Informational Aspects of the Zapad 2017 Exercise


  • Yevhen Mahda




Russia’s quadrennial war games, taking place on the territories of Russia and Belarus under the banner “Zapad” (meaning “west” in English), date back to Soviet times and have become a tradition. More recently, the Zapad drills have also become a part of an informational strategy bolstering the supranational Union State of Russia and Belarus. As for the informational campaign that accompanied the Zapad 2017 exercise, it was devised as part of larger informational warfare targeting Ukraine and NATO. In order to ensure that the Zapad exercise was received in the West as the Kremlin intended, everything that was related to the exercise was amplifi ed and blown out of proportion. Quite often, media reports led to hysteria, and were sometimes promoted for that exact purpose, helping Russia generate and promote the following narrative – the inadequate and alarmist nature of Western societies. During the Zapad 2017 exercise, there were a series of events that could be deemed as elements of information warfare. The most substantial being the information manoeuvre carried out by the Russian Ministry of Defence (MoD) in the fi rst hours of the exercise. On September 14, 2017, at 11.00 in the morning, the website of the Russian MoD announced that units of the 1st Panzer Army of the Western Military District had been alerted and were marching on Belarusian polygons. An hour later, there was another announcement that Pskov, Ivanovo and Tula paratroopers had also been alerted. Four hours later, journalists received a public denial of this information from the press service of the Belarusian Ministry of Defence. However, it was not enough to contain the panic that had been unleashed. What goals were set and reached as a result of the Zapad 2017 exercise? 1. The external goals focused on creating an image of powerful and invincible Union troops (mainly Russian); sowing fear and panic; misinforming and obfuscating in order to complicate the process of analysis; demonstrating Belarus’s dependence on the Russian Federation. 2. The internal or domestic goals were to boost Putin’s approval rating before the 2018 presidential elections in Russia, and to demonstrate to the Russian people that “we are feared, and we should not be underestimated”. Ultimately, Russia managed to reach all those goals. Particularly effective was the demonstration of Belarus’s helplessness and dependence on Russia. However, the truth is that Russia’s primary goal had been reached far before the Zapad 2017 exercise even began. Manipulation, misinformation and other elements of informational aggression led to confusion and panic, and that is exactly what Russia was aiming for.


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