Military officials in Belarus yesterday sought to calm Western fears about major war games with Russia involving thousands of troops, tanks and aircraft, just hours before they are due to get under way.
The Zapad (West) 2017 manoeuvres, mainly in Belarus this year, have caused concern at Nato and in neighbouring countries. Some members of the alliance, including the Baltic states and Poland, have criticised a lack of transparency about the exercises and questioned Moscow’s real intentions.
“We are not threatening anyone,” Oleg Voinov, an adviser to the Belarusian defence minister, said yesterday. “We have chosen military bases that are significantly removed from Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.”
Russia-West relations have hit their lowest point since the Cold War following Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and continuing fighting between Russian-backed separatists and troops loyal to Kiev in eastern Ukraine.
Western worries about the planned manoeuvres have ranged from allegations that Russia could use them to permanently deploy its forces to Belarus to fears of a surprise attack on the Baltics.
Poland’s national security bureau head, Pawel Soloch, said that the exercises were a demonstration “of the Russian state’s capacity to hold full-scale war action”.
“The degree of mobilisation is really impressive,” Mr Soloch said on private Radio Zet.
The war games were scheduled to kick-off last night.
Russia and Belarus have said the exercises, which last until 20 September, will 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 ten navy ships will also be involved.
Russia’s defence ministry said that elite parachute units in several Russian cities had been placed on alert to be deployed during the exercises.
Organisers have invented three “aggressor countries” – Veishnoriya, Lubeniya and Vesbasriya – to whose attacks the Russians and Belarusians will simulate a response.
The Baltic States and Poland fear that these monikers are just poorly disguised terms for their own countries.
Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg told Nato troops in Estonia last week that the alliance will be closely monitoring the war games.
Despite assurances from Moscow, Russia’s neighbours expect the drills to be much greater in scope than officially declared. Estonian defence minister Juri Luik has said that Moscow could deploy up to 100,000 troops.