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What's the buzz about the Russian-Belarusian ‘Zapad 2017’ military exercises?

Source: Meduza
Anton Novoderezhkin / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Russia and Belarus are currently conducting the biggest joint military exercises witnessed in recent memory. The maneuvers, some of which Vladimir Putin has observed personally, have alarmed many neighbor states in the region, especially the three Baltic countries. On September 19, footage was published online showing a helicopter fire a rocket in the direction of spectators on the ground. Meduza reviews the highlights from the Zapad 2017 training exercises.

The legend behind the maneuvers: the self-proclaimed nation of Veishnoriya

The premise of Zapad 2017 pits Russian and Belarusian troops against a coalition of fictional Western countries called Veishnoria, Vesbaria, and Lubenia that seeks to destabilize Belarus. According to the exercises, Veishnoria exists in western Belarus, Vesbaria overlaps with parts of Lithuania and Latvia, and Lubenia occupies northeastern Poland and southwestern Lithuania. In the training scenario, the Russian military assists Belarus in defeating the separatists. Moscow says the exercises are “strictly defensive in nature.”

The exercises began on September 14, and will continue on both Russian and Belarusian territory for the next six days, involving almost 13,000 troops. On September 18, President Putin personally observed maneuvers at training grounds outside the Leningrad region, where Russian soldiers trained in destroying the enemy’s aviation and ground troops. Putin didn’t make any public comments afterwards, but Defense Ministry spokespeople said the president was deeply impressed.

A helicopter bombs a parking lot

A day after Putin’s visit, video footage appeared online showing what seems to be the biggest incident of the entire Zapad 2017 exercises (if the footage is in fact from these exercises). In the video, apparently filmed in the same area outside St. Petersburg observed by the president, a Ka-52 attack helicopter fires a rocket toward a group of observers on the ground near a group of parked cars. According to unconfirmed reports, the accident occurred on September 16. Early reports claimed that two bystanders were injured in the misfire.

A military helicopter fired on a crowd of observers.

Russian Defense Ministry officials have categorically denied that anyone has been injured in the Zapad 2017 exercises, though Moscow has confirmed that the video cited in news reports is genuine. Officials have refused to say, however, when the incident depicted in the footage actually occurred.

Neighboring countries are worried that Moscow is drilling for a “real conflict” with NATO

The real Baltic states — Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia (not Veishnoria, Vesbaria, and Lubenia) — have reacted very cautiously to Zapad 2017. Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė has said directly that the Zapad 2017 exercises are aggressive and modeled on a real conflict with NATO members. During the maneuvers, Estonia is hosting an expanded NATO contingent. NATO’s leadership, meanwhile, says it doesn’t see any immediate threat in the military exercises.

Officials in Germany and the Czech Republic say that the number of troops participating in Zapad 2017 is actually almost eight times what Moscow says, claiming 100,000 soldiers have been called up (which would exceed even the size of Russia’s Tsentr 2015 training exercises). Russian Defense Ministry officials say this astronomical figure was “pulled out of thin air.”

“People are worried, this is a Trojan horse. They say, ‘We’re just doing an exercise,’ and then all of a sudden they’ve moved all these people and capabilities somewhere,” said U.S. Army Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, who heads U.S. Army forces in Europe.

Simultaneously, Sweden is hosting 19,000 soldiers for “Aurora 2017,” its largest military exercises in 20 years.

Two Ilyushin Il-76 military transport aircraft violated Lithuanian airspace (due to a thunderstorm)

Border guards have recorded one territorial violation since the start of Zapad 2017: two Ilyushin Il-76 military transport planes violated Lithuanian airspace. Local officials summoned Russia’s ambassador for an explanation of the incident, learning that the aircraft were flying to Kaliningrad, when dangerous weather forced them to change course to avoid a thunderstorm.

Western observers have said they are watching the training exercises to get “a real-world, real-time glimpse at what Russia's military is truly capable of, after years of institutional reforms.”

Coverage in the national media

The Zapad 2017 exercises had been headline news for all of September, and they’ve become a leading story for TV networks since they began on September 14. For example, in every single news broadcast since Zapad 2017 started, Pervyi Kanal has covered the training exercises.

Russian diplomats have repeatedly emphasized the maneuvers’ defensive nature. “The inflated hysteria is artificial, and its purpose is to demonstrate to taxpayers in the West a justification for the incredible costs of measures to deploy in Poland and the Baltic states a strengthened forward presence and buildup of NATO military activity supposedly to guard against Russian aggression,” Moscow spokesperson Maria Zakharova said after Zapad 2017 began.

Belarusian network television has also mentioned the training exercises in almost every news broadcast, and President Alexander Lukashenko is expected to observe the final day of maneuvers on September 20.

Russian text by Mikhail Zelensky, translation by Kevin Rothrock

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