(MOSCOW) — Russia put on a display of heavy firepower for president Vladimir Putin and foreign media gathered Monday to watch military exercises that are believed to be some of the largest held since the end of the Cold War.
Putin watched as dozens of planes and artillery units unleashed a barrage of projectiles onto a firing range close to Saint Petersburg as part of a drill simulating a defense against an attack by a force intended to represent NATO.
The demonstration was part of Zapad 2017, the week-long exercises that Russia is conducting with its eastern European ally, Belarus and that have attracted intense attention recently and has even stoked war fears among some.
The major exercises have elicited criticism from NATO and the U.S., who say Russia has concealed the true number of troops taking part, and troubled some observers in Eastern Europe, where the Kremlin’s invasion of Crimea in 2014 remains fresh.
Russia has said no more than 13,000 troops are taking part in Zapad, which means West, just below the threshold that would require it to invite international observers. But NATO officials have repeatedly suggested that the real number is likely far higher, potentially between 70,000 and 100,000.
Russian forces are collaborating with Belarusian troops in the war games, which simulate a scenario where a hostile “Western Coalition” seeks to overthrow the Belarus government and split it away from Russia. The two armies are repulsing a fictional nation, invented for the exercises, but which bears a strong resemblance to a Western tract of Belarus. The fake country, Veishnoriya, allied with two more made-up states, stirs up a separatist insurrection.
The exercises, which displayed a reinvigorated Russian military that has undergone extensive modernization in recent years, have raised uncomfortable scenarios in the minds of leaders in the Baltic States and Poland, who see themselves reflected in the Russian-invented countries targeted in the exercises. The U.S. has sent extra fighter aircraft to Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, and deployed 600 paratroopers to the region in response to the games. The troops represent a symbolic reinforcement of the small contingents the U.S. has already deployed in those countries, which are meant to reassure them following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The exercises are a variant of Soviet-era drills and now take place every four years, but this time they have drawn intense interest, fueled by Russia’s attack on Ukraine.
NATO officials have said they don’t see any indication the exercises will morph into real operations. The top U.S. general in Europe, Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, told the Washington Post in Tirana on Monday that the exercises so far were familiar, though they were “larger than what they told us.”
“It’s following in line with what we’ve seen in the past,” Scaparrotti, Supreme Allied Commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, told the Post. “They’re usually very large. They’re usually initially defensive in nature but also have an offensive portion thereafter that looks to me like a rehearsal for an attack.”
There has been much speculation, however, including among senior eastern European officials, as to whether the thousands of Russian troops moving into Belarus for the exercises will leave after they finish. Lithuania’s president, Dalia Grybauskaite, has raised the question publicly, as has Estonia’s defense minister.
Opposition activists in Belarus, critical of the country’s long-ruling authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, have warned they fear Russia will seek to lock it grip on the country by inserting its troops. Lukashenko, who has followed a difficult balancing act between independence and his country’s deep integration with its giant neighbor, has recently tried to stake a more self-assertive line, refusing to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea and quarreling over gas deals.
Russia and Belarus have dismissed the claims, insisting the exercises are entirely defensive. The chief of Russia’s general staff, Valery Gerasimov, on Thursday called Scaparrotti to notify him of the games’ start and inform him they were not targeted at any other country.
On Monday at the Luzhsky firing range where Putin was watching, Russian armor and aviation was tasked with repelling an offensive. The mock-battle lasted 45 minutes, fought over a vast expanse of mud. Relentless rain hid flights of SU-24 bombers, with journalists able only to see the huge blasts of their bombs down the range. Four of Russia’s new KA-52 attack helicopters rose above the tree line, hovering under the murk, punctuating an almost continual stream of ordinance, that ended with a long column of T72 tanks driving forward.
There has also been skepticism around the hyperbole inspired by the drills, which some view more as a propaganda exercise requiring the West’s buy-in. Finland’s defense minister, Jussi Niinistö, last week, suggested Western countries had done the Kremlin’s job for it in inflating the scale of the exercises.
“Western countries have taken the bait completely, they’ve plugged the exercises so much,” Niinistö told the Finnish broadcaster Yle.
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