Russia moved into the main phase of the largest military exercises in years on Monday with a barrage of firepower to repel an imaginary, invading force resembling NATO as Russian President Vladimir Putin looked on.
Under frigid rains, a revitalized Russian military sent tanks, paratroopers, artillery, antiaircraft weapons, jets and helicopters to engage the forces of a mock enemy called the “Western Coalition.” The show of force, part of war games that began last week, was watched personally Putin.
Monday’s “engagement” – set to last 45 minutes – underscored the rapid descent in relations between Russia and the Western alliance to Cold War lows.
In the run up to the war games, NATO officials have expressed concern that the military maneuvers with Russian and Belarusan forces involve far more personnel than Russia has declared and that the exercises were simulating an attack against NATO members in Eastern Europe.
The scenario for Zapad, which means “West,” reflects Moscow’s own fear that Western governments might try to wrest Belarus from its alliance with Russia by waging a campaign of influence and sponsoring separatists. This is how Putin sees the rebellion that brought a pro-Western government to power in Ukraine in 2014, and he has said Russia should not let it happen again.
Meanwhile, the Baltic countries that would be on the front lines of any potential Western conflict with Russia say that the exercises are intended to leave them rattled. Lithuania’s President Dalia Grybauskaite speculated that Russia might use the exercise as an excuse to leave troops and equipment in Belarus along the country’s border with Lithuania, Latvia and Poland.
The exercises, however, offered a new chance for Western officials to appraise the strength of the Russian military, which has undergone a decade-long modernization program.
Baltic government officials told The Washington Post that they are seeing a much bigger, more-coordinated and more dangerous Russian military compared to the 2013 installment of the Zapad exercises, which are held every four years.
Russian forces were able to move across territory more quickly, they said, and the bombing runs from mainland Russia to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad were the largest in recent memory.
They also said a Russian plane skimmed their airspace Saturday night for the first time in two or three years, and that two officials had violated land borders with Kaliningrad and Belarus on Sept 9.
Moscow has insisted that the exercises will rehearse a strictly defensive scenario and will involve no more than 12,700 troops, just below the level that would require Russia to allow NATO observers under international agreement.
For Russia, the exercises are a chance to exhibit the new strength of the Russian military, which has undergone a decade-long modernization and deeply desires to shed its reputation as the creaky, inefficient successor of the Soviet Red Army. Military officials sought to show the success of the exercises despite the adverse conditions.
On Monday, the exercises began with the Russians launching a desperate defense: Tracer bullets traversed a muddy field, while antiaircraft guns released salvos to down enemy drones and cruise missiles. After repelling the invasion, the Russian forces launched a tank-led counteroffensive. (In the end, the Russians won.)
Sukhoi Su-24M bombers practiced a massive strike in the northern Leningrad region in poor weather, according to the Russian military. Two flights with four planes in each performed the mission in echelon formation, it said.
“The strike on ground targets was complicated by weather conditions: heavy precipitation, low clouds, and strong gusts of wind,” the report said. The planes dropped 250-kilogram high-explosive fragmentation bombs. The pilots destroyed ground targets imitating infrastructure, fortifications and convoys of the simulated enemy, it said.
The Zapad war games focus on a hostile imaginary country called Veishnoria, which resembles a slice of the western part of Belarus with the biggest Catholic population, the highest prevalence of the Belarusan language. Veishnoria, with two imaginary allies, Lubenia and Vesbaria, attempts to change the regime in Minsk, turn Belarus against Russia and annex parts of Belarus to Veishnoria.
In the first phase of the exercise, which ended over the weekend, Russian and Belarusan forces defended civilian infrastructure from enemy cruise missiles in coordination with ground based air defense. With the diversionary force defeated, Russia went on the offensive for phase two.
The top U.S. general in Europe said that NATO was being vigilant about the war games but that he had not “seen anything that indicates it being anything other than an exercise.”
In Tirana, Albania, Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, who is also the Supreme Allied Commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, also said he had seen no evidence that Russia might leave a force in the Baltics after the exercises conclude.
Scaparrotti said they were “larger than what they told us.”
“It’s following in line with what we’ve seen with these annual exercises in the past. They’re usually very large. They’re usually initially defensive in nature but also have an offensive portion thereafter that looks to me like a rehearsal of an attack,” Scaparrotti added. “That’s worrisome if you’re a NATO country on the border.”
Putin’s arrival at the war games would come as world leaders and diplomats gathered in New York for the 72nd United Nations General Assembly.
In recent months, the U.N. Security Council has hosted angry confrontations between Russia and the United States over alleged hacking in the 2016 elections, as well as the international response to the North Korean nuclear program.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Monday that Putin’s absence was not a U.N. snub.
“Indeed this year the president’s schedule did not allow him to participate in the General Assembly session and he does not take part every year. So there’s nothing unusual in this case,” Peskov said.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · David Filipov, Andrew Roth