Russia showed off its growing naval strength last month ahead of huge land exercises on NATO state borders set to begin Thursday.
The exercises are part of President Vladimir Putin’s effort to demonstrate Russia’s full recovery from being a military basket case following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Russia’s Northern Fleet claimed to have sent about 50 ships, submarines and support vessels into the Barents and Baltic Seas in August on a series of anti-submarine, anti-mine and search-and-rescue operations, a Russian Navy spokesman told Russia’s Interfax news agency.
The 24,000-ton Kirov-class battle cruiser Pyotr Veliky, the flagship of the Northern Fleet, and the 564-foot Typhoon-class Dmitriy Donskoy, the world’s largest submarine, are believed to have participated in the exercises.
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On Thursday, Russia and Belarus are to begin the not-so-subtly named Zapad (West) 17 exercises near the borders of the Baltic States, Poland and Ukraine.
According to a Zapad scenario released by Russian and Belarusian defense officials, the war games will be played out against the fictional Eastern European states of “Vesbaria, Lubenia, and Veishnoria,” which have combined to launch attacks intended to drive a wedge between Russia and Belarus.
Ahead of the exercises, Czech Gen. Petr Pavel, chairman of the NATO Military Committee, met last week in Azerbaijan with Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of Russia’s General Staff.
According to a NATO report of the meeting, Pavel and Gerasimov expressed “clear mutual interest to maintain the military lines of communication in line with NATO’s policy of transparency and ongoing dialogue at the political level with senior Russian leadership.”
In a statement, Russia’s Defense Ministry said Gerasimov told Pavel “in detail” about Zapad 2017 and stressed its “defensive nature.”
Gerasimov said Zapad is going ahead to ensure Russia’s security and is “not aimed against other countries,” the ministry said.
Gerasimov and other Russian officials have insisted the war games will be limited to 12,700 troops — more would require the presence of NATO observers under international agreements.
However, Western officials have charged that about 100,000 troops could be expected to participate in Zapad to intimidate the West.
German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen last week dismissed Russia’s headcount and said the actual number could be “over 100,000. I believe it is clear that we are witnessing yet another Russian demonstration of power and capabilities,” she said at a defense ministers’ meeting in Tallinn, Estonia.
The upcoming war games have been greeted with alarm in Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said last week, “7,000 vehicles with soldiers and military equipment are nearing our borders and there are no guarantees they will go back to Russia after the maneuvers.”
The last Zapad exercise in 2013 involved “more than 75,000 men, who were engaged in simulated operations in the air, on land and at sea,” according to a report by The Jamestown Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based research institute.
“With more military activities along our borders in the air, at land and at sea, the risk for incidents, accidents, miscalculations is increasing,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement. “Transparency is the best way to avoid those kinds of incidents, accidents.”
Army Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti, NATO’s supreme commander and commander of U.S. European Command, has put transparency on his list of priorities.
The main priority is to be able to counter Russia, and quickly, although the U.S. Army in Europe now has about 30,000 troops compared to about 300,000 at the height of the Cold War.
“European infrastructure and integrated support has enabled our force to rapidly be ready and postured should they need to deter Russian aggression,” Scaparrotti said in his priority list.
NATO will be watching closely to gauge whether the Zapad exercises involve Russia’s 1st Guards Tank Army, which was disbanded in 1998 but reformed in 2014.
The old Tank Army was designed to be a major formation in smashing NATO lines in the event of war.
NATO and U.S. commanders have been eyeing the preparations for Zapad warily but have thus far expressed no major concerns that the exercises could lead to conflict.
Air Force Gen. Tod Wolters, commander of U.S. Air Forces Europe, told reporters last month, “We have kept close tabs on those activities” leading up to Zapad.
“There is nothing extraordinary or out-of-the-ordinary as we have witnessed up to this point, but again we will continue to remain smart and vigilant,” he said.