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