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Russia Plans Huge Zapad 2017 Military Exercises With Belarus

LONDON — As a diplomatic standoff escalates between Washington and Moscow, another military challenge may be on the horizon. Thousands of Russian troops and tanks are preparing to take part in what may be the country's largest military exercise since the Cold War.

The Zapad 2017 war-games will take place next month in Russia's neighboring ally of Belarus. The drills scheduled to run between September 14 and 20 will also involve naval and air units operating in and around the Baltic and North Sea.

While Russian officials have said that 13,000 troops would participate in the exercises, whose name means "west" in Russian, Western estimates have run much higher.

Image: Servicemen take part in Zapad exercises in 2013
Servicemen take part in Zapad exercises in 2013 RIA Novosti / Reuters

They have been planned for months, were previously held in 2013 and 2009 and have their roots in vast Soviet drills first held in the 1980s.

But this year they are garnering greater interest following the recent deterioration in diplomatic relations between the White House and the Kremlin.

On Wednesday, President Donald Trump signed off on new sanctions against Russia for its aggression in Ukraine and Syria, as well as its alleged interference in last year's U.S. presidential election.

In response, Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered the U.S. to cut hundreds of its diplomatic staff serving in his country.

Russia insists the long-planned Zapad exercises would only be used to defend against aggression by NATO, the U.S.-led 29-member military alliance founded in the aftermath of World War II. Experts say the risk of an open conflict is low.

But following months of uncertainty surrounding NATO — caused by Trump's mixed messages — this year's Zapad exercise may be designed to test the alliance's resolve.

"Russia is not organizing defensive operations but instead an offensive threat, testing how serious we are about protecting the members of NATO," said Jonathan Eyal, international director of the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank.

Belarus not only borders Russia, but also three of America's key but relatively isolated NATO allies: Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia.

The latter two were occupied by Soviet forces for almost 50 years and they have remained a focus of the renewed standoff between Russia and the West. This breakdown was sparked by Moscow's 2014 annexation of Crimea and worsened over military intervention in Syria and allegations of state-sponsored hacking.

"Russia is reminding us that the Baltic states are relatively indefensible," Eyal added. "They want to see where the cracks are in NATO and where they can be widened."

Image: A map of Belarus and the Baltic states
Belarus and the Baltic states. Google Earth

Trump caused alarm in Europe after he was slow to explicitly endorse NATO's central promise of collective defense, known as Article 5. He also demanded member states up their military spending and suggested he wouldn't defend them unless he did.

The rhetoric from Trump has since softened — with some members of his team expressing the U.S.'s strong and enduring support for NATO — but the mere suggestion of wavering was enough to give many Europeans the jitters.

NATO has reinforced its position in Eastern Europe, now maintaining a rotating force of 4,000 in Poland and the Baltics.

But hypothetical scenarios played out by the Rand Corporation last year found that it would take Russian forces just 60 hours to reach the outskirts of the Estonian and Latvian capitals of Tallinn and Riga.

In terms of this year's Zapad exercise, what concerns some officials and experts is they aren't exactly sure how big they will be — nor what is Putin's true intention.

The official figure given by Russia is that there will be no more than 13,000 personnel taking part.

Some Western analysts say that it's no coincidence that this is also the exact number of troops allowed in a military exercise before international observers must be invited.

The Vienna Document of 2011 is an agreement by members of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe — a group that includes Russia — which says that any exercise involving more than 13,000 personnel must allow observers from all other OSCE nations.

Trump silent as Putin expels diplomatic staff 6:28

Russian officials, such as Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, are adamant they have nothing to hide.

"Our NATO colleagues know all too well that they were invited to attend these exercises, and that they are transparent," Lavrov said in a June interview.

But many in NATO remain unconvinced.

"We have every reason to believe that it may be substantially more troops participating than the official reported numbers," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said at a press conference last month.

U.S. officials told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity that Russia could have as many as 100,000 personnel involved in the exercise — making it the country's largest since the Cold War.

"The total number of Russian troops, security personnel and civilian officials in the broader exercise is expected to range from 60,000 to as many as 100,000," the New York Times reported Monday.

As Keir Giles, an associate fellow at London's Chatham House think tank, put it: "The official figures are hopelessly unreliable." He said Russia could get around the 13,000-limit by having several drills going on at once.

The Russians are not transparent both in terms of the size and intent of their exercises, one U.S. defense official told NBC News on condition of anonymity.

"They continually send more troops than they report to the international community," the official said, adding that they need to be honest about their intentions to avoid misunderstandings.

Image: Russian soldiers participate in a military exercise at the Baltic Fleet's Khmelyovka training center
Russian soldiers participate in a military exercise at the Baltic Fleet's Khmelyovka training center in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad in September 2009 Konstantin Zavrazhin / Getty Images

Pentagon spokesperson Lt. Col. Michelle Baldanza said: "Russia has conducted several large-scale snap exercises along NATO's Eastern flank with little to no notice and in a non-transparent manner."

The last Zapad exercise, in 2013, featured "more than 75,000 men, who were engaged in simulated operations in the air, on land and at sea," according to a report by The Jamestown Foundation, a Washington-based research institute.

For comparison, last year 24 NATO members held a military exercise named "Anakonda," which included more than 31,000 service members.

Whatever the number, the exercises come against the backdrop of several close encounters between Russian and NATO aircraft and ships in recent years.

"There's always a possibility for miscalculation when that's going on," Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti, NATO's supreme allied commander, told reporters last month, referring to these near-misses.

"I think that's the importance of transparency, particularly on Russia's part, to tell us about [the Zapad] exercise: What should we expect to see, what is the size of them, where will they operate?" he said.

What's also unclear, according to some Western analysts, are Putin's motives.

Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov has dismissed as "nonsense in its purest form" any suggestion that the Kremlin is using the drills for anything other than defense.

But many Western experts say that Russian exercises are often used to disguise other objectives. Most notably, Russia's war with Georgia in 2008 and annexation of Crimea in 2014 both followed military exercises that allowed Moscow to move troops into key locations.

Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin watches the closing stage of Zapad 2013
Russian President Vladimir Putin watches the closing stage of Zapad 2013 at the Gozhsky firing range in Grodno, Belarus. RIA Novosti / Reuters

"These large-scale exercises … served as a means to obscure the movement of Russian units into the conflict zone," according to the report by The Jamestown Foundation following the Zapad 2013 exercise.

One theory is that this year's drill could be used by Russia to "leave troops behind" in Belarus in order to give Moscow a more-advanced forward base in Europe, according to Giles at Chatham House.

He described the exercise as "a hot topic and it's going to get hotter and hotter" as it approaches.