Rus­sia launches war games

The Phnom Penh Post - - WORLD - An­drew Hig­gins

THE coun­try does not ex­ist, so it has nei­ther an army nor any real cit­i­zens, though it has ac­quired a feisty fol­low­ing of would-be pa­tri­ots on­line. Start­ing yes­ter­day, how­ever, the fic­tional state, Veish­noriya, a dis­til­la­tion of the Krem­lin’s dark­est fears about the West, be­comes the tar­get of the com­bined mil­i­tary might of Rus­sia and its ally Be­larus.

The na­tion was in­vented to pro­vide an en­emy to con­front dur­ing a six-day joint mil­i­tary ex­er­cise that is ex­pected to be the big­gest dis­play of Rus­sian mil­i­tary power since the end of the Cold War a quar­ter-cen­tury ago.

The ex­er­cise, known as Za­pad-2017, is the lat­est it­er­a­tion of a se­ries of train­ing ma­neu­vers that be­gan un­der the Soviet Union in the 1970s. Af­ter a long break fol­low­ing the col­lapse of com­mu­nism, Za­pad was re­vived in 1999 and then was ex­panded af­ter Vladimir Putin be­came president at the end of that year.

Za­pad, “west” in Rus­sian, used to in­clude mil­i­tary forces from coun­tries un­der the War­saw Pact, the Soviet-led mil­i­tary al­liance whose non-Soviet mem­bers have now all joined NATO. To­day, the mil­i­tary ex­er­cise has shrunk to just two par­tic­i­pants – Rus­sia and Be­larus – but it is still viewed war­ily by mil­i­tary plan­ners in the West.

It comes at a time of de­te­ri­o­rat­ing re­la­tions be­tween Rus­sia and the West, with Wash­ing­ton and Moscow trad­ing diplo­matic penal­ties seem­ingly weekly. From bit­ter ex­pe­ri­ence over Rus­sian elec­tion med­dling and mil­i­tary ad­ven­tur­ism in re­cent years, West­ern of­fi­cials have de­vel­oped a deep dis­trust of the Krem­lin’s mo­tives and its procla­ma­tions of good in­ten­tions.

There are fears that Moscow may be mov­ing far more troops into Be­larus than it in­tends to with­draw, es­tab­lish­ing a per­ma­nent mil­i­tary pres­ence there on the bor­der with NATO coun­tries. And of­fi­cials in the Baltics and Poland have voiced alarm that the ex­er­cises could be used as a cover for Rus­sian ag­gres­sion, as hap­pened in 2014, when Moscow staged large-scale ex­er­cises to cam­ou­flage prepa­ra­tions for its an­nex­a­tion of Crimea and in­ter­ven­tion on the side of pro-Rus­sian rebels in east­ern Ukraine.

“NATO will be mon­i­tor­ing the ex­er­cises closely,” the al­liance’s sec­re­tary-gen­eral, Jens Stoltenberg, said in an in­ter­view re­cently in Brus­sels, the site of NATO’s head­quar­ters. Rus­sia, he said, is en­tirely within its rights to train its forces. But it has stirred un­ease by rou­tinely skirt­ing mu­tu­ally agreed upon rules de­signed to calm jitters.

“The lack of trans­parency in­creases the risk of mis­un­der­stand­ing, mis­cal­cu­la­tions, ac­ci­dents and in­ci­dents that can be­come danger­ous,” Stoltenberg said. He called on Rus­sia to “re­spect both the let­ter and in­ten­tions” of the so-called Vi­enna Doc­u­ment, which com­mits Rus­sia and West­ern na­tions to re­port all ex­er­cises with more than 13,000 troops or 300 tanks and to al­low for­eign ob­servers to mon­i­tor those that do.

The West has been brac­ing for the Rus­sian ex­er­cises for months. Then, late last month, a sce­nario out­lined by the mil­i­tary lead­er­ship in Minsk, the cap­i­tal of Be­larus, de­scribed the main task for this year’s Za­pad pro­gramme: to re­pel ag­gres­sion by Veish­noriya, a fic­tional coun­try that is backed by the West and in­tent on driv­ing a wedge be­tween Rus­sia and Be­larus. The sce­nario also in­cludes two other fake coun­tries, Lubeniya and Ves- bas­riya, which form a coali­tion with Veish­noriya to men­ace Rus­sian se­cu­rity.

