Russia and Belarus formally open huge war games, worrying NATO

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Russia and ex-Soviet ally Belarus on Friday launched the active phase of vast military exercises involving 200,000 personnel that have alarmed Ukraine and some NATO nations.

The “Zapad-2021” war games, taking place on Russia’s and Belarus’s western flanks, are due to run until next Thursday. Moscow released footage of warships and tanks opening fire and fighter jets taking off.

The manoeuvres, the culmination of a three-month exercise, are held every four years.

At talks with his Belarusian counterpart on Thursday, President Vladimir Putin denied the exercises were directed against any foreign power, but said they were entirely logical given what he said was increasing NATO activity near Russia’s borders and those of its allies.

The Western NATO alliance, whose officials have said Russia has regularly underreported the size of the exercises in the past, has urged Russia to be transparent and said it will be watching closely.

Russia sees Belarus as a strategically important buffer to its west, and helped to keep President Alexander Lukashenko in power with loans and political backing as he cracked down on huge protests last year and arrested or drove out opposition figures.

Putin and Lukashenko are due to inspect the exercises personally, according to Belarusian state media, though it was not clear when that would happen.

Russia’s Defence Ministry said the active phase of the drills would take place at nine sites in Russia and five sites in Belarus. The exercises involve 200,000 personnel, 80 planes and helicopters, 290 tanks and 15 naval ships, it says.

Military personnel from Armenia, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia are also due to participate.

NATO officials have warned that the drills, which follow a huge Russian military buildup on Ukraine’s borders earlier this year, increase the risk of an accident or miscalculation that could touch off a crisis.

Russian Deputy Defence Minister Nikolai Pankov said the drills were purely defensive in nature and would give Moscow and Minsk a chance to improve the way their respective militaries work together.

Analysts say Minsk’s involvement highlights increasingly close ties between it and Moscow.

The Kremlin has proved a vital ally for Belarus after the West imposed sanctions on Minsk over a violent crackdown that followed a contested election which gave President Alexander Lukashenko his sixth term in office.

“Lukashenko has gone from not really being willing to participate (in the drills) back in 2017 to being one of the most boastful, in a way, about how important this exercise is in terms of the intimidation that it represents against the West,” said Mathieu Boulegue, a research fellow at the Chatham House think tank.

Photo: A handout photo made available by Russian Defence ministry press service shows Russian servicemen march during opening ceremony of the Zapad-2021 (West-2021) joint Russian-Belarusian drills on the Mulino training ground in the Nizhny Novgorod region, Russia. EPA-EFE/RUSSIAN DEFENCE MINISTRY