Russia launches war games
Exercises with Belarus rattle NATO members
Russia on Thursday 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.
The war games come with tensions between Russia and NATO at their highest since the Cold War due to the Kremlin’s meddling in Ukraine and the US-led alliance bolstering its forces in Eastern Europe.
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, especially jittery members such as Poland and the Baltic States which only broke free from Moscow’s grip 25 years ago, such reassurances have not dampened suspicion.
“We have seen before that military exercises have been used as a dis- guise for aggressive actions against neighbors,” NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said in an interview with Russia’s state-run RIA Novosti news agency released Thursday.
“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.”