MINSK, Belarus — Russia on Thursday kicked off a week-long military exercise with its ally Belarus that have its NATO neighbors and the United States watching anxiously, but actually addresses one of Moscow’s primary fears.
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 have also been put on alert and are getting ready to join the drills, the ministry said.
At a time of renewed Cold War-style tension between Russia and NATO, the symbolism couldn’t have been more striking. The Soviet-led Warsaw Pact once used the Zapad exercises to prepare for war with the West; that tank army’s job was to smash through NATO lines, including 300,000 U.S. troops.
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.” The Russian scenario for the games is a separatist incursion into Belarus spurred on by three imaginary countries, Veishnoriya, Lubeniya and Vesbasriya — in which NATO observers and others recognize Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.
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.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Belarusian counterpart, Alexander Lukashenko, will appear on the sidelines of the drills this weekend, a sign of how important the drills are to the Russian leader, who has vowed to prevent “color revolutions” in the former Soviet region similar to the 2014 rebellions that established a pro-Western government in Ukraine.
The exercises — an update of Zapad war games held in 2009 and 2013 — show off a military that Putin has transformed into an effective force that has deployed to Syria and Ukraine in recent years.
The story line of the exercise sees militant groups linked to Veishnoriya and backed by the West cross the Belarus border, similar to the way “little green men,” widely assumed to be Russian soldiers, appeared in Ukraine in 2014 prior to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea. The Russian forces cut off the insurgents access to the sea and air to prevent the Western coalition from providing backing to the separatists.
Western military officials have expressed concern that Zapad 2017 will serves as a “Trojan horse,” allowing Moscow to leave behind some of the military personnel and equipment it deployed for the drills. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told The Washington Post last week that Russia could build trust and head off possible accidents by being more transparent.
In Latvia, Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics told The Post that the country’s leaders are “not panicking” but are being “cautious” because “what we are seeing is that the exercises are of an offensive nature, they are exercising access and area denial, they are exercising against at least four NATO member states under the pretext that they are fighting [separatists].”
NATO, which has been conducting its own exercises in Europe this summer, has stationed four battalions — including U.S. troops — in the Baltic states and Poland.
Western officials in the Baltics last week said they saw 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 come 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, and thus bringing into question the viability of the alliance.
In Belarus, the country’s small opposition, which fears Moscow could leave its troops in order to head off any attempt to remove Lukashenko from power, last week held a protest over the presence the Russian military.
Ishaan Tharoor in Washington and Michael Birnbaum in Brussels contributed to this report.