Russia and Belarus hold joint strategic exercises of their armed forces every two years. This time they are called West-2107 and start today, on September 14 and will last for a week, until September, 20.
This year most of the exercises involving 10200 military personnel take place in Belarus: 7200 from the Armed forces of Belarus, and approximately 3,000 from the Armed forces of the Russian Federation. Total participation will involve 12700 military personnel and 680 units of equipment.
"The main goal of the drills is to test the possibilities of Belarus and Russia to ensure military security of the ally country, their readiness to repel possible aggression, and improve the coherence of military administration, field and aerial training of formations and military units of the Armed forces of the two countries," noted the Belarusian Defense Ministry.
The practical part will take place at six firing ranges in Belarus: Lepel, Borisov, Losvido, Osypovichi, landfills, the air force and air defense forces Ruzhany and Domanovsky, and near the the village of Dretun.
Andrei Ravkov, Defence Minister of Belarus, calls these exercises the biggest event of the joint operational training of the Armed forces of the two countries.
Meanwhile, the Belarusian media show different numbers, they are talking about a much bigger number of military men. There was information about 24 thousand people. In addition, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said that, "from the experience of previous exercises, there is every reason to believe that they will involve a lot more troops than officially claimed”.
The data of the Russian Defense Ministry are even worse, when it became known that they ordered 4162 railway cars for transportation of troops and military supplies – the amount too big for the force claimed to be involved in the exercises.
According to the official website of the Belarusian defense Ministry, the Russian military began to arrive in the country late in July, and now they are getting ready for future military maneuvers in the landfills.
Oleksandr Turchynov, the National Defense Secretary said that, in fact, Russian Federation had already started the most ambitious strategic command and staff exercises called "West-2017" in its history and the September events are only used to cover for what is happening.
"Under the operational cover of the true scale and real nature of the tasks that to be practiced during drills of the armed forces "West-2017", a joint strategic exercises of the armed forces of Russian Federation and Belarus are being held, and they have identical to the code name "West-2017", – Turchynov said. According to him, exercises will cover almost the entire territory of the European part of Russia (within the military-administrative boundaries of the North, West and South strategic command) in the occupied Ukrainian Crimea, and the territory of the separate regions of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, along the borders of Ukraine, also in Donetsk, Slobozhansky and Polissya areas in Belarus, as well as in the Mediterranean sea and Syria. Demonstration of the active phase of the exercises is scheduled to be held in the Kaliningrad, Leningrad, Pskov, and Smolensk regions and in Belarus.
According to him, the real number of participants of all activities in the framework of the West-2017 is estimated at 230-240 thousand people, more than 10 thousand units of military equipment, about 100 aircraft and 40 ships/submarines of various classes.
"An important part of the exercises is to train implementation of the 1st and 2nd army corps of the 8th army of the southern military district of the armed forces deployed in the temporarily occupied Ukrainian territory," the National Defense Secretary said.
Reaction of the world community to the exercises
Europe and the U.S. speak about the unpredictability of these maneuvers. Belarus is concerned that Russian troops will never return home after the drills or will occupy the country by the "Crimean scenario".
Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, commander of United States Army Europe, said that West-2017 may be a kind of "Trojan horse", when Russia can use these maneuvers to leave weapons on the territory of Belarus.
"People are concerned that this is a "Trojan horse". They (Russia - ed.) say: "We're just having the drills," and then suddenly they'll deploy all these people and force somewhere," Hodges said.
The head of the General Staff of Ukraine Viktor Muzhenko does not rule out that "advanced equipment storage bases” will be created on the territory of Belarus, which will give Russia the ability to quickly create new armed groups".
Besides, there were materials about the creation of a new Russian military base hosting Iskander-Missile complexes.
Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have already expressed their concern. They are talking about the possibility of provocations and other incidents during the exercises.
"We are concerned about the exercises West-2017, when a large and aggressive army will be deployed along our borders, which defiantly will prepare for war with the West," ‒ said Dalia Grybauskaite after her meeting with the presidents of Estonia and Latvia in Riga.
In that context, U.S. decided to send more troops to the Baltic countries for the period of West-2017 drills. This April, the Lithuanian Defense Ministry published a report stating that Russia is now consolidating its military power in the Western part of the country and in the Kaliningrad region, and it is not difficult to launch hostilities against Baltic countries in 24 – 48 hours.
One of the goals of the military maneuvers is to capture the Suwalki Gap 64 km long, which could possibly connect Belarus with the Kaliningrad oblast of Russia.
"There is a state border between Poland and Lithuania. This place is considered the most vulnerable NATO’s spot and the most probable target of a hypothetical Russian aggression. Invading Suwalki Gap would actually cut Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia from other NATO countries. In addition, this area is the only route for Alliance to transport troops by land and a springboard for a possible counterattack. Assisting by land to Baltic States by other members of the Alliance will be impossible. That is why Suwalki Gap is very important for the stability of the Eastern flank of NATO, which, consequently, assumes its military strengthening," – says the Belarusian edition naviny.by.
No invasion of Ukraine will happen
Ukraine’s National Defense Secretary Oleksandr Turchynov said that under the guise of exercises West-2017 drills the Russian Federation might form a main attack force to invade Ukraine. Similar concerns were heard from the Ministry of Defense. However, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko during his April visit to Ukraine assured his Ukrainian counterpart Poroshenko that the Russian-Belarusian strategic military exercises near Ukrainian border won’t turn into the preparation of a springboard for the invasion by Russia.
Both Belarusian and Russian sides denied reports that some other actions were planed under the disguise of drills.
"All familiar questions - NATO’s, neighbors and Ukraine’s concerns, – everything has been already explained. The exercises are open; we invite or have already invited a great number of observers. Come and see," - said Lukashenko.
However, Minsk formally notified about the observers invited only recently. Exercises are waiting for representatives of seven countries to come – Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Sweden, Norway, and international organizations such as UN, OSCE, NATO, CSTO, CIS and the international Committee of the Red Cross. The General staff of Ukraine stated that they would sent two verifiers to Belarus to observe the Russian-Belarusian military maneuvers.