The scenario for the Zapad-2017 exercise is an armed uprising in Belarus by “saboteurs” and “terrorists” backed by a fictitious country called Veishnoria. Russian forces are deployed to Belarus to help crush the rebellion.
The main purpose is to integrate the two countries’ military headquarters in a realistic combat scenario. Belarus is mobilising about 7,200 troops and Russia about 5,500, Russia’s defence ministry says.
The Russian territory of Kaliningrad – sandwiched between Nato members Poland and Lithuania – is included in the exercise.
Belarus state TV says 80 observers from Western nations, including Poland and the Baltic republics, are accredited to watch the exercise. They include officials from Nato, the OSCE international security body and diplomats posted to Belarus.
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko has close ties to Russia, though there have been periodic disputes over trade.
Poland’s Defence Minister Antoni Macierewicz was among those who voiced alarm about Zapad-2017.
“The drill is a threat to us, no matter what Russia says,” he told Polish TV. “It is far from being defensive, it is aggressive and this is dangerous.”
An Estonian MP, Hannes Hanso, said he had spoken to “Belarusian colleagues” about the strategic importance of the “Suwalki Gap” – a border strip separating Kaliningrad from Belarus.
“For Russia it would be logical to try to cut us off, which they have already practised,” he said. The Belarusian officials, he said, assured him that “their territory would not be used for this kind of thing”.
Latvian President Raimonds Vejonis said “we should not succumb to intimidation”, describing Zapad as an attempt to make the Baltic states feel insecure.