In Russia and neighboring Belarus, the Zapad military exercise begins today.
The two countries’ Western neighbors have been worried. Zapad is Russian for “West,” and of all the different major exercises in the Russian military calendar, it causes the most excitement and concern because it is the one that most closely resembles practice for war with NATO.
As a result, this regular event receives a lot more attention than other Russian manoeuvers of similar size. Held every four years, the exercise can even develop its own mythology: Much of the Western coverage said that the 2009 exercise ended with a simulated nuclear attack on Warsaw, Poland, even though there is no evidence at all from unclassified sources to suggest this was the case.
What happens during this year’s Zapad exercise is important. The United States, NATO and especially the front-line states bordering Russia will be watching closely to learn what they can about the latest Russian capabilities and military procedures.
An additional cause for concern is that Russia has previously used the fact of large numbers of troops being on the move for major exercises to launch real military operations — against both Georgia and Ukraine.
In Poland, Lithuania and especially Ukraine, some fear this year’s Zapad could provide cover for preparing another Russian military adventure.
But unlike those exercises, Zapad is not a purely Russian undertaking. It is run in cooperation with Belarus.
Belarus finds itself in the difficult position of being officially an ally of Russia’s but not sharing…
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