The Baltic states and Poland, which fear that the fic­tional na­tions in­vented by Za­pad plan­ners are thinly dis­guised prox­ies for their own coun­tries, say they be­lieve that the num­ber of Rus­sian troops tak­ing part in Za­pad-2017 could reach 100,000.

West­ern na­tions con­duct war games, too, of course. This sum­mer, the United States led an al­lied force of 25,000 in ex­er­cises in East­ern Europe. But the West fol­lows the rules in the Vi­enna Doc­u­ment, and al­lows Rus­sian ob­servers to keep a watch.

Rus­sia, Stoltenberg said, has a record of ex­ploit­ing loop­holes in the Vi­enna Doc­u­ment, ha­bit­u­ally un­der­stat­ing the num­ber of troops tak­ing part in war games by tens of thou­sands.

Moscow and Minsk in­sist that this week’s Za­pad ex­er­cise will in­volve just 12,700 troops. This means that, like all pre­vi­ous Rus­sian mil­i­tary ex­er­cises since the 1991 col­lapse of the Soviet Union, it weighs in just un­der the 13,000-troop thresh­old and is there­fore is free of ob­servers from the West.

But Es­to­nia’s de­fence min­is­ter, Mar­gus Tsahkna, has pointed to a ten­der is­sued this year by Rus­sia’s Min­istry of De­fense for more than 4,000 rail­way wag­ons to trans­port mil­i­tary equip­ment and sol­diers to Be­larus. The fig­ure sug­gests that far big­ger mil­i­tary con­tin­gents would be on the move than de­clared, the min­is­ter said, a sign that Moscow may in­tend to leave some be­hind.

The US mil­i­tary has echoed such wor­ries, with Lieu­tenant Gen­eral Ben Hodges, who heads the Army forces in Europe, de­scrib­ing Za­pad as a pos­si­ble “Tro­jan horse” that would send in Rus­sian forces but not take them out.

Rus­sia has dis­missed West­ern anx­i­eties over Za­pad-2017, say­ing the ex­er­cises are de­fen­sive. Fu­elling un­ease is Rus­sia’s si­lence on what ex­actly the ex­er­cises will in­volve. Be­larus has in­vited for­eign mil­i­tary at­tachés based in Minsk to watch and re­leased some de­tails of its war games with Rus­sia, in­clud­ing airstrikes and tank bat­tles on Sun­day and Mon­day.

But it is not clear that the at­tachés will have the free­dom they need to move about and to talk with sol­diers. Moscow, for its part, has said only that the ex­er­cises threaten no­body and will in­volve op­er­a­tions in Be­larus, in Rus­sia’s West­ern Mil­i­tary Dis­trict and in the Rus­sian en­clave of Kalin­ingrad, next to Poland.

This vague­ness, ac­cord­ing to NATO of­fi­cials in Brus­sels, con­tin­ues a pat­tern of ob­fus­ca­tion deeply en­trenched since the Soviet era.

For­eign ob­servers from NATO were never al­lowed to watch Soviet-era Za­pad ex­er­cises, and diplomats based in Moscow were barred from vis­it­ing re­gions where the ex­er­cises were tak­ing place. That was sup­posed to change with the sign­ing of the Vi­enna Doc­u­ment, adopted in 1990 by the Vi­ennabased Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Se­cu­rity and Co­op­er­a­tion in Europe and up­dated in 2011, but Rus­sia has al­ways found ways to cir­cum­vent the agree­ment.

Stoltenberg, the NATO sec­re­tary-gen­eral, said he could not spec­u­late about the real pur­pose of Za­pad-2017, say­ing that this would be­come clear only once it was over next week. At the same time, he noted, the ex­er­cise fits a “pat­tern of a more as­sertive Rus­sia” that is “ex­er­cis­ing more ag­gres­sively” and, through its ac­tions in Crimea and east­ern Ukraine, has shown that “it is will­ing to use mil­i­tary force against its neigh­bours”.


Map of east­ern Europe lo­cat­ing three dis­tinct sets of mil­i­tary ex­er­cises along with coun­tries that host NATO bat­tal­ions.

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