In what the Kremlin says is a response to increasing numbers of NATO troops massing on their border, Russia has announced their own massive military drill for September.
Russia has announced a set of military drills for this September to take place in Belarus, near the border with Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. The exercise is being called Zapad 2017 (or West 2017 in English).
Similar drills under the same name were conducted in both 2009 and 2013. Some critics of Russia in the west are saying that this year’s drills could be the largest so far and may involve up to 100,000 Russian military personnel.
There are no clear numbers from the Kremlin as to how many troops will actually be involved but NATO leaders have taken the position of never trusting Russian data anyway. Russia said they only used 10,000 troops during the drill in 2013 but some western analysts say that number may be a lie and it could’ve been closer to 70,000.
The former commander of NATO until last May, US General Phillip Breedlove made a comment yesterday that saying a deployment of this number of Russian troops is “a bit alarming.” Breedlove says he believes the numbers will be high since “The Russians have ordered 83 times… the rail cars that they ordered for Zapad .”
Breedlove told reporters on Thursday that he does think “Nations have a right to exercise,” but included a fairly large caveat, saying he also believed that “Nations do not have a right, I think, to exercise irresponsibly on other borders and in configurations that represent offensive capability.” Breedlove said he felt this exercise was different and that “the problem with this exercise is size and scope, directly on the border, a name that orients it west, and the fact the unpredictability of it makes it very alarming.”
The Baltic Panic
The Baltic countries meanwhile, responded with an even higher level of panic than Breedlove. Most boisterous has been Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite who told reporters “We see that risks are increasing, and we are worried about the upcoming ‘Zapad 2017’ exercise, which will deploy a very large and aggressive force (on our borders) that will very demonstrably be preparing for a war with the West.”
Grybauskaite said she would be responding to the Russian drill by “talking with NATO about creating additional standing defense plans, about stationing additional military means and about creating a faster decision- making process.”
What more the Baltics could want out of NATO is unclear since they already have a rotating group of 1,000 US troops going through all three of the small countries. There’s also around 2,500 US armored vehicles that initially arrived in Germany last year and are now making rounds through the Baltics and Poland.
While it’s unclear what exactly will happen during these drills, it only makes sense that Russia is finally responding to increasing pressure from NATO. There aren’t just US troops in the Belarusian border region but the US has also increased arms sales to the area, such as a recent shipment of air to surface missiles to Poland. The US has also boxed in Russia outside the region by deploying troops in places like their northernmost borders in countries like Norway.
As stated above this is a drill regularly conducted by Russia within their full right as a sovereign country. If people like General Breedlove don’t like troops massing on their allies borders, then perhaps they should consider this before sending more NATO forces along Russia’s. Trump’s own picks for positions like Secretary of Defense James Mattis and head of the CIA Mike Pompeo, have even said in their confirmation hearings that they would uphold NATO commitments and still consider Russia a threat so it’s hard to tell if this situation will de-escalate anytime soon.