Russia put on a display of heavy firepower for president Vladimir Putin and foreign media gathered Monday to watch military exercises that are believed to be some of the largest held since the end of the Cold War.
Putin watched as dozens of planes and artillery units unleashed a barrage of projectiles onto a firing range close to Saint Petersburg as part of a drill simulating a defense against an attack by a force intended to represent NATO.
The demonstration was part of Zapad 2017, the week-long exercises that Russia is conducting with its eastern European ally, Belarus and that have attracted intense attention recently and has even stoked war fears among some.
The major exercises have elicited criticism from NATO and the U.S., who say Russia has concealed the true number of troops taking part, and troubled some observers in Eastern Europe, where the Kremlin’s invasion of Crimea in 2014 remains fresh.
Russia has said no more than 13,000 troops are taking part in Zapad, which means West, just below the threshold that would require it to invite international observers. But NATO officials have repeatedly suggested that the real number is likely far higher, potentially between 70,000 and 100,000.
Russian forces are collaborating with Belarusian troops in the war games, which simulate a scenario where a hostile “Western Coalition” seeks to overthrow the Belarus government and split it away from Russia. The two armies are repulsing a fictional nation, invented for the exercises, but which bears a strong resemblance to a Western tract of Belarus. The fake country, Veishnoriya, allied with two more made-up states, stirs up a separatist insurrection.
The exercises, which displayed a reinvigorated Russian military that has undergone extensive modernization in recent years, have raised uncomfortable scenarios in the minds of leaders in the Baltic States and Poland, who see themselves reflected in the Russian-invented countries targeted in the exercises. The U.S. has sent extra fighter aircraft to Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, and deployed 600 paratroopers to the region in response to the games. The troops represent a symbolic reinforcement of the small contingents the U.S. has already deployed in those countries, which are meant to reassure them following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The exercises are a variant of Soviet-era drills and now take place every four years, but this time they have drawn intense interest, fueled by Russia’s attack on…