NATO has put Moscow on notice that it will be keeping a close eye on a major military exercise with Belarus next week, in a region still on edge after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Similar drills in the past included a simulated invasion of Poland by tens of thousands of Russian troops culminating in a nuclear strike on Warsaw, and the coming show of force, codenamed “Zapad 2017” (West 2017) has sparked months of speculation and fears along NATO’s eastern flank.
Observers say that while there is little chance of Russia using the exercise as cover for an actual invasion, there are concerns about what troops and equipment it will leave behind afterwards.
Moscow has said about 12,700 Russian and Belarusian troops will take part in the exercises, to be held in Belarus and Russia’s exclave of Kaliningrad from September 14 to 20, but Lithuania and Estonia have put the figure as high as 100,000.
“We are concerned about the nature and the lack of transparency of the exercise,” Estonian Prime Minister Juri Ratas said Wednesday on a visit to NATO troops at the Tapa base in his country’s north with alliance chief Jens Stoltenberg.
– ‘Defensive’ manoeuvres –
Stoltenberg himself poured doubt on Russian claims about troop numbers in July, saying that based on past experience “we have every reason to believe that it may be substantially more troops participating than the official reported numbers”.
– High-tech radar –
Tigner agreed, saying that Moscow was well aware that an attack on a NATO member would bring a swift and serious response from the alliance, but that Zapad will give it an opportunity to show it still has considerable forces at its disposal and can keep the West on edge.
“The bigger concern is how many troops and weapons, et cetera that Russia would leave in Kaliningrad — that makes everyone nervous, and indeed how many troops it might leave in Belarus,” he said.
Full article: NATO on guard ahead of major Russian war games (Spacewar)