The Baltic countries say their fears are well-grounded. All three were occupied as part of the Soviet Union, and rarely shy from voicing their displeasure with Russian provocations. Raimundas Karoblis, the defense minister of Lithuania, told me that his country’s military is on high alert, but “there are no indications that the Zapad 2017 could be used as a cover for real operations." He also said that the Kremlin continues to use tricks, as it has done in all its previous military exercises since the collapse of the Soviet Union, in an effort to duck under the 13,000-troop threshold that would require Western observers as part of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Vienna Document. Belarus, for its part, has invited foreign military officials based in Minsk to watch its portion of Zapad.
Moscow’s actions over the last three years have also compelled NATO countries to bolster their western border with Russia. In June 2016, NATO staged one of the largest exercises in eastern Europe since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a major event in Poland that drew 31,000 troops. Similarly, NATO deployed forward-operating troops for the first time in all three Baltic states. In June, it took part in exercises intended to demonstrate the alliance’s commitment to defending the Suwalki Gap, a strategic 60-mile strip of land along the Polish-Lithuanian border. The Suwalki Gap also features in Zapad: Should Moscow seize the area, which runs between the exercise's fictional states of Lubeniya and Vesbasriya, it could isolate all three Baltic countries.
“NATO is now mobilized in ways that we haven't seen since the Cold War,” former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves told me. “Where is the propaganda victory [for Russia] in getting NATO even more engaged in the region?”
In addition to the Baltic countries, non-NATO members Finland and Sweden have also responded to Russia since its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. Both are boosting defense spending and enjoy a privileged relationship with the alliance, including joint-military planning, exercises, and intelligence exchanges; both countries’ militaries possess the technical abilities to operate with NATO. Similarly, Finland and Sweden have both signed agreements allowing the alliance to operate on their territory in the event of a conflict in the region.
While neither Sweden nor Finland plans to join the alliance any time soon, neither nation, particularly Finland, wants to once again walk the delicate tightrope with Moscow that it did during the Cold War. “The NATO alliance and the two Nordics are taking Russia’s aggressive actions even more seriously than they were before,” Ilves said.
But while Russia may have revived NATO’s presence along its borders, Moscow still possess a formidable military that it is actively modernizing. Moreover, the Kremlin has a long track record, from its intervention in Syria to its cyberwar operations, of punching well above its weight. “This does not feel like the Cold War and no one wants to go back to those days,” Jim Townsend, the former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for European and NATO policy, told me. “We need to find a way to deal with our differences that doesn’t turn to hostility.”