Belarus plays down Western fears of aggression stirred by joint war games with Russia

Tanks and an armoured vehicle take part in the Zapad 2017 war games at a range near the town of Borisov, Belarus September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko Tanks and an armoured vehicle take part in the Zapad 2017 war games at a range near the town of Borisov, Belarus September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

By Andrei Makhovsky

BORISOV FIRING RANGE, Belarus (Reuters) – Belarus said on Wednesday the West had no reason to fear attack by its close ally Russia or that Moscow could leave behind forces after war games it is holding with Minsk for a possible occupation of Western neighbors.

Russia has repeatedly said the exercises, code named “Zapad” or “West” which began on Sept. 14, are purely defensive in nature and do not target a third country or group of countries.

NATO has voiced concern that Moscow could use the war games as a cover to station troops and equipment in Belarus. The U.S.-led alliance has said the drills lack transparency and the number of troops taking part could be much larger than the 12,700 servicemen declared by Moscow and Minsk.

Russia’s neighbors have said they fear Moscow could use the exercises as a rehearsal for an occupation of adjacent nations like Poland, Ukraine or the three Baltic republics – all of which were under Moscow’s rule before the Communist Soviet Union broke up in 1991. Poland and the Baltics are now members of NATO and the European Union, while Ukraine is pursuing such ties.

“The attempt to discredit the exercises is extremely unprofessional,” said Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko.

“We won’t wage war on anyone. Do not expect any attack from us – especially on Ukraine,” he told reporters at a firing range 75 km (47 miles) east of Belarus’s capital Minsk after overseeing the last day of Zapad maneuvers.

“All the troops will be back to the sites of their permanent deployment,” he said, dressed in camouflage uniform as supreme commander. “In a week, this issue will become irrelevant.”

On an overcast and rainy day, he watched from a vantage point as allied troops of Russia and Belarus repelled a simulated attack by forces of three fictitious neighboring nations on Belarus. Aircraft zeroed in on ground targets after mock dogfighting, after which a ground offensive unfolded.

Hours earlier, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė made the exercises the centerpiece of her annual speech to the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

“Even as we speak, around 100,000 Russian troops are engaged in offensive military exercise ‘Zapad 2017’ on the borders of the Baltic States, Poland and even in the Arctic,” she said.

“The Kremlin is rehearsing aggressive scenarios against its neighbors, training its army to attack the West. The exercise is also part of information warfare aimed at spreading uncertainty and fear.”

The Kremlin said on Wednesday it had provided exhaustive information on the exercises before they were held to the military attaches of all interested countries and allowed their observers to attend the event to allay any concerns.

“I think that upon receiving this information Ms. Grybauskaite will have a chance to change her point of view,” President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo also voiced disquiet at the exercises and said Warsaw opposed any lifting of Western sanctions imposed on Russia over its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and role in its separatist conflict.

“We are very concerned by what is happening in Belarus, from the exercises there,” Szydlo said during a visit to Bulgaria.

(Additional reporting by Dmitry Solovyov in Moscow and Angel Krasimirov in Sofia; writing by Dmitry Solovyov; editing by Mark Heinrich)

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