earth and shock waves toward the spectators.

In the distance, cutouts of the enemy soldiers could be seen. But few Russian soldiers were on view. It was very much a display of hardware and high-powered weaponry — tanks driving at high speed, Mi-28 and Ka-52 helicopters swooping in to the attack from both sides, modern rockets as well as the older but terrifying swoosh-sounding Grad launchers. A commentary was broadcast over a loudspeaker system.

Mr. Putin sat alongside Sergei Shoigu, the Russian defense minister, and Gen. Valery V. Gerasimov, the chief of the Russian general staff. Foreign military observers watched from small covered stands. After the 45-minute exercise, Mr. Putin stayed for another 45 minutes to confer with his commanders, and then flew off.

Not everything went as planned during the exercise. At least one bystander narrowly escaped death when a Russian military helicopter accidentally fired rockets into a parking lot next to a firing range near St. Petersburg.

While Western military officials emphasized that the United States and Russia are not on the brink of war, they expressed concern that the heightened Russian military activity could lead to unintended confrontations.

The Defense Intelligence Agency summed up the exercise this way in an email to The New York Times: “Russia’s forces are becoming more mobile, more balanced and capable of conducting the full range of modern warfare.”

Going into the exercise, American and Baltic military officers had expressed fear that the maneuvers could be used as a pretext to increase Russia’s military presence in Belarus, a central European nation that borders three critical NATO allies: Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis ordered that a wider array of European partners have access to classified American information during the exercise to simulate conditions during combat. “Zapad forced us to get smarter about how to share intelligence,” said Lt. Gen. Frederick B. Hodges, the top United States Army commander in Europe.

Officials said it was still too soon to determine whether Russia would use the exercises to permanently station more troops and matériel in Belarus. Some American analysts said Mr. Putin would not necessarily need to do so, given that he had successfully carried out an exercise in intimidation that drew worldwide news coverage and recalled the most ominous days of the Cold War.

Linas Antanas Linkevicius, Lithuania’s foreign minister, said Belarusian officials had told Lithuania that Russia had not expected to fully withdraw its equipment until Sept. 30, after which NATO allies would be able to see what got left behind, he said. A Belarusian military newspaper reported that the last of the Russian troops had left on Friday.

For Lithuania, the exercise helped draw the world’s attention to Russia’s increasingly belligerent actions toward its neighbors, “and that served a very positive purpose, in my view,” Mr. Linkevicius said in an interview.

“Everyone was talking about it,” he said. “That’s why it didn’t turn into something other than an exercise.”

For Western analysts, the Russian military display might have served an additional purpose: tipping off what Moscow fears most about the United States and its NATO allies. “A lot of attention was paid to fending off a U.S. aerospace operation, shooting down cruise missiles, getting ships out to sea while under incoming missile fire and concealment of moving forces to avoid getting hit,” Mr. Kofman said. “The fear of Western technological superiority and dominance in the air domain was quite palpable.”

James Hill contributed reporting from Luzhsky Training Range, Russia, and Gardiner Harris from Washington.