The United States and its NATO allies have continually ramped up the military presence along Europe’s Eastern Flank since Russia’s military annexation of Crimea in 2014.  Now, with large-scale Russian military exercises expected to commence in September near the region, defense officials are beginning to voice their concerns about parallels between the planned drills, and those Russia conducted prior to taking Crimea.

“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,” U.S. Army Lieutenant General Ben Hodges said.  His primary concern is that the exercises, named Zapad-2017, could allot Russia the perfect opportunity to relocate military equipment and assets to Belarus, where they could be left for a future incursion.

Hodges was quick to point out, however, that there have been no indications to suggest that Russia is planning any such invasion.  Moscow has issued a number of statements intended to reassure NATO officials that their exercises will adhere to international limits on size, but that hasn’t stopped a number of NATO leaders of worrying the exercises are nothing more than a clever way to position themselves for future military action.

“This artificial buffoonery over the routine Zapad-2017 exercises is aimed at justifying the sharp intensification of the NATO bloc (activities) along the perimeter of Russian territory,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin told the Interfax news agency on Friday.

Previous large-scale military exercises conducted by the Russians included special forces training, long-range missiles and the use of drones.  The training methods employed in those drills were later seen employed in the annexation of Crimea, Russia’s military support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, and continued operations supporting Bashar al Assad’s regime in Syria.

NATO concerns are fueled by Russia’s lack of transparency regarding the upcoming the exercise, including the lasting uncertainty that Russia will abide by a Cold War era treaty, known as the Vienna Document, that requires observers for any military exercise that exceeds 13,000 participants.  Some NATO allies have claimed they intelligence suggests Zapad-2017 may see as many as 100,000 Russian troops, and include nuclear weapons training.  If true, that would make September’s drills the largest Russia has conducted since 2013.

Russian ally Belarus, however, has indicated that the drill will involve significantly fewer troops than that, and potentially so few that Russia won’t even need to worry about honoring the Vienna Document.

“Up to 12,700 servicemen are planned to be involved in the drills. About 10,200 troops will be involved on the territory of our country, including 7,200 servicemen from the Belarusian Armed Forces and about 3,000 from the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.” Belarus’ Defense Minister Lieutenant-General Andrei Ravkov said on Monday.

With that sort of statement, why are so many NATO leaders concerned about a comparatively massive drill with 100,000 participants?  Well, because Russian and Belarus officials both claimed their last Zapad exercises, held in 2013, would only include about 12,000 soldiers.  Intelligence gathered during the event, however, showed closer to 90,000.

Russia has publicly stated that it would permit observers if their exercises exceed 13,000 troops, but U.S. and NATO officials have indicated some trepidation in believing those statements.

Although NATO has conducted a number of military exercises in the region since 2014, officials plan to keep things fairly quiet on the European side of the border during the Russian exercise.  The only drills scheduled to take place during Zapad-2017 are a six-week deployment of three companies of 120 paratroopers each to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania for “low level” exercises.

“We want to avoid anything that looks like a provocation. This is not going to be the ‘Sharks’ and the ‘Jets’ out on the streets,” Hodges said.


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