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NATO, Russia meet amid tensions over war games

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
Russia's Chief of the General Staff General Valery Gerasimov (L) met with NATO Military Committee Chairman General Petr Pavel in Baku, Sept. 7, 2017.

Top Russian and NATO commanders have met in a rare meeting ahead of planned rival war games by the two sides which have raised fears of further escalation in eastern Europe. 

Russia's Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov met Petr Pavel, chairman of NATO's Military Committee in the Azerbaijani capital Baku on Thursday, but neither side gave any details on what was discussed. 

The US-led alliance is about to launch 15 days of military exercises in Western Ukraine this week, coinciding with war games known as Zapad or West by thousands of Russian troops.

The Russian exercises have worried NATO despite Moscow's assurances troops would rehearse a purely defensive scenario.

Moscow says the event will involve about 12,700 troops who will participate in military drill theaters in Belarus, the Baltic Sea, western Russia and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. Lithuania and Estonia have said as many as 100,000 soldiers could take part. 

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (C) is seen at the Khmelyovka test ground during the final stage of the Zapad-2013 military exercises, with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko (L) and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

A statement carried by Russian news agencies said after the Baku meeting that Gerasimov "focused attention on the main aim of the training -- the defense" of Russia and Belarus. The drills, he said, were "long-planned and defensive" and "not aimed against any third country."

NATO said the meeting "demonstrates a clear mutual interest to maintain the military lines of communication" on the borders of Ukraine as well as NATO member states Poland, Latvia and Lithuania. 

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said Wednesday that he saw no "imminent threat" but French Defense Minister Florence Parly on Thursday condemned the Russia drills a deliberate "strategy of intimidation." 

Meanwhile, the pro-Western government in Moldova waded into the tensions as it sent 57 troops to Ukraine to participate in the military exercises from Sept. 8-23, deepening a row with the president who had vetoed the move. 

President Igor Dodon had argued that Moldova was bound by its constitution to stay neutral, but the defense ministry ignored the president, who is also Moldova's commander-in-chief. 

The military contact between Russia and NATO were probably their first since they severed military contacts over the crisis in Ukraine. 

Russia is wary of the US-led alliance's expansion on its doorsteps where NATO has deployed around 4,000 troops, consisting of four battle groups, to Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and Poland in recent years.

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