The first day of major joint war games between Russia and Belarus began in confusion Thursday, as the militaries of both countries announced the Russians would be moving in opposite directions.
The defence ministry in Moscow first announced that units of the Russian first tank army were rushing toward Belarus – a statement swiftly denied by the Belarusian military, who insisted the Russian tanks were heading to training bases in their own country.
The confusion only exacerbated fears that the Zapad war games taking place largely in Belarus are a cover for a Russian assault, like those that preceded the annexation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine in 2014.
Many have joked that the Russian forces—officially numbering 3,000—might not withdraw at the end of the exercises, and analysts have speculated that they could leave behind military equipment to cut down deployment time in case of conflict.
“Without question, all participants of the exercises will return to their permanent bases after the exercises, including the Russian units to the territory of the Russian Federation,” Vladimir Makarov, spokesman of the Belarusian defence ministry, told journalists. He added that the war games “don’t hold any danger for Belarus, for neighbouring countries, for Ukraine”.
Yet while the exercises are designed to demonstrate Russia’s ability to fight Nato, they have also eroded Minsk’s claims to neutrality and alarmed its neighbours. On Thursday, Poland’s defence minister called Zapad 2017 a “serious threat” to regional security, and Ukraine has been holding its own “Unflinching Firmness” military manoeuvres this week.
Even before it started, Zapad had been rattling Nato and its allies. Sweden is holding its largest military exercises in two decades, responding to a simulated attack from the direction of Russia, and US army tanks and fighting vehicles arrived in northern Poland on Monday as part of the ongoing Operation Atlantic Resolve exercises.
Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian president who has long played Russia and the West off each other for aid money, cheap oil and political benefit, has only reluctantly proceeded with this year’s biannual joint exercises.