War games leave Europe jittery
Russia-belarus exercises causing concern in Baltics, Poland
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.”