Is Russia the West’s Potential Partner, Rival, Adversary—or Even Enemy?

Is Russia the West’s Potential Partner, Rival, Adversary—or Even Enemy?
Belarusian and Russian troops take part in the Zapad 2017, or West 2017, military exercises at the Borisovsky range, Borisov, Belarus, Sept. 20, 2017 (AP photo by Sergei Grits).

Russia kicked off much-anticipated military exercises this week involving either 12,700 troops—the upper limit to avoid a treaty-required NATO observation mission—or more than 100,000, depending on whether you believe the Kremlin or NATO officials. The live-fire Zapad 2017, or West 2017, exercises, conducted jointly with Belarus, portray a conflict with unidentified Western forces in a scenario that, again, is either a defensive operation or an invasion, depending on who you believe.

In either case, despite an almost deadly missile misfire, the drills are being rightly billed as a showcase for Russia’s decade-long military modernization initiative. Launched following the disappointing performance by Russian units in the 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict, the modernization focused on upgrading big-ticket weapons systems, but also on professionalizing the Russian armed forces, streamlining the officer corps, improving command-and-control systems, and tightening training and readiness, with a particular emphasis on combined arms maneuvers. This week’s exercises fit into the latter category, and are a way to put all the other elements to the test.

In some ways, the exercises are no longer necessary as a showcase. Since 2014, Russia’s military intervention in Syria has already highlighted the advances made since 2008. Moscow has outperformed the expectations of many skeptical observers with its air campaign and advise-and-support mission in Syria, while unveiling new capabilities, like standoff cruise missile strikes, for the first time in a conflict zone.

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