MOSCOW — The Russian military sought Tuesday to allay Western fears about major war games set for next month, describing them as regular drills that will not threaten anyone.
The Zapad (West) 2017 maneuvers organized jointly by Belarus and Russia have raised NATO concerns. Some alliance members, including the Baltic states and Poland, have criticized Moscow for a lack of transparency and questioned Moscow’s intentions.
Russia-West relations have been badly strained over Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and continuing fighting in eastern Ukraine. Amid spiraling tensions, Western worries about the planned maneuvers have ranged from allegations that Russia could use the maneuvers to permanently deploy its forces to Belarus to fears of a surprise attack on the Baltics.
Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister, Lt. Gen. Alexander Fomin, rejected what he described as Western “myths about the so-called Russian threat.”
“The most improbable scenarios have been floated,” he said at a briefing for foreign military attaches. “Some have reached as far as to claim that the Zapad 2017 exercises will serve as a ‘platform for invasion’ and ‘occupation’ of Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine.”
Fomin said the Russian military will invite foreign observers to the Sept. 14-20 drills in Belarus and Western Russia, which will involve 5,500 Russian and 7,200 Belarusian troops, about 70 aircraft, up to 250 tanks and 200 artillery systems and 10 navy ships.
Moscow’s assurances have failed to assuage Russia’s neighbors, which expect the drills to be far greater in scope than officially declared.
Estonian Defense Minister Juri Luik said last month that Moscow could deploy up to 100,000 troops for the maneuvers. Poland’s Deputy Defense Minister Michal Dworczyk also questioned the Russian official claims, saying that Warsaw expects many more Russian soldiers and equipment to be deployed.
Speaking Monday on Polish state Radio 1, Dworczyk expressed hope that the exercise “will not include any aggressive scenarios” and won’t cause any incidents, adding that “operations on this scale always run this risk.”
He said that a recent visit by Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg was “dedicated in part to the upcoming exercises.”
Stoltenberg said last week that the alliance will send two observers to the maneuvers, but noted that the access on visitors’ days offered by Belarus does not constitute real monitoring and that NATO is seeking “a more thorough way of observing” the drills.
“All nations have the right to exercise their forces, but nations should also respect their commitments to transparency,” he said. “Predictability, transparency is especially important when we have increased military activity along our borders.”
The West has watched Russian military moves with utmost concern following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and support for pro-Russian insurgents in eastern Ukraine. Russia had leased a naval base in Crimea prior to its seizure, and used troops deployed there to quickly overtake the Black Sea peninsula.
Fomin said the exercise will simulate a military response to extremist groups supported from abroad and aren’t directed against anyone in particular.
“Despite the fact that the bulk of it will be held on the territory of Belarus, we had in mind an imaginary adversary unrelated to any specific region,” he said. “According to our estimates, the situation envisaged in the maneuvers’ scenario could develop in any part of the world.”
Monika Scislowska in Warsaw and Yuras Karmanau in Minsk, Belarus, contributed to this report.