In Russian war games, an unsettling display of resurgent military might on Nato’s doorstep
Russia is readying this week for war games that Western security officials see as a muscular display of firepower along Nato’s most vulnerable region.
The exercises will show off a military that has been transformed under President Vladimir Putin into an effective force that has deployed to Syria and Ukraine in recent years. The official Thursday start – Western observers say the deployments started weeks ago – comes as relations with the West scrape all-time lows.
Moscow has insisted that the exercise rehearses a strictly defensive scenario and involves no more than 12,700 troops, just under the level that would require Russia to allow Nato observers under international agreements. The chief of the Russian general staff, General Valery Gerasimov, said last week that the war games were “not aimed against any third country.”
But senior Western government officials believe the real number of Russian military personnel involved could reach 100,000 and above.
The Baltic countries that would be on the front lines of a Western conflict with Russia shrug off any direct threat, saying that the Kremlin has no reason to risk tangling with fresh Nato deployments this year that include significant US reinforcements. But they also say that the week-long Zapad-2017 exercise is intended to unsettle their societies and send a political message that Russia is as credible – and dangerous – a military power as it was during the cold war.
At Nato headquarters in Brussels, senior officials say that their intelligence services are closely monitoring Russia as it draws up its military alongside their borders. They say that Moscow’s unwillingness to open the exercises to observation raises the risk of unplanned conflict stemming from misunderstandings.
“With more military activities along our borders in the air, at land and at sea, the risk for incidents, accidents, miscalculations is increasing,” Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in an interview. “Transparency is the best way to avoid those kinds of incidents, accidents.”
Russia annually holds war games that rotate among the country’s military districts. This year’s instalment involves the Western forces, which account for Russia’s frontier from the Kola Peninsula high above the Arctic Circle all the way south to Ukraine.
Moscow has repeatedly stated that it is being open about the purpose and size of the war games, which simulate how to defend the northwest portion of Belarus from a domestic separatist insurrection, fuelled by support from abroad. Frants Klintsevich, a senior member of Russia’s upper house of parliament, said Western refusal to believe that shows that “the demonisation of Russia continues.”
Viewed from the Baltic nations, the exercises reflect Putin’s oft-repeated stance that Russia is surrounded by a hostile and aggressive force in Nato, and have two apparent goals.
One is to rehearse the capability to seal off Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, and deny access to the Baltic Sea to Nato forces attempting to come to their rescue. The other is a present a strategic challenge to US and Nato leaders by showing the high cost of defending the Baltics, thus sowing uncertainty about the viability of the alliance.
“We in Estonia already live in constant fear. This is the predominant feeling in society, fear. If society feels threatened you can manipulate it,” said Dmitri Teperik, chief executive at the International Centre for Defence and Security in Tallinn, Estonia.