In close proximity to Europe’s doorstep, the Russian show of force spans more than 1,200 miles and is closely watched by worried NATO allies
In a tremendous show of force by Vladimir Putin, huge Russian war games with around 200,000 soldiers began today at the gates of Europe.
The Zapad-2021 military exercises encompass Belarus and run north-south from the Baltic Sea to the borders of Ukraine for fear of hot spots along the east-west border.
But Putin’s forces are also staging major war games in the Arctic at the same time after completing separate large-scale joint exercises in former Soviet republics on the border with Afghanistan on Thursday.
The Zapad-2021 – or West-2021 – exercises include a total of 200,000 soldiers, 80 fighter jets and helicopters, and around 760 pieces of military equipment, including 290 tanks and 240 artillery pieces, several rocket launchers and mortars.
The joint exercises with landlocked Belarus – which borders three NATO countries – come after talks between Putin and Minsk dictator Alexander Lukashenko amid a significant step towards Russia’s swallowing up its western neighbor.
RUSSIAN DEFENSE PRESS SERVICE / HANDOUT / EPA-EFE / REX / Shutterstock)
At the gates of Europe and near the tinderbox in Ukraine, the Russian demonstration of power is being closely monitored by the West in times of high diplomatic tension.
The exercises extend over more than 2,000 kilometers and include nine military training bases, in which 15 warships of the Russian Baltic Fleet are also involved.
“These exercises are not directed against anyone,” insisted Putin after talks with Lukashenko, who was confronted with unprecedented protests against his more than quarter-century rule with an iron fist.
But the exercises are “logical at a time when other alliances such as NATO are actively increasing their presence near the borders of the Union state (of Russia and Belarus).”
Putin said: “We discussed issues related to creating a common defense space and ensuring security along our borders.”
The two rulers agreed to harmonize tax and customs laws, as well as defense cooperation, which is seen as an important step for Russia to devour Belarus and its basket economy.
Most Western leaders do not recognize Lukasheko as the legitimate leader of Belarus after a “rigged” election last year.
NATO has asked Russia and Belarus to act “predictably” during the exercises.
“This is particularly important when there is increased military activity along our borders in order to reduce risks and avoid accidents or incidents,” said an alliance spokeswoman.
“We are keeping the channels of communication with Russia open, in line with our two-pronged approach – combining defense and deterrence with dialogue. We will also stay in contact with Minsk if necessary. “
There are concerns in the Baltic states and Poland after Belarus “armed” illegal immigrants from Iran and Iraq by arranging their infiltration through EU borders to destabilize the West.
Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics has warned of the Zapad-2021 exercises.
You have a border crisis, you have a major military exercise on the borders of NATO countries, ”he said.
“They also have an increased presence on our side, the Lithuanian side, the Estonian side, the Polish side of border guards and military formations.
“Of course, this increases the likelihood of incidents.”
The war games follow a massive buildup by Russia near Ukraine earlier this year, which raised fears that Putin intended to conquer eastern territories controlled by pro-Moscow separatists.
The West says Putin failed to provide details of the exercises to the West and claims that NATO will share information with Moscow when these exercises are held.
Putin is seen as leaving the West in the dark about his intentions.
Independently of this, the Russian northern fleet with 50 ships, 120 aircraft and helicopters and around 8,000 soldiers has started exercises in the Arctic.
These extend over the entire length of the Russian polar coast.
Actions by the armed forces of the Northern Fleet are taking place in the waters of the Barents, Kara, Chukchi and East Siberian Seas, Laptev Sea, Novosibirsk Islands and Franz Josef Land, ”said the fleet.
This follows the Russian-led Rubezh 2021 exercises, in which the armed forces of the former Soviet states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan participated.
These operations coincided with concerns in those countries about instability in Afghanistan.
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