By Julian E. Barnes in Brussels and Thomas Grove in Tallinn, Estonia
Russia has begun military drills ahead of major war games that North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies are concerned about, but say are helping them better prepare for future tensions.
NATO countries have warned that Moscow’s military maneuvers in Russia and Belarus, known as Zapad, threaten to trigger an accident or a wider conflict and offer an opportunity for Russia to push more powerful weaponry toward the border.
“We see a very, very large scale offensive exercise that demonstrates hatred against the West,” said Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, whose country borders Belarus and Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave. “It is clear that this will be used to upgrade the military in the region, to upgrade the modernization of the army.”
Russia has said the exercise will formally begin on Thursday and run through Sept. 20. But ahead of the official start, Russia announced lower-level training exercises along its western border.
On Tuesday, snap readiness drills were held in Russia’s western military district, the defense ministry said. The day before, the country’s Baltic Fleet carried out training with S-300 and S-400 air defense systems along with Su-24 bombers.
The military didn’t say the exercises were connected to the Zapad war games. But NATO officials say that Russia has been doing drills since August that are connected to the maneuvers. Lithuania cancelled all leave for its troops beginning last month.
The Russian defense ministry was not immediately available for comment. Separately, Russia also tested its nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile Yars today, successfully hitting a target more than 3,000 miles away in the country’s far east.
Western officials have said they hope to learn about a range of Russian capabilities, including weaponry designed to make it difficult for NATO to reinforce forces stationed in the Baltic states. Ms. Grybauskaite and allied diplomats said the drills will also allow NATO to revise its security assessments, and learn more about Russia’s military capabilities.
The Baltics, which have had strained relations with Moscow in recent years, are particularly concerned about Russia’s military maneuvers. During World War II the Soviet Union annexed Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia, which only regained their independence in 1990.
The U.S. and other allies positioned small number of troops in the Baltic states and Poland after Russia’s invasion and annexation of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. Last year, NATO decided to send a larger force of 4,000 troops that began arriving this year to serve as a deterrent to any Russian aggression or military action.
The U.S. has taken over NATO’s air patrol mission in the region ahead of the Zapad drill, increasing the number of patrol planes from four to seven, and has moved troops into the Baltic states.
“Ironically, we can thank Russia for its aggressive behavior,” Ms. Grybauskaite said. “We are under pressure to invest in our security.”
In addition to the military drills that began stepping up in recent days, Russia is responsible for a broader, ongoing propaganda campaign against Lithuania and the other Baltic countries, aimed at undermining their governments, Ms. Grybauskaite said.
“In reality, the Zapad exercises are already ongoing,” Ms. Grybauskaite said. “It’s not just military exercises, but information operations, propaganda and other follow ups.”
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius has loudly criticized what he has called Russian-backed propaganda campaigns against his country that began to intensify over the summer.
He called the campaigns “psychological attacks” which sought to tie Lithuania’s resistance movement against the Soviet Union to Germany’s Nazi government.
“Unconventional war is already happening as we speak,” Mr. Linkevicius said.
Russia regularly dismisses Baltic claims of propaganda attacks and accuses the countries of Russophobia.
Russia has said only 12,700 troops will participate in Zapad. But Western officials have said Russia is using interconnected and overlapping exercises to hide the true number of forces.
Ms. Grybauskaite predicted that some 100,000 troops will participate in the Zapad exercise. Western officials have made assessments based on rail cars moving equipment into Belarus and other information, they said.
Lithuanian Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis said the country had prepared for Zapad with a series of training exercises. The ministry cancelled all leave for its armed forces in August and September, a ban that will likely be extended into October.
The country’s rapid reaction forces can move in as little as two hours, he said. “They are on permanent stand-by,” he said.
Last updated 2017.09.13 14:39Back