NATO and ex­perts are wary as Moscow shows its might

USA TODAY International Edition - - NEWS - Kim Hjelm­gaard @khjelm­gaard USA TO­DAY

Rus­sia’s mil­i­tary kicks LON­DON off a week of com­bat ex­er­cises Thurs­day that NATO warned could be prac­tice for ag­gres­sive ac­tion against its Eastern Euro­pean neigh­bors.

Rus­sia’s De­fense Min­istry said the large-scale drills, called Za­pad 2017, in­volve 12,700 troops, 70 air­craft, 250 tanks and 10 war­ships. The war games will run through Sept. 20 in Rus­sia and Be­larus, a for­mer Soviet repub­lic — across the bor­der from NATO mem­bers Es­to­nia, Latvia, Lithua­nia and Poland.

In its sum­mary of the ex­er­cises, Rus­sia’s De­fense Min­istry said the drills would see “the North­ern ones” — Rus­sia and its al­lies — stand up to ag­gres­sion from “the Western ones.” The drill sce­nario says Be­larus and the Kalin­ingrad re­gion have been in­fil­trated by ex­trem­ist groups.

Ger­many and sev­eral NATO mem­bers dis­pute Moscow’s de­scrip­tion that only 12,700 troops will par­tic­i­pate in the drills, say­ing Rus­sia has com­mit­ted more than 100,000 troops to the games.

“It is undis­puted that we are see­ing a demon­stra­tion of ca­pa­bil­i­ties and power of the Rus­sians,” Ger­man De­fense Min­is­ter Ur­sula von der Leyen said. “Any­one who doubts that only has to look at the high num­bers of par­tic­i­pat­ing forces in the Za­pad ex­er­cise.”

NATO and Rus­sia have agreed that any mil­i­tary ex­er­cises in­volv­ing more than 30,000 troops should be sub­ject to in­ter­na­tional mon­i­tors. The drills are not a re­ac­tion to U.S. sanc­tions against Rus­sia that Congress ap­proved last month for al­leged med­dling in last year’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, its an­nex­a­tion of Crimea and mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions in Ukraine.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said that Rus­sia has every right to con­duct mil­i­tary train­ing ex­er­cises, but Moscow was us­ing “loop­holes” to avoid scru­tiny.

“We have seen be­fore that Rus­sia has used big mil­i­tary ex­er­cises as a dis­guise,” Stoltenberg said in a Bri­tish TV in­ter­view Sun­day. “That hap­pened in Ge­or­gia in 2008 when they in­vaded Ge­or­gia, and it hap­pened in Crimea in 2014 when they il­le­gally an­nexed Crimea.”

The ex­er­cises could also be an­other at­tempt by Rus­sian President Vladimir Putin to por­tray the power of his coun­try’s mil­i­tary. The drills come af­ter Moscow in­ter­vened in Syria’s civil war to bol­ster the regime of President Bashar As­sad, and Rus­sian fighter jets buzzed U.S. war­ships in the Black Sea.

Rus­sia’s For­eign Min­istry has dis­missed NATO claims about the drill’s troop lev­els as “ar­ti­fi­cial hype” and in­sisted the ex­er­cises will be “purely de­fen­sive.” The min­istry said that com­plaints are aimed at “jus­ti­fy­ing the spend­ing on NATO’s mil­i­tary buildup on Poland and the Baltic states in the eyes of the western au­di­ence.”

The Rus­sian Em­bassy in Wash­ing­ton said that to achieve “max­i­mum trans­parency,” Moscow “in­vited rep­re­sen­ta­tives from for­eign de­fense agen­cies’ lead­er­ships and mil­i­tary-diplo­matic corps to visit the fi­nal stage of the ex­er­cise.”

“We al­ways have to keep in mind that the Rus­sians have the nasty habit of hid­ing their ac­tual mil­i­tary en­deav­ors be­hind ex­er­cises,” said Krist­jan Prikk, an un­der­sec­re­tary at Es­to­nia’s De­fense Min­istry, in July.

The Za­pad drills are the largest Rus­sian war games in al­most four years. In 2014, Moscow said about 22,000 troops took part in Za­pad ex­er­cises; out­side ob­servers put the fig­ure closer to 70,000, ac­cord­ing to Stars and Stripes. Za­pad is the Rus­sian word for West.

Łukasz Kulesa, co-au­thor of a 2015 study about NATO and Rus­sian mil­i­tary drills, stressed that Rus­sia is not on the brink of war with NATO.

“For all the rhetoric, the sit­u­a­tion has sta­bi­lized a lit­tle bit,” said Kulesa, who runs the War­saw of­fice of the Euro­pean Lead­er­ship Net­work, a think tank. “Both sides know what their red lines are, al­though it’s dis­turb­ing the Rus­sians are de­vel­op­ing their ca­pa­bil­i­ties in the western mil­i­tary district with NATO forces in mind.”

“We al­ways have to keep in mind that the Rus­sians have the nasty habit of hid­ing their ac­tual mil­i­tary en­deav­ors be­hind ex­er­cises.” Krist­jan Prikk, Es­to­nia De­fense Min­istry


A man watches Rus­sian mil­i­tary jets per­form­ing in Alabino, out­side Moscow, on Aug. 12.

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