Russian war games put Europe on alert
A BATTLE is about to be waged in Eastern Europe. In it, the forces of "The Northern Ones" will defend against the aggression of the "Western Ones".
"Belarus and the Kaliningrad region have been infiltrated by extremist groups with the intention of committing terrorist attacks," Moscow's summary of the exercise reads. "The illegal militias are backed from abroad, providing them with armaments and naval and air capabilities. In order to neutralise the opponents, land forces will be deployed to cut off their access to sea and block air corridors in the region, with the support of the air force, air defence forces, and the navy."
The combined forces of Russia and its closest European ally Belarus (The Northern Ones) will seek to reinforce the Baltic Sea enclave Kaliningrad against the hypothetical nations of "Vesbaria" and "Lubenia" as the internationally-backed terrorists of "Veishnoria" seek to overthrow Belarus.
Poland and Lithuania have little doubt as to whom the real opponents are intended to be. They're the nations on either side of the narrow land corridor linking Belarus to Kaliningrad on the Baltic Coast.
And the exercise area designated as "Veishnoria" within Belarus itself, Grodno, has a large population of Poles and has demonstrated little support for Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Some of its residents have enthusiastically - and mockingly - embraced the idea of becoming a separatist nation state - creating their own heraldry and fake foreign office.
Political posturing aside, the simple size of the Zapad (West) 2017 Russian exercises in Belarus has raised eyebrows in Poland and the other Baltic States - all of which fear Moscow's recent bouts of expansionist rhetoric.
They're also worried as Moscow staged large-scale drills to disguise its opening moves on Georgia in 2008 and the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
A MATTER OF SCALE
Moscow states the war game - due to start Friday Australian time - will involve about 12,700 troops, 70 aircraft, 250 tanks and 10 warships. It also insists that the joint exercises with Belarus were "long-planned and defensive" and "not aimed against any third country," Russian news agencies reported last week.
But Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia don't believe it.
Nor does Germany.
German Defense Minister Ursula Von der Leyen has publicly agreed that the real number taking part in Russia's war-games is likely to be 100,000.
"I believe it is clear that we are witnessing yet another Russian demonstration of power and capabilities," she said at a defence ministers' meeting.
Russia is only admitting to 12,700 in order to avoid triggering treaty requirements for the participation of international observers, critics say.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said "from previous experiences related to previous exercises, we have every reason to believe it may be substantially more troops participating than the official reported numbers."
He added last week that he saw no "imminent threat", but that the alliance would "monitor the activity closely".
Three NATO experts have been invited to attend as observers, but Stoltenberg said this "fell short of the transparency required by the OSCE".
At the weekend, Russia's Defense Ministry said it was "bewildered" by claims of Zapad 2017's size. It went on to issue a veiled threat, stating that if such "speculation" continues, it undermined the value of reporting its military exercise intentions.
French defence minister Florence Parly has condemned the coming drills on the border of the EU and NATO as a deliberate "strategy of intimidation".
Moscow has long railed against NATO expansion in its former sphere of influence. NATO has deployed four battle groups - around 4000 troops - to Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and Poland in recent years in response to Russia's aggressive attitude.
But Ukraine fears this military exercise may conceal real teeth.
President Petro Poroshenko has expressed alarm the exercises may be disguising a substantial reinforcement of Russian-backed separatists, stating "7000 vehicles with soldiers and military equipment are nearing our borders and there are no guarantees they will go back to Russia after the manoeuvres."
Sweden has also timed its largest war game in more than 20 years to coincide with Zapad 2017. Some 20,000 European troops - including 1000 from the US - are practising on land, air and sea across the Baltic Sea. Dubbed Aurora 17, the goal of the exercise - which kicked off yesterday - is to rehearse the defence of the strategically crucial Gotland Island.
The Swedish military said the exercise by the non-NATO nation is designed "to deter potential attackers, and force them to carefully consider the risks of attacking our country."