Russia and Belarus launch joint military exercises

Western officials have said the maneuvers could include some 100,000 personnel

Russia and neighboring Belarus have begun a joint military exercise near NATO's eastern flank that has fanned already deep tensions between Moscow and the West, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Moscow and Minsk say the Zapad (West) 2017 exercise, scheduled from September 14 to 20 in Belarus and parts of western Russia, is officially set to involve 12,700 troops, RFE/RL reported.

But Western officials have said the maneuvers could include some 100,000 personnel in what they call a Russian show of power amid the ongoing standoff with the West over Russian aggression in Ukraine.

"This is designed to provoke us, it's designed to test our defenses, and that's why we have to be strong," British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon told the BBC on September 10.

Russia, meanwhile, has pushed back against what it portrays as Western alarmism over the drills, the first to be held in close proximity to NATO member states since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Moscow insists that the size of the exercise will not cross the 13,000-troop threshold that, under Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) rules known as the Vienna Document, would require it to notify other countries and open the maneuvers to observers.

Colonel General Andrei Kartapolov, commander of Russia's Western Military District, said in an interview published by the Russian military's official Krasnaya Zvezda newspaper on September 13 that the number of troops and hardware used in the drills "will fully comply with the Vienna Document." The Zapad exercise is held every four years in rotation with drills in other parts of Russia. Western governments have responded to Russia's 2014 seizure of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and backing of separatists in eastern Ukraine with several waves of economic and other sanctions targeting Moscow.

Source: UNIAN



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