Russia kicked off a series of war game exercises on Thursday, much to the concern and alarm of its European neighbors, as well as NATO.
In a controversial mock battle, Russia, along with Belarus, a dictatorship serving as one of Russia’s only regional allies, will spend six days fighting against the fictional state of Veishnoriya. According to Russian news agency TASS, the large-scale drills will involve 138 tanks, 231 armored fighting vehicles, 40 aircraft, and 241 artillery and missile systems in total. While NATO members argue the numbers are higher, Russia says around 12,700 troops are expected to take part in the effort, which will take place across six Belarusian training ranges and three in Russia.
Known as Zapad-2017, a reference to the West (“zapad”), the exercise traces its roots back to the 1970s during the Soviet Union’s stand-off with the United States and wider Western world. Following the fall of communism, the endeavor died out, only to be revived in 1999, and expanded under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin. Growing tensions between Russia and the West have brought heightened attention to this year’s exercise, arguably a demonstration of aggression intended to signal Russia’s power and military might to its adversaries.
“NATO will be monitoring the exercises closely,” said Jens Stoltenberg, who serves as secretary general for the 29-nation Western alliance.
“The lack of transparency increases the risk of misunderstanding, miscalculations, accidents and incidents that can become dangerous,” he continued, pointing to the Vienna Document, which commits Russia and a number of Western countries to report exercises featuring more than 13,000 troops or 300 tanks. Foreign observers are meant to monitor those exercises which do exceed the limit — Stoltenberg and other NATO officials have expressed concerns that Russia is understating the number of troops involved in Zapad-2017 as a means of avoiding this requirement. By some counts, the exercise could involve upwards of 70,000 to 100,000 troops, many times the official number stated by Russian officials.
Western concern over both troop numbers and the exercise more generally is mounting in no large part because of its premise. Zapad-2017 involves the following scenario: Veishnoriya, the fictional nation in question, is backed by Western powers and working to pit Russia and Belarus against each other, with assistance from also-fictional countries Lubeniya and Vesbasriya. That premise is upsetting a number of countries, namely Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic states, all of which lie in proximity to Russia. That geographic reality isn’t lost on officials, many of whom have already expressed concern over the exercise.
“We are anxious about this drill,” said Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite. “It is an open preparation for war with the West.”
Kostiantyn Yeliseyev, foreign policy advisor for Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, also expressed concern over the exercise, telling Reuters it was “very dangerous since they are taking place just near the border with Ukraine.”
But the Kremlin fired back over Western concerns on Thursday, asserting Russia’s right to hold the exercise while insisting the endeavor adheres to international standards.
“We reject complaints of these exercises not being transparent,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on a conference call. “We believe that whipping up hysteria around these exercises is a provocation.”
“It is a normal practice for any country to hold such exercises,” he added. “Everything is being held in line with international law.”
Tensions between Russia and Western powers have been rising for years, but the Kremlin’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 spurred an onslaught of criticism, much of which still plagues Russia’s relationship with its neighbors, as well as the United States. In the time since, NATO exercises have ramped up, as have European military drills more generally. On Monday, non-NATO member Sweden launched its biggest war games exercise in over two decades, part of a sign that the usually-neutral country is becoming more wary of Russia’s military moves.
“Russia is the country that affects security in Europe right now with its actions — the annexation of the Crimea and continued battles in eastern Ukraine – so it is clear that we are watching very closely what Russia is doing,” said Micael Byden, the commander of the Swedish Armed Forces.
War games carried out by Russia and Sweden are only the latest in a year of military demonstrations. In July, the United States and a number of allied forces conducted a 10-day exercise involving 25,000 troops, carried out across the Eastern European countries of Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. But Western officials argue efforts like those adhered to the Vienna Document — and that Russian observers were allowed to watch — are a notable difference from the exercises going on this week.
Even in Belarus, Zapad-2017 hasn’t gone over smoothly. The country is considered Europe’s last true dictatorship by many regional experts, and President Alexander Lukashenko is notorious for crackdowns on public displays of dissent. Still, an unauthorized rally reportedly took place in Minsk last week, where around 150-200 protesters gathered in Oktyabrskaya Square to display opposition to Belarus’ role in Russian military efforts.
“Long live Belarus!” protesters reportedly yelled, waving the nation’s red-and-white flag.
While Russia insists that Zapad-2017 is “of an entirely defensive nature and is not aimed at any other states,” those over the border will be keeping a close eye as the exercise proceeds.
“The drill is a threat to us, no matter what Russia says,” Poland’s Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz said. “It is far from being defensive, it is aggressive and this is dangerous.”