Russia launches war games on Nato's eastern flank

Drills with Belarus to test firepower against imaginary foe but are strictly defensive, it says

MOSCOW • Russia yesterday began major joint military exercises with Belarus along the European Union's eastern flank in a show of strength that has rattled nervous Nato members.

Named Zapad-2017 (West-2017), the manoeuvres, slated to last until Wednesday, 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 said 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 exercises, Russia's defence ministry insisted that 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 under-reporting 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 owing to the Kremlin's meddling in Ukraine and the United States-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 broke free from Moscow's grip only 25 years ago, such reassurances have not dampened suspicion.

"This is designed to provoke us and test our defences, and that is why we have to be strong," British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon told the BBC last week.

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 European nations. Russia said they will simulate assaults by "extremist groups" trying to carry out "attacks".

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 after years of spending cuts that have left the country fearful of Russia's growing military strength.

The exercise saw Sweden simulate an attack from the east on the Baltic island of Gotland, near the Swedish mainland. About 1,500 troops from the US, France and other Nato allies are taking part in the exercise dubbed Aurora, although Nato generals said it is not a response to the Russian drills.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 15, 2017, with the headline 'Russia launches war games on Nato's eastern flank'. Print Edition | Subscribe