NATO allies dispute size of planned Russian war games

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The war games will run Sept. 14- 20 just over the border from NATO members Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.

Russia military’s prepared to kick off a week of major combat exercises in maneuvers Moscow insists are not a threat to anyone but that NATO has warned could be a precursor for aggressive military actions against its Eastern European neighbors.

Russia’s defense ministry said the large-scale drills — called Zapad 2017 — will involve 12,700 troops, 70 aircraft, 250 tanks and 10 warships. The war games will run from Thursday until Sept. 20 just over the border from NATO members Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. 

Russia’s longstanding ally and former Soviet state, Belarus, will also take part.   

In its official summary of the exercises, Russia’s defense ministry said that the drills would see “the Northern ones” — Russia and its allies — stand up to aggression from “the Western ones” in a scenario in Belarus and the Kaliningrad region have been infiltrated by extremist groups who want to commit terrorist attacks.

“The illegal militias are backed from abroad, providing them with armaments and naval and air capabilities. In order to neutralize the opponents, land forces will be deployed to cut off their access to sea and block air corridors in the region, with the support of the air force, air defense forces, and the navy,” the summary reads.  

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said this week while Russia has every right to conduct military training exercises, the nation was using “loopholes” to avoid scrutiny. 

Germany is one of several NATO members who dispute Moscow’s version that only 12,700 troops will take part in the drills. Ursula von der Leyen, its defense minister, said Russia has committed more than 100,000 troops to the war games. 

“It is undisputed that we are seeing a demonstration of capabilities and power of the Russians,” Von der Leyen told reporters at a recent meeting of European Union defense ministers in Tallinn, Estonia. “Anyone who doubts that only has to look at the high numbers of participating forces in the Zapad exercise.”

Under joint guidelines, NATO and Russia have agreed that any military exercises involving more than 30,000 troops should be subject to international monitors. The drills have been planned for months and are not in reaction to sanctions Congress last month levied against Russia for its alleged meddling in the U.S. election, for its annexation of Crimea, and for its ongoing military operations in eastern Ukraine. 

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For Russian President Vladimir Putin, it is another attempt to portray the power of his country’s military and reflects a more assertive foreign policy that has seen Moscow intervene in Syria and Russian fighter jets buzz U.S. warships in the Black Sea.   

“The problem is (Russia) is not doing (this) in a transparent way and we have seen before that Russia has used big military exercises as a disguise,” Stoltenberg said in a British TV interview on Sunday. “That happened in Georgia in 2008 when they invaded Georgia and it happened in Crimea in 2014 when they illegally annexed Crimea.”

During a conference in Washington in July, Kristjan Prikk, an undersecretary for defense policy at Estonia’s ministry of defense, said: “We don’t consider this year’s Zapad exercise in itself to be a direct threat to (NATO) or a cover for an attack.” However, he added that “we always have to keep in mind that the Russians have the nasty habit of hiding their actual military endeavors behind exercises.”

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

Russian’s foreign ministry has dismissed the NATO claims about troop levels as “artificial hype” and insisted that the exercises will be “purely defensive.” In a statement, it said this “hype” was aimed at “justifying the spending on NATO’s military build-up on Poland and the Baltic states in the eyes of the western audience.”

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

Still, Sarah Lain, a military affairs expert at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies, in London, said that “if more troops are mobilized and observers are blocked, this undermines key confidence building measures that have formed the basis of the agreed European security architecture.” 

Łukasz Kulesa, one of the co-authors of a 2015 study about NATO and Russia military drills, has written that while “these operations are targeted against hypothetical opponents, the nature and scale of them indicate otherwise: Russia is preparing for a conflict with NATO, and NATO is preparing for a possible confrontation with Russia.”

Reached Wednesday in Poland, where he runs the Warsaw office of the European Leadership Network, a think tank, Kulesa stressed Russia is not on the brink of war with NATO. “For all the rhetoric, the situation has stabilized a little bit. 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.”

He said that the real danger is if any “snap” — unplanned — exercises take place, particularly in the Black Sea area, or if Russia uses its air force or strategic bombers there. “Anything that would broaden these exercises from regional to continental.” 

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