War games leave Europe jit­tery

Rus­sia-be­larus ex­er­cises caus­ing con­cern in Baltics, Poland

Las Vegas Review-Journal - - WORLD - By Yuras Kar­manau The As­so­ci­ated Press

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 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 also will be in­volved.

Es­to­nian De­fense Min­is­ter Juri Liuk, how­ever, said 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 might lead to a sur­prise Rus­sian at­tack, the ex­er­cises also have been crit­i­cized by Be­laru­sian op­po­si­tion lead­ers. They say Rus­sia could use the oc­ca­sion to po­si­tion a large, per­ma­nent con­tin­gent of troops in Be­larus, leav­ing the coun­try at the mercy of any armed con­fronta­tion in­volv­ing Moscow.

The ex­er­cises be­gan Thurs­day night with units sim­u­lat­ing hunt­ing down and de­stroy­ing re­con­nais­sance agents be­long­ing to il­le­gal armed groups, ac­cord­ing to Oleg Belokonev, the Be­laru­sian Deputy De­fense Min­is­ter.

“Com­mand points have been set up and fully func­tion­ing com­mand sys­tems cre­ated,” Belokonev told jour­nal­ists at a press con­fer­ence in Minsk, the cap­i­tal.

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.

Or­ga­niz­ers have in­vented three “ag­gres­sor coun­tries” — Veish­noriya, Lubeniya and Ves­bas­riya — to whose at­tacks the Rus­sian and Be­laru­sian mil­i­taries will sim­u­late a re­sponse. The Baltic States and Poland fear that these monikers are just poorly dis­guised terms for their own coun­tries.

Poland’s Na­tional Se­cu­rity Bu­reau head, Pawel Soloch, said Thurs­day the ex­er­cises were a demon­stra­tion “of the Rus­sian state’s ca­pac­ity to hold full-scale war ac­tion.”

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