Tensions are high on Europe’s eastern borders as Russia and Belarus prepare to conduct a large-scale joint military exercise, Zapad ’17, that many within NATO fear may actually be a ruse intended to bolster Russian forces in the region, potentially for further military advancement. Russia has repeatedly claimed that the drills will not exceed 13,000 troops; a number widely regarded as an outright lie by Western leaders. In a statement made earlier this week, German officials accused Russia of planning to send as many as 100,000 troops to the region.
It is undisputed that we are seeing a demonstration of capabilities and power of the Russians,” German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen told reporters in Tallinn. “Anyone who doubts that only has to look at the high numbers of participating forces in the Zapad exercise: more than 100,000.”
This is not the first time such accusations have been levied at Russia as Zapad approaches, and with good reason. The last time these joint drills between Russia and Belarus took place, it was also announced that participation would remain below 13,000 troops, a number agreed upon by a Soviet era document signed by the United States and the former Soviet Union that would require observers be permitted access to the drills if they exceed 13,000 participants. Once the drills were underway, however, participating soon skyrocketed to more than 90,000 troops.
Although concerns have been levied by a number of military officials, the statement made by the German Defense Minister marks the first time it’s been directly addressed by national level leadership in the press.
Of course, officials from both Russia and Belarus have gone on the media offensive, claiming that the drills will proceed exactly as they have been advertised, but Russia’s new promises of transparency have done little to stifle the concerns of NATO allied nations along Europe’s eastern borders. In 2013, Russia sent a massive influx of troops and equipment into Belarus under the guise of a similar drill, followed soon thereafter by the military annexation of Crimea from the Ukraine, whose northern border abuts both Belarus and Russia. Many officials, as a result, are concerned that 2017’s Zapad exercise could be the lead up to a similar offensive.
“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,” Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, Commander of the U.S.’ European Command, said of the planned drills last month. He also echoed concerns that these drills could offer Russia the opportunity to move large military hardware into the region, and then leave it behind for more rapid access for future military endeavors.
“I stress that the West-2017 exercise, besides its anti-terrorist goals, has an absolutely defensive character,” Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin told reporters last week. “According to our assessments, the situation envisaged by the scenario of the exercise may erupt in any region of the world,” he added.
Fomin went on to blame media outlets for blowing these drills out of proportion, though he has previously placed the blame on foreign governments for pushing an “anti-Russian” agenda.
Image courtesy of the Kremlin