Russia-Belarus war games rattle NATO
Russia today began major joint military exercises with Belarus along the European Union’s eastern flank — a show of strength that has rattled nervous NATO members.
Named Zapad-2017 (West-2017), the maneuvers, scheduled to last until September 20, are taking place on the territory of Moscow’s closest ally Belarus, in Russia’s European exclave of Kaliningrad and in its frontier Pskov and Leningrad regions.
Moscow says the drills will involve 12,700 troops, 70 aircraft, 250 tanks and 10 battleships testing their firepower against an imaginary foe close to borders with Poland and the Baltic States.
In a statement announcing the start of the exercises Russia’s defense ministry insisted the maneuvers are “of a strictly defensive nature and are not directed against any other state or group of countries.”
But NATO claims Russia has kept it in the dark and seems to be massively under-reporting the scale of the exercises, which some of the alliance’s eastern members insist could see more than 100,000 servicemen take part.
Moscow has dismissed fears over the drills — the latest in a series of annual exercises that rotate around the vast country — as fueled by the “myth about the so-called ‘Russian threat.’”
But for NATO allies, such reassurances have not dampened suspicion.
“We have seen before that military exercises have been used as a disguise for aggressive actions against neighbors,” NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said in an interview with Russia’s state-run RIA Novosti news agency released today.
“We don’t see an imminent threat against any NATO ally, but the best way for Russia to help to reduce tensions and to avoid or prevent misunderstandings, miscalculations, is to be transparent.”
Moscow has held a stream of exercises since ties with the West plunged in 2014 over Ukraine, with the military claiming some drills included nearly 100,000 troops.
Minsk has said the games will role play a conflict with a made-up rebel region backed by neighboring European nations. Russia says they will simulate assaults by “extremist groups” trying to carry out “terrorist attacks.”
The Kremlin has vigorously defended its right to hold exercises and has long blamed the United States for ratcheting up tensions by expanding NATO up to its borders and holding its own provocative drills.
The Russian war games come as Ukraine on Monday launched annual joint military exercises with the US and a host of other NATO countries.