Russia is hoping to assuage concerns about their large scale military drills in Belarus slated to begin next month. The Zapad 2017 exercises, will see thousands of Russian troops conducting war games inside the allied nation of Belarus, prompting serious concerns from Ukraine, as well as NATO member states Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania.
Russia used similar war games as a precursor to military efforts that led to the annexation of Crimea in 2014, as well as operations in Georgia. To make matters worse, Russia and Belarus have a history of lying about troops counts and the assets utilized in such drills, often underestimating the number of military personnel participating by tens of thousands, in an effort to dismiss allegations levied by NATO leaders.
Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, Commander of the U.S.’ European Command, explained why Zapad 2017 has him nervous in July, as American and other NATO nations worked to bolster their defensive capabilities in the region as the Russian drills approached.
“People are worried, this is a Trojan horse. They say, ‘We’re just doing an exercise,’ and then all of a sudden they’ve moved all these people and capabilities somewhere,” Hodges said. According to the General, large-scale drills in Belarus offer the Russian military an excellent opportunity to move military hardware and equipment into the border nation, for use in an impending offensive, an idea that might sound paranoid had it not already proven effective in previous operations.
Russia and Belarus have both stated that the two nations anticipate no more than 12,700 joint military service members participating in the drills, which would keep the number below the 13,000 participants that would require that they open the drills up to military observers from NATO, per a Cold War era agreement between Russia and the West called the Vienna Document. Of course, the last time Russia and Belarus conducted these drills in 2013, they also claimed they would not reach the 13,000 troop mark – before fielding an estimated 90,000.
Some people are even going as far as to say that the Zapad-2017 exercises will be used as a springboard to invade and occupy Lithuania, Poland or Ukraine,” Russian Deputy Defence Minister Alexander Fomin said on Tuesday. “Not a single one of these paradoxical versions has anything to do with reality.”
The drills will begin on September 14th, and continue through the 20th in Belarus, Western Russia, and, perhaps most disconcerting to NATO, in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. From there, Russian forces would need to only capture a narrow stretch of land to separate the Baltic states from their allies further west in Europe.
“As well as its anti-terrorist backdrop, the Zapad-2017 exercise is of a purely defensive nature,” Fomin added. Belarussian Deputy Defence Minister Oleg Belokonev added to Fomin’s reassurance, claiming that all military assets brought into Belarus from Russia would be withdrawn after the completion of the war games.
These assurances likely mean little to those within Ukraine, which has already been the site of Russian deceit coupled with military operations, nor will Russia’s claims of troop count convince NATO leaders who watched 2013’s Zapad exercises balloon up to nearly seven times the size Russia claimed.
U.S. Gen. Phillip Breedlove, who served as the Supreme Commander for NATO until May of last year, certainly isn’t convinced by Russian and Belarus statements. In February, he spoke before a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing to offer his own insight into the impending drills.
“The Russians have ordered 83 times… the rail cars that they ordered for Zapad (in 2013),” Breedlove said, predicting that the 2017 drills “will be demonstrably bigger.”
Nations have a right to exercise,” Breedlove said. “Nations do not have a right, I think, to exercise irresponsibly on other borders and in configurations that represent offensive capability. I think the problem with this exercise is size and scope, directly on the border, a name that orients it west, and the fact the unpredictability of it makes it very alarming.”
Image courtesy of the Russian Ministry of Defense