Russian jets land in Belarus for controversial war games

Moscow rejects West’s claim that ‘Zapad’ military exercises will involve 100,000 troops

Opposition supporters and one of the Belarusian opposition leaders Vladimir Nekliaev take part in a rally during a protest against the upcoming Zapad military exercises in Minsk, Belarus. Photograph: Tatyana Zenkovich/EPA

Opposition supporters and one of the Belarusian opposition leaders Vladimir Nekliaev take part in a rally during a protest against the upcoming Zapad military exercises in Minsk, Belarus. Photograph: Tatyana Zenkovich/EPA

 

Russian military jets and helicopters have landed in neighbouring Belarus ahead of Thursday’s start of major war games that are unnerving nearby Nato members and Ukraine.

Moscow and Minsk insist the six-day Zapad (“West”) exercises will be purely defensive and involve fewer than 12,700 of their troops – keeping the drills officially below the 13,000 level at which foreign observers must be invited to attend.

While saying they do not see a direct threat of Russian attack during Zapad, senior Nato and national officials raise concerns about its real scale and its potential to intimidate nearby countries including Poland and the Baltic states.

“It is undisputed that we see a demonstration of capabilities and power of the Russians,” German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen said last week at a meeting of EU defence chiefs in Estonia.

“Anyone who doubts that only has to look at the high numbers of the participating forces in the Zapad exercise: more than 100,000.”

Russia’s military said it was “bewildered” by her comments and accused her of “publicly talking through her hat and making arbitrary allegations about 100,000 Russian troops . . . and about hidden threats to Europe. ”

Western military experts say Moscow regularly breaks up its biggest war games into several smaller elements so as to avoid the obligation to invite foreign monitors. They also say that the logistical plans for Zapad make it clear that far more than 12,700 soldiers will be involved in western Russia and Belarus.

The defence ministry of Belarus announced that “planes and helicopters of . . . the Russian armed forces were moved to military airfields” for the start of Zapad.

“The Russian military pilots were given a warm and heartfelt welcome on Belarusian soil.”

Fictional names

During Zapad, 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.

Alongside large numbers of troops, tanks, artillery systems and war planes, Nato officials believe Moscow’s military may employ nuclear-capable missiles of a type stationed in Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave on the Baltic Sea wedged between Poland and Lithuania.

Nato has sent reinforcements to Poland and the Baltic states to ease fears of any repeat of Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 and its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, both of which were preceded by major Russian military exercises.