Russia is set to launch major joint military drills with Belarus on Thursday, amid continuing tensions between Moscow and NATO.
The large-scale drills, called Zapad (West) 2017, are scheduled to be held from September 14 to 20 around the Baltic Sea, in western Russia, Belarus, and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.
The maneuvers, described by Moscow as “purely defensive,” will involve 12,700 troops, 70 aircraft, 250 tanks, and 10 warships.
NATO claims that Russia is under-reporting the number of troops participating in the drills and that the military exercises could provide cover for a possible permanent relocation of offensive equipment near the Baltic countries. Some of the alliance’s eastern members allege that Moscow has committed more than 100,000 servicemen to the war games, a claim that has been rejected by Russia as flat-out wrong.
The Russian Foreign Ministry has said that the “artificial hype” about the maneuvers is aimed at “justifying the spending on NATO’s military buildup on Poland and the Baltic states in the eyes of the western audience.”
Russia and NATO have had strained ties since conflict erupted in eastern Ukraine some three years ago. More than 10,000 have been killed in the war in Ukraine’s industrial east, where the Kiev government is fighting pro-Russia forces.
Russia has long been wary of NATO’s expansion eastward — toward Russia’s western borders. NATO has deployed around 4,000 troops, consisting of four battle groups, to Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland in recent years.
The US military took part in a training exercise with Baltic allies in June that included B-1 and B-52 bombers and 50 naval ships. Also in July, 25,000 servicemen from 17 countries participated in a NATO training exercise in the Black Sea, which were monitored by members of the Russian military.
Sweden holds biggest war games in 20 years
Meanwhile, the Swedish military has started its “first and largest” drills, dubbed Aurora 17, in more than two decades on Wednesday, involving 19,000 troops with support from NATO countries.
Sweden, which is not a member of NATO, plans to conduct the war games in the air, on land and at sea, with the participation of a US Patriot missile battery, helicopters, and a unit of National Guard tanks.
Around 1,500 troops from the United States, France, Norway, and other NATO allies are taking part in the exercises over a three-week period.
Brandishing the ‘Russian threat’
Micael Byden, the commander of the Swedish Armed Forces, seemed to suggest that the drills were being launched in response to a perceived security threat from Russia.
“The security situation has taken a turn for the worse,” Byden said. “Russia is the country that affects security in Europe right now with its actions... so it is clear that we are watching very closely what Russia is doing.”
Moscow has repeatedly expressed concern over Sweden’s growing military activities and its closer cooperation with NATO.
Russian President Vladimir Putin warned in early June that Moscow would need to take additional security measures if the Scandinavian country decided to join NATO.
“If Sweden joins NATO, that will affect our [bilateral] relations in a negative way,” Putin said back then, adding that Moscow would regard the move as “an additional threat.”