Nato and Moscow spar over plans for major Russian war games

Russia rejects fears that drills could be a ‘Trojan horse’ for attack on neighbours

Russian deputy defence minister Alexander Fomin  at a briefing in Moscow on Tuesday on the military exercise Zapad-2017. Photograph: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images

Russian deputy defence minister Alexander Fomin at a briefing in Moscow on Tuesday on the military exercise Zapad-2017. Photograph: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images

 

Nato has requested more access for its observers to major Russian-led war games next month, as the alliance’s four new battle groups in the Baltic region became fully operational and US fighter jets began patrolling its airspace.

Moscow insists the “Zapad” exercises in western Russia and Belarus pose no threat to neighbouring Nato states, but its military held drills before attacking Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, destroying trust in the Kremlin’s assurances.

There is also a huge disparity between Russian and Nato claims of the scale of Zapad, with Moscow saying fewer than 13,000 troops will be involved, and western officials expecting some 100,000 soldiers to play a role.

Just three Nato observers have been invited to attend Zapad and they will spend limited time and have relatively little access to the exercises, alliance spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said on Wednesday.

She called on Russia and Belarus to observe international rules that allow observers to have “briefings on the exercise scenario and progress, opportunities to talk to individual soldiers about the exercise, and overflights of the exercise”.

The so-called Vienna Document obliges many countries to give other states broad access to monitor war games involving more than 13,000 soldiers – fuelling suspicion that the size of Zapad is being played down to keep foreign eyes away.

“People are worried this is a Trojan horse,” Ben Hodges, the commander of the US army in Europe, said last month of Zapad, which means “West” in Russian. “They say, ‘We’re just doing an exercise,’ and then all of a sudden they’ve moved all these people and capabilities somewhere.”

Fictional names

This week, Russian deputy defence minister Alexander Fomin said the West’s stated fears over Zapad were merely “myths about the so-called Russian threat”.

“Some people are even going as far as to say that the Zapad-2017 exercises will be used as a springboard to invade and occupy Lithuania, Poland or Ukraine... Not a single one of these paradoxical versions has anything to do with reality,” he said, insisting that the drills would be “purely defensive in nature”.

The “script” for the war games – which run from September 14th- 20th – did not reassure the region, however.

Russian and Belarusian troops will be tasked with crushing armed separatists who have international support, from areas with fictional names but which correspond to western Belarus and parts of Poland and Lithuania.

“According to our assessments, this situation ... could erupt in any region of the world,” Lt Gen Fomin said.

Four multinational Nato battle groups totalling about 4,500 troops are now fully operational in Estonia, Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, the alliance said on Tuesday, and seven US F-15 fighters have replaced four Polish jets in patrolling the airspace of the three Baltic states.