Russia launches giant Zapad drills
Russia’s military has assembled in Belarus ahead of mass exercises that start today (Thursday) which are concentrating Nato minds.
Russia and Belarus claim four-yearly Zapad (west) exercises are designed to test defensive capabilities and are no threat to the three Baltic states, Ukraine and Poland.
The 2009 exercises involved simulating a nuclear attack on Warsaw, according to western analysts. Nato has deployed resources along its borders with Russia and Belarus and the US Air Force has assumed control over the Baltic states’ airspace and last month sent additional F-15 fighter jets to patrol the Baltic Sea region.
Exercise planners have invented three “aggressor countries”, Veishnoriya, Lubeniya and Vesbasriya, with Russian and Belarusian militaries responding to their attacks. The Baltic states and Poland fear that these names are poor disguises for them.
Zapad officially includes more than 12,700 troops and 250 tanks and should last a week, with Nato claiming the numbers might be eight times as high and the deployment may last far longer.
Russia often launches several concurrent exercises to avoid the agreement.
Drills involving more than 13,000 require independent observers, under an international agreement.
Belarusian opposition leaders say the Kremlin could use Zapad to position a large, permanent contingent of troops in Belarus, leaving the country at the mercy of any armed confrontation involving Russia.
Belarus, western Russia bordering Latvia and Estonia, the Baltic Sea and the enclave of Kaliningrad, which borders Poland and Lithuania.
Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, a Kremlin critic, said Zapad was a sign the Kremlin was preparing for conflict with Nato.
“We are anxious about this drill … it is an open preparation for war with the west,” Grybauskaite told the media.
Ahead of Zapad-2013, Russia leased a naval base in Crimea from Ukraine prior to its seizure in 2014, and used troops deployed to occupy the peninsula from Kiev.
“The joint strategic exercise Zapad-2017 is purely defensive in nature and its conduct does not pose any threat either to the European community as a whole or to neighbouring countries in particular,” said Oleg Voinov, head of the department for International Military Co-operation at the Belarus ministry of defence.
“At its conclusion . . . the personnel and armament of the armed forces will return to the places of permanent deployment, while the military units and subdivisions of the Russian Federation will leave the territory of Belarus,” Voinov said.
Russia is on the move. Picture credit: Wikimedia