NATO, U.S. heedful of Russia war games
MINSK, Belarus — Russia on Thursday kicked off a weeklong military exercise with its ally Belarus that has its NATO…
MINSK, Belarus — Russia on Thursday kicked off a weeklong military exercise with its ally Belarus that has its NATO neighbors and the United States anxiously watching, but which Russia claims is of a “defensive nature.”
Shortly after Russia’s Defense Ministry said the war games, dubbed “Zapad,” or “West,” had begun, it announced that elements of its First Tank Army had been “put on alert” and moved into Belarus for the exercise. Airborne units stationed in Russia also were mobilized and prepared to join the drills, the ministry said.
The war games come as tensions mount between Russia and NATO, and the images of the military exercise evoked the Cold War. The Soviet-led Warsaw Pact once used Zapad to prepare for war with the West. The job of the First Tank Army was to smash through NATO lines, including 300,000 U.S. troops once stationed in Europe.
The U.S. force in Europe is down to 30,000 now, and many countries that once formed the Soviet bloc have since become members of NATO.
But Russia sees itself hemmed in by a hostile, expanding force, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has vowed to prevent revolutions in the former Soviet region similar to the 2014 rebellion that established a pro-Western government in Ukraine.
The scenario Russian and Belarusian forces are playing out involve a “Western Coalition” of imaginary states: Lubenia, Vesbaria and Veishnoria, in which Russian and Western observers see similarities to NATO members Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. In the war game scenario, the three enemies are attempting regime change in Minsk, turn Belarus against Russia, and annex parts of Belarus to Veishnoria.
The first phase of the drills pits Russian and Belarusian forces against “illegal armed formations” and “saboteur groups” of the Western coalition that have infiltrated Belarus.
The Russian announcement Thursday was accompanied by a reassurance repeated by Moscow for weeks, that the current exercise is “of an entirely defensive nature and is not aimed at any other states.”
Concerns in the Western alliance were raised by the apparent difference between official Russian figures about the size of the exercise — 12,700 troops and 680 pieces of military equipment, including 138 tanks — and Western estimates, based on troop and equipment movements, that the number could range from 70,000 to as many as 100,000 participants.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said last week that Russia could build trust and head off possible accidents by being more transparent.
Western military officials have expressed concern that Zapad 2017 will serve as a Trojan horse, allowing Moscow to leave behind some of the military personnel and equipment it deployed for the drills.
“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.
The last time Russia held a Zapad drill, in 2013, it used some of the forces involved to capture the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine the next year. No one in NATO expects anything like that to happen this time.
But senior officials in the Baltics have said they see the games as a rehearsal of the capability to seal off Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, and deny access to the Baltic Sea to NATO forces attempting to go to their rescue. They also see a larger strategic goal: to demonstrate to U.S. and NATO leaders the high cost of defending the Baltics, thus bringing into question the viability of the alliance.
NATO, which conducted its own exercises involving 25,000 service members from 20 nations in Europe this summer, has stationed four battalions — including U.S. troops — in the Baltic states and Poland. Ukraine, locked in a conflict with Russian-backed separatists, is conducting its own military exercises, called Unflinching Tenacity, and neutral Sweden has begun exercises with NATO that involve 19,000 troops.
Russian leaders have called the criticism of their drills while larger exercises are being held outside their borders as an example of Western hypocrisy. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, on Thursday accused the West of “whipping up hysteria” over the war games.
“We reject complaints of these exercises not being transparent,” Peskov said in a conference call with reporters.
Poland’s National Security Bureau chief, Pawel Soloch, said Thursday that the exercises were a demonstration “of the Russian state’s capacity to hold full-scale war action.”
“The degree of mobilization is really impressive,” Soloch said on private Radio Zet.
Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, who often criticizes Russian leaders, said the war games are a sign the Kremlin is preparing for conflict with NATO.
“We are anxious about this drill. … It is an open preparation for war with the West,” Grybauskaite told reporters.
There is also unease in Kiev. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has said Zapad 2017 appears to be a “preparation for an offensive war on a continental scale.”
Information for this article was contributed by David Filipov, Ishaan Tharoor and Michael Birnbaum of The Washington Post; and by Yuras Karmanau of The Associated Press.
A Section on 09/15/2017
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