Jitters in Europe as Russia-Belarus war games get underway

US troops take part in Ukrainian military exercise

Chung Sung-Jun Getty Images

The Russian war games come as Ukraine on Monday launched annual joint military exercises with the United States and a host of other North Atlantic Treaty Organisation countries.

Amid icy relations with the U.S., Russian Federation launched joint military exercises with Belarus on Thursday in what outsiders are hoping provide clues to Russia's current firepower and agility. Russian military officials have said up to 70 aircraft and about 250 tanks, 200 artillery systems and 10 navy ships will also be involved.

Even though the Kremlin maintains that the exercise is purely defensive, Baltic and Eastern European states have reason to be concerned: the 2013 version of the drills is widely regarded as a training exercise for the annexation of Crimea the following year.

Staged tactical events and live-fire exercises set to involve aircraft and air defense units will take place at Belarus' Lepelsky, Losvido, Borisovsky, Osipovichsky, Ruzhansky and Domanovsky training ranges, in the Dretun and Glubokoye areas in Belarus, and also at the Luzhsky, Strugi Krasnye, and Pravdinsky training ranges in Russian Federation.

That many troops would make these war games among the biggest since the Soviet period, and the discrepancy in reports on the size has set off concerns among some about the drills' real objective and, in more alarmist quarters, even fears of invasion. This was stated by President of Lithuania Dalia Grybauskaite.

As Russian troops take part in what may be the largest military exercise since the Cold War, NATO has called on Moscow to be more "transparent" about its exercises.

The Russians, unlike the Trojans, would not have the element of surprise in trying to breach their opponents' defenses during the Zapad drills.

The Zapad 2017 scenario simulates a situation in which the opposing sides are located within the actual borders of Belarus: on one side, "the Northern", which include the Belarus-Russia Union State, and on the other side "the Western", which represent a coalition of interested states such as Veishnoriya, Vesbariya and Lubeniya. Maybe neither side. After four years of Cold War-style standoff between Russian Federation and the West, sparked by Moscow's invasion of Ukraine, the trust gap between the two sides is enormous.

NATO has been critical about how transparent Moscow has been about Zapad 2017, saying it has failed to adhere to global treaties by not allowing observers to monitor the exercise to ensure that it is not a cover for an aggressive military operation. Russia responded by stationing more strategic missiles and other forces in Kaliningrad, the Russian exclave on the Baltic Sea where numerous Zapad drills will be held. Back in 2008, military exercises also preceded Russia's invasion of Georgia. In addition, according to military analysts, Belarus acts as the ally of the aggressor country. Russian Federation had leased a naval base in Crimea from Ukraine prior to its seizure, and used troops deployed there to quickly take over the Black Sea peninsula.

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