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Russian Top Defense Official Says Zapad Exercises Don't Pose Threat to Europe

Russian Top Defense Official Says Zapad Exercises Don't Pose Threat to Europe

The exercise in Ukraine comes as Russia is gearing up for its major military exercise, Zapad 2017, which is expected to involve tens of thousands of troops operating along NATO's borders in Western Russia, the Russian European enclave of Kaliningrad and Belarus.

Estonian Defense Minister Juri Liuk, however, says Moscow could deploy up to 100,000 troops.

Some Western officials including the head of the U.S. Army in Europe, Gen. Ben Hodges, have raised concerns that Russia might use the drills as a "Trojan horse" to make incursions into Poland and Russian-speaking regions in the Baltics.

But despite Vladimir Putin's insistence that only 12,700 troops will be involved- just under the 13,000 figure that triggers treaty agreements for global observers - Germany and France say the real figure is closer to 100,000.

"For Russia it would be logical to try to cut us off, which they have already practised", he said.

According to the Belarusian Ministry of Defense, the military exercises will be held on seven training grounds and in two separate localities in the territory of Belarus.

Russia's neighbors have gotten the message, and some fear the Russians may have another, more nefarious goal in mind with this year's Zapad (Russian for "West"). The small Baltic nation of Lithuania, a US ally and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation member, announced plans to build a fence to stop Russian troops from wandering or sneaking into its territory during the drills.

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But NATO has deliberately taken a slow approach to its military build-up to avoid being sucked into a new arms race, even as Russian Federation has stationed anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles in Kaliningrad, the Black Sea and Syria.

The US military took part in a training exercise with Baltic allies in June that included B-1 and B-52 bombers and 50 naval ships.

For its part, the US and its allies have boosted force levels around the Baltics and Poland in the past year in an effort to reinforce defenses in the region.

In a July statement, the Swedish Armed Forces wrote that "several other countries" had been invited to take part in the exercise to enhance "Sweden's defense capability against a larger, sophisticated opponent", in what appeared to be a reference to Russian Federation.

NATO, however, believes - without evidence - that more troops will be involved. Sweden, such as the Baltic states, Poland and many Western countries, has been deeply concerned by Russia's annexation of the Ukrainian Crimea in the Black Sea in 2014 and its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.

"Russia is the country that affects security in Europe right now with its actions - the annexation of the Crimea and continued battles in eastern Ukraine - so it is clear that we are watching very closely what Russian Federation is doing", Byden said. Weeks before the exercises began, Poland warned that they could be used as cover for a Russian invasion.

NATO Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe James Everard said there was no need to mirror Zapad.

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