Russia to hold major war games
Kremlin denies it is readying invasion plans, tries to calm down Western fears
8 September, 2017
Russia is to hold in the coming days major war exercises that have already stirred unease in many countries in Europe, news wires reported. The Zapad-2017 war games will start on 14 September and will continue until 20 September. They will be held in Belarus, western Russia and Russia's exclave of Kaliningrad, bordering NATO member states Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, as well as Ukraine.
It is namely the drills' location that have led to fears that the Kremlin is preparing for an invasion. In the past, Russia has used such exercises as a precursor or as a cover to project force in other countries such as Georgia and Ukraine, according to experts. Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, the US Army's top general in Europe, said last month that US allies in Eastern Europe and Ukraine were worried the exercises could be a “Trojan horse” aimed at leaving behind military equipment brought into Belarus.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who has warned that “substantially more” troops may take part than will be officially divulged, said last week the alliance would be watching closely. Amid several eastern European states' claims that the drills pose a threat to their security even before the war games have even started, NATO decided to send its experts to observe the exercise, Stoltenberg pointed out. The decision comes following invitations from Russia and Belarus. Meanwhile, Ukraine announced it has strengthened control over borders at all sectors due to the Zapad-2017 exercises.
On its part, Moscow tried to calm fears, pointing out that the drill would be purely defensive and would simulate repelling an attack by extremist groups. Last week, Russian Deputy Defence Minister Alexander Fomin told Western military attaches in Moscow the West had nothing to fear. “Some people are even going as far as to say that the Zapad-2017 exercises will be used as a springboard to invade and occupy Lithuania, Poland or Ukraine,” he pointed out. “Not a single one of these paradoxical versions has anything to do with reality.” Fomin went even further by calling suggestions that Russia posed a threat to anyone “myths”. Adding that the drills were routine and conducted with ally Belarus every two years.
Moscow says almost 13,000 Russian and Belarussian servicemen will take part, as well as around 70 planes and helicopters. Almost 700 pieces of military hardware will be deployed, including almost 250 tanks, 10 ships and various artillery and rocket systems. Russia said the scale of the exercise was in line with international rules. With less than 13,000 troops, international observation of the drills was not mandatory, it said.
Speaking in Minsk, Belarussian Deputy Defence Minister Oleg Belokonev said any troops and equipment brought into Belarus for the war games would be withdrawn afterwards. But Belarusians are worried Russian troops might stay. Mykola Statkevich, a prominent Belarusian opposition leader, was jailed for two weeks last Saturday for organising protests against the war games.