Russia and Belarus kick off Zapah 2017: what you need to know
Russia and Belarus’ Zapad military exercises have provoked concern among Nato members and allies in eastern Europe.
“We are going to be watching very closely the course of these exercises,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said during a visit to Poland last month.
Here’s what you need to know
Scheduled to last between September 14 and 20 in Belarus and eastern Russia the drills officially include 12,700 troops, with a little under half coming from Russia and the rest being Belarussian military. However, European sources have suggested up to 100 000 personnel could be involved, a figure denied by Moscow.
According to figures announced by Russia’s Defence Ministry, the drills will involve around 70 airplanes and helicopters, 10 combat ships, along with 680 units of combat equipment, including 250 tanks and 200 machine guns, multiple launch rocket systems and other heavy weaponry.
The Russian Defence Ministry has always insisted that the purpose of the drills is purely defensive
The drills will take place on the territory of three ranges in Leningrad, Pskov and Kaliningrad in Russian and six ranges in Belarus. The name “Zapad” (which translates as “west”) is said to refer to the western part of Russia and Belarus and not the states of the European Union, Russian Deputy Defence Minister Alexander Fomin said in an interview with Deutsche Welle. He also called on western media not to politicise the exercise and not to misinterpret its objectives.
“Some people come to a conclusion, the exercise “Zapad 2017” aims to “set the stage for invasion” and “occupation” of Lithuania, Poland and the Ukraine. None of this surprising theories has anything to do with the reality,” — Fomin announced.
According to the premise of the drills, Belarus gets attacked by three imaginary enemy states: Veyshnoria, Vesbaria and Lubenia. Lubenia is situated on the territory of western Belarus, while Veisbaria and Lubenia — are in territory belonging to Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. The aim of the drills is to test the ability of joint forces of Russia and Belarus to hold off the enemy’s attack and practice cooperation between the military administration of the two countries.
The governments of states sharing borders with Russia have expressed fears that the drills will be used for military provocation.
The main concern is that Russian may use the exercise to relocate a large number of military personnel to Belarus. The head of staff of the Ukrainian Army, Victor Muzhenko, has suggested that Russia could then launch an assault on its neighbours on the grounds of “massive provocations” concerning “the abuse of rights and threats to the safety of Russian-speaking minority”.
Baltic states have similar concerns, even though the idea of an invasion is further off.
Latvia sent a task force to Belarus to observe the drills, justifying the move by citing the risk of incursions into its airspace: The minister for foreign affairs Edgars Rinkevics has indicated it is possible foreign military aircraft could overfly neighbouring territory. At the same time, he played down the prospect of military invasion — especially due to an enhanced Nato presence in the region.
Meanwhile, Latvia is also undertaking some additional security measures. Authorities have even called on fans of strike ball — a military game, where participants dress in camouflage and carry fake weapons — to give up on their hobby for a while, to avoid causing panic among populations in border regions.
The Lithuanian authorities share the position of Latvia. “We are prepared better, than during the “Zapad 2009” and “Zapad 2013” exercises, the president of Lithuania Dalia Grybauskaite declared on September, 14 in an interview for LRT radio station. “More defensive units and measures are now located on our territory”.
By Maria Epifanova