Tuesday, 21 November, 2017

Russia, Belarus launch joint military exercise amid tensions with West

Estonia to send observers to Zapad exercise Russia begins large scale Zapad 2017 military exercise in Belarus
Howard Terry | 15 September, 2017, 00:37

The drills involve up to 12,700 troops (some 7,200 Belarusian and around 5,500 Russian troops, with up to 3,000 of them deployed to Belarus), up to 70 planes and helicopters, up to 680 units of military equipment, including almost 250 tanks, up to 200 artillery units, multiple launch rocket systems and mortar launchers, and also 10 warships. "Russia is still very, very unpredictable, and it has proved this unpredictability with its activities in occupying Crimea, Ukraine, and Georgia", she said.

Belarus, a former Soviet satellite often called Europe's last dictatorship, has long followed a delicate balancing act by trying to preserve a measure of independence while remaining closely integrated with its giant neighbor. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has said that Zapad 2017 appears to be a "preparation for an offensive war on a continental scale". And Russia has past form here.

Western officials raise concerns Moscow may use drills as a "Trojan horse" to make incursions into Poland and Baltics.

Russian Federation has rejected NATO's claims that tens of thousands of troops will take part in its current war games, insisting that it will be abide by the so-called Vienna Document requiring that any exercise involving more than 13,000 troops be open to observers.

NATO's Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg earlier this month called on Russian Federation to "be fully transparent". As it said only around 3,000 personnel would be involved in the exercise, it looked like a clear sign it was hiding something. Russian Federation had leased a naval base in Crimea from Ukraine prior to its seizure, and used troops deployed there to quickly take over the Black Sea peninsula.

"This has been overhyped by the Western media", says Vladimir Frolov, an independent Russian foreign policy analyst in Moscow. Russian forces are deployed to Belarus to help crush the rebellion. He added that he had no indications that Russian Federation is planning such a move.

Both Moscow and Minsk have said repeatedly that the exercises are not a danger for neighboring countries.

Some Western statements are "akin to crying wolf", agrees Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military at the Center for Naval Analysis, a U.S. think tank. "Every nation, also Russian Federation, has the right to exercise its forces but it's important this is done in a transparent way to prevent misunderstandings, miscalculations", he said.

Moscow officials said the exercises are in no way meant to stage attacks on other places and that the West was "whipping up hysteria" over the drills, Reuters reported.

North Atlantic Treaty Organisation has also bolstered its presence in its easternmost member states that were dominated by Moscow during the Cold War and remain concerned about the Kremlin's intentions in the region.

So who to believe? "And I am sure that we will restore our relationship with NATO and we will return to the wonderful form of cooperation that is the Russia-NATO Council".

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