By Andrew Osborn and Maria Tsvetkova
MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia tried to calm fears over war games it plans to hold next month, saying on Tuesday the large-scale exercise would rehearse a purely defensive scenario and that allegations it was a springboard to invade Poland, Lithuania or Ukraine were false.
The Zapad-2017 war games next month have stirred unease in some countries because Russian troops and military hardware will be training inside Belarus, a Russian ally which borders Ukraine as well as NATO member states Poland, Latvia and Lithuania.
Russia has used such exercises in the past as a precursor or as a cover to project force in other countries such as Georgia and Ukraine, and the war games are taking place at a time when East-West tensions are high.
Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, the U.S. Army’s top general in Europe, told Reuters last month that U.S. allies in eastern Europe and Ukraine were worried the exercises could be a “Trojan horse” aimed at leaving behind military equipment brought into Belarus.
And NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who has warned that “substantially more” troops may take part than will be officially divulged, said last week the alliance would be watching closely.
Russian Deputy Defence Minister Alexander Fomin told Western military attaches in Moscow on Tuesday the West had nothing to fear.
“Some people are even going as far as to say that the Zapad-2017 exercises will be used as a springboard to invade and occupy Lithuania, Poland or Ukraine,” said Fomin.
“Not a single one of these paradoxical versions has anything to do with reality.” He called suggestions that Russia posed a threat to anyone “myths”.
The drills, which will be held from Sept. 14 to 20 in Belarus, western Russia and Russia’s exclave of Kaliningrad, will simulate repelling an attack by extremist groups.
“As well as its anti-terrorist backdrop, the Zapad-2017 exercise is of a purely defensive nature,” said Fomin, who said the drills were routine and conducted with ally Belarus every two years.
Moscow says almost 13,000 Russian and Belarussian servicemen will take part, as well as around 70 planes and helicopters. Almost 700 pieces of military hardware will be deployed, including almost 250 tanks, 10 ships and various artillery and rocket systems.
Russia said the scale of the exercise was in line with international rules. With less than 13,000 troops, international observation of the drills was not mandatory, it said.
Belarussian Deputy Defence Minister Oleg Belokonev, speaking in Minsk, said any troops and equipment brought into Belarus for the war games would be withdrawn afterwards.
(Additional reporting by Dmitry Solovyov and Maria Kiselyova in Moscow and by Andrey Makhovsky in Minsk; Editing by Andrew Roche)