Political posturing aside, the simple size of the Zapad (West) 2017 Russian exercises in Belarus has raised eyebrows in Poland and the other Baltic States — all of which fear Moscow’s recent bouts of expansionist rhetoric.
They’re also worried as Moscow staged large-scale drills to disguise its opening moves on Georgia in 2008 and the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Moscow states the war game — due to start Friday Australian time — will involve about 12,700 troops, 70 aircraft, 250 tanks and 10 warships. It also insists that the joint exercises with Belarus were “long-planned and defensive” and “not aimed against any third country,” Russian news agencies reported last week.
But Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia don’t believe it. Nor does Germany.
German Defense Minister Ursula Von der Leyen has publicly agreed that the real number taking part in Russia’s war-games is likely to be 100,000.
“I believe it is clear that we are witnessing yet another Russian demonstration of power and capabilities,” she said at a defence ministers’ meeting.
Russia is only admitting to 12,700 in order to avoid triggering treaty requirements for the participation of international observers, critics say.
French defence minister Florence Parly has condemned the coming drills on the border of the EU and NATO as a deliberate “strategy of intimidation”.
Moscow has long railed against NATO expansion in its former sphere of influence. NATO has deployed four battle groups — around 4000 troops — to Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and Poland in recent years in response to Russia’s aggressive attitude.
But Ukraine fears this military exercise may conceal real teeth.
President Petro Poroshenko has expressed alarm the exercises may be disguising a substantial reinforcement of Russian-backed separatists, stating “7000 vehicles with soldiers and military equipment are nearing our borders and there are no guarantees they will go back to Russia after the manoeuvres.”
Sweden has also timed its largest war game in more than 20 years to coincide with Zapad 2017. Some 20,000 European troops — including 1000 from the US — are practising on land, air and sea across the Baltic Sea. Dubbed Aurora 17, the goal of the exercise — which kicked off yesterday — is to rehearse the defence of the strategically crucial Gotland Island.
The Swedish military said the exercise by the non-NATO nation is designed “to deter potential attackers, and force them to carefully consider the risks of attacking our country.”