Russia launches war games on NATO’s eastern flank

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A soldier fires a portable air defence rocket during international war games Russia hosted in 2015

Russia On Thursday began major
joint military exercises with Belarus along the European Union’s eastern
flank — a show of strength that has rattled nervous NATO members. Named
Zapad-2017 (West-2017), the manoeuvres, scheduled to last until
September 20, are taking place on the territory of Moscow’s closest ally
Belarus, in Russia’s European exclave of Kaliningrad and in its
frontier Pskov and Leningrad regions.

Moscow
says the drills will involve 12,700 troops, 70 aircraft, 250 tanks and
10 battleships testing their firepower against an imaginary foe close to
borders with Poland and the Baltic States.
In a statement announcing the start of the exercises Russia’s defence ministry insisted the manoeuvres are “of a strictly defensive nature and are not directed against any other state or group of countries.”
But
NATO claims Russia has kept it in the dark and seems to be massively
underreporting the scale of the exercises, which some of the alliance’s
eastern members insist could see more than 100,000 servicemen take part.
The
war games come with tensions between Russia and NATO at their highest
since the Cold War due to the Kremlin’s meddling in Ukraine and the
US-led alliance bolstering its forces in eastern Europe.
Moscow
has dismissed fears over the drills — the latest in a series of annual
exercises that rotate around the vast country — as fuelled by the
“myth about the so-called ‘Russian threat'”.
But
for NATO allies, especially jittery members such as Poland and the
Baltic States which only broke free from Moscow’s grip 25 years ago,
such reassurances have not dampened suspicion.
“This
is designed to provoke us, it’s designed to test our defences and that
is why we have to be strong,” Britain’s Defence Secretary Michael Fallon
told the BBC last week.
“Russia is testing us and testing us now at every opportunity. We see a more aggressive Russia, we have to deal with that.”

‘Skillfully manipulates’

Moscow
has held a stream of exercises since ties with the West plunged in 2014
over Ukraine, with the military claiming some drills included nearly
100,000 troops.
Minsk has said the games
will role play a conflict with a made-up rebel region backed by
neighbouring European nations. Russia says they will simulate assaults
by “extremist groups” trying to carry out “terrorist attacks”.
Russian
military expert Alexander Golts told AFP that Moscow “very skillfully
manipulates the figures for such drills because it does not want to have
to invite foreign observers”.
“Russia at every drill is working on one and the same scenario — how to deploy troops quickly,” he said.
The
Kremlin has vigorously defended its right to hold exercises and has
long blamed the United States for ratcheting up tensions by expanding
NATO up to its borders and holding its own provocative drills.

Map of eastern Europe locating three distinct sets of military exercises along with countries that host NATO battalions.

Map of eastern Europe locating three distinct sets of military exercises along with countries that host NATO battalions.
(AFP)

The
Russian war games come as Ukraine on Monday launched annual joint
military exercises with the US and a host of other NATO countries.
Meanwhile
non-aligned Sweden has mobilised 19,000 soldiers for its biggest drills
in 20 years which also include units from across Scandinavia and the US.

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