Claims that the upcoming joint military exercises of Russian and Belarusian troops will involve a larger number of troops than announced is pure speculation aimed at justifying the increased presence of NATO troops in eastern Europe, Moscow said.
The Zapad 2017 exercises, which will take place September 14-20 in Belarus, are purely defensive and comply with transparency obligations that Moscow and Minsk have taken upon themselves, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Friday, amid media speculation that the maneuvers may pose a threat to Poland and the Baltic states.
“The hype [over the exercise] was fanned up artificially and is definitely meant to convince the Western public that the cost of deploying additional forward military presence in Poland and the Baltics and increased NATO military activity is justified,” the ministry said. “Remarkably, it is these actions that lead to increased military tension in Europe, which Western ‘pen and microphone warriors’ lament so much.”
Moscow reiterated that the deployment of troops for Zapad 2017 will be far lower than what some media claim, and would not exceed the limits for mandatory monitoring under the 2011 Vienna document, the OSCE agreement meant to foster confidence through a number of measures to make military forces deployed in Europe more transparent. The statement added that Belarus, as host of the exercises, invited monitors from international organizations and states to observe the active phase of the drills.
Russia and Belarus hold major joint military exercises every two years, alternatively in each country. This year’s Zapad maneuvers have been the subject of much speculation, particularly in Poland and the Baltic nations, where officials call them a threat and claim that the actual deployment of troops will be higher than announced – concerns backed by NATO.
“We are going to be watching very closely the course of these exercises,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on Friday after meeting Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo. “All countries have the right to exercises of their armed forces but the countries should also respect the obligation to be transparent.”
Poland and the Baltic states are campaigning for stronger military presence in their countries, claiming it is necessary to deter Russia. Each country currently hosts a 1,000-strong battalion of troops from the US and western Europe, which NATO agreed to deploy to build confidence among their eastern European members.
Russia denies having any aggressive plans towards NATO and says the alliance plays the “Russian threat” card to convince European government to boost defense spending. Pressured by the US, other members of the alliance have been slowly increasing their military budgets. Despite that, only five European allies, including Poland and Estonia, currently spend more than two percent of their GDP on defense, which is NATO’s guideline benchmark.