Rus­sia be­gins war games with Be­larus as con­cerned neigh­bors, NATO watch

Houston Chronicle - - WORLD -

MINSK, Be­larus — Rus­sia and Be­larus be­gan ma­jor war games Thurs­day, an op­er­a­tion in­volv­ing thou­sands of troops, tanks and air­craft on NATO’s east­ern edge prac­tic­ing how to hunt down and de­stroy armed spies, among other ma­neu­vers.

The Za­pad (West) 2017 ma­neu­vers, which are mainly tak­ing place in Be­larus this year, have caused con­cern among mem­bers of the West­ern mil­i­tary al­liance and in neigh­bor­ing coun­tries. Some NATO mem­bers, in­clud­ing the Baltic states and Poland, have crit­i­cized a lack of trans­parency about the ex­er­cises and ques­tioned Moscow’s real in­ten­tions.

Rus­sia and Be­larus say the ex­er­cises, which run un­til Sept. 20, in­volve 5,500 Rus­sian and 7,200 Be­laru­sian troops. Rus­sian mil­i­tary of­fi­cials have said up to 70 air­craft and about 250 tanks, 200 ar­tillery sys­tems and 10 navy ships will also be in­volved.

Es­to­nian De­fense Min­is­ter Juri Liuk, how­ever, says Moscow could de­ploy up to 100,000 troops.

“Leav­ing weapons in Be­larus means the Rus­sian army could pre­pare bases for a sud­den broad at­tack ... right at the NATO bor­der,” Lithua­nian of­fi­cer Dar­ius An­tanaitis said.

While the Baltic na­tions fear the Za­pad ma­neu­vers may lead to a sur­prise Rus­sian at­tack, the ex­er­cises have also been crit­i­cized by Be­laru­sian op­po­si­tion lead­ers. They say Rus­sia could use the oc­ca­sion to po­si­tion a large, per­ma­nent con­tin­gent of troops in Be­larus.

Valery Gerasi­mov, the chief of the Gen­eral Staff of the Rus­sian armed forces, for­mally no­ti­fied NATO of the be­gin­ning of the ex­er­cises on Thurs­day evening, ac­cord­ing to Rus­sian me­dia. NATO Sec­re­tary-Gen­eral Jens Stoltenberg told NATO troops in Es­to­nia last week that the al­liance will be closely mon­i­tor­ing Za­pad ex­er­cises.

Rus­sia-West re­la­tions fell to their low­est level since the Cold War in re­cent years af­ter Moscow’s 2014 an­nex­a­tion of Ukraine’s Crimean Penin­sula and its sup­port of sep­a­ratists fight­ing the Ukrainian gov­ern­ment.

Vayar Mil­i­tary Agency via As­so­ci­ated Press

Be­laru­sian army ve­hi­cles pre­pare for war games in Be­larus on Mon­day. Rus­sia and Be­larus be­gan mas­sive war games, called Za­pad 2017, on Thurs­day near the bor­ders of Poland, Es­to­nia, Latvia and Lithua­nia.

